Montgomerie misses chance to step off sidewalk and duel in the sun

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The Independent Online

It may not have been as degrading a notion as Monty has felt before, when two of his three previous second places in a major followed the slow torture of the play-off, and at a time when majors were meant to be his easy fruit on the tree.

This runner-up position may have represented a return to the sort of form many thought had left Montgomerie in the rear-view mirror some time ago. But, ultimately, it was defeat - defeat in one of the competitions which count in golf when the ultimate assessment is made.

There are only so many of these opportunities in a golfing life and now four have come and passed by Montgomerie without stopping. In addition, the glorious traffic is slowing down and, at 42, the chances will not be coming around so frequently.

However, Montgomerie was just one of many who defaulted on their openings yesterday. Tiger Woods was not brilliant, but then he was probably just as brilliant as he had to be as others withered under the Scottish sun.

Retief Goosen was never at the races, Vijay Singh got to nine under and then went into a tailspin, and Jose Maria Olazabal, Woods' playing partner, also shrivelled as the heat was turned up. If Montgomerie failed it was not by their comparison. If the clapometer had counted then Montgomerie would have been the early recipient of the claret jug.

It was as if Caesar was waving when the dark-clad Scot arrived on the first tee. In the group afterwards, Woods would use this stage as an area for physical jerks and stretches. Such activity, though, is not Monty's thing. He just smiled expansively, an apparently relaxed figure untouched by the pressure of the day. He may have fooled himself.

There was safety in par numbers over the first two holes before the first significant move from the most dangerous dog in the chasing pack came at third. Monty snaked in an 18-foot putt for birdie to get within two shots of the lead. Suddenly, there was great excitements among the infantry of the galleries and those perched in the stands.

Montgomerie two-putted the par-five fifth for birdie and got another shot back against par at the ninth, but made no great inroad as Woods did the same on that hole. But, when Woods drove into a bunker on the 10th to bogey, the lead was down to one. The hour had cometh. For a fleeting moment the thought occurred that Montgomerie might be about to step off the sidewalk and into the dust for a duel in the sun. But the man never arrived. Within a minute of Woods' slip, he supplied a folly of his own.

Montgomerie, who had delivered some bewitching play to be out in 33, also bogeyed the 13th after coming up short of the green with his approach and missing from six feet for par.

"I hit the wrong club on 11 and that threw me a bit," he said. "I didn't get the same momentum coming home after that bogey. Tiger made a birdie and the gap widened to three shots and that was that. But, at the next major, I will be full of confidence, capable of doing well."

The card would show dropped shots at the 11th, 13th and 15th, forming a pattern of decay as the colour was drawn both out of Montgomerie's face and the whole tournament. As a competitive event, the 134th Open had been gently put to sleep.

The massed stands around the 18th green once again cheered Caesar, but the smile with which Montgomerie had responded on the way out was no longer available. A level-par round of 72 was an ordinary score in what, in the end, was an ordinary day, devoid of the vital spark required.

Montgomerie is back in a competitive sense, but being so close without converting must carry as much frustration as reward. It is difficult to accept the characterisation of him as a loser when he has 28 PGA European Tour victories against his name. Yet, the suspicion is that his career is in danger of being defined by the four tournaments he has not won rather than the 28 he has.

He cannot be a choker. The victories tell you that. The man's enduring quality is evidenced by his seven straight years as leading money-earner on the European Tour (from 1993 to 1999), and his gigantic efforts in the Ryder Cup. He has just been unable to create the sublime ignition at the correct time.

Montgomerie was not good enough against Ernie Els, who beat him in a play-off for the US Open in 1994. Twelve months later there was a similar result but a different nemesis when he was denied in a shoot-out by Steve Elkington for the US PGA championship. Second place in the US Open was also the reward in 1997.

Yesterday, Monty was not good enough in comparison with Tiger Woods. That is no great insult to a professional reputation.

If you have to be a loser, be a loser like Colin Montgomerie. If you have to be sorry for the big man, worry about a personal life that has fallen around him like wartime rubble over the last two years.

His colleagues consider him to be about the best ball-striker of the modern era. Once again yesterday, he got the feeling of what it was like to be second best at a major.

That, and the eulogy of the crowd, hardly made him the most depressed figure at St Andrews.

"Amazing, really," he said. "The crowd was phenomenal all the way round. I've thoroughly enjoyed this week and competing at this level.

"I'd forgotten it was eight years since I was second in a major. It's nice to be having a little bit of a renaissance after three years in the wilderness and get back to the position I was in during the 1990s in Europe.

"It's no disgrace to finish second to the best player in the world."