Montgomerie's last chance of a major step

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The Independent Online

The statement has been made before; boy, has it been made. Indeed, in certain media fourballs the “that's that for Monty” have even started to rival the “fores” in number. And believe it, there are an awful lot of “fores“.

The man, himself, has heard it a thousand plus times and not always in the politely-couched declarations of dereliction from his friends in the press room. Sometimes - more often, in fact - it comes in the more prosaic calls of that heckler, with his belly aching with “dawg” and his ego bolstered with “Bud”.

"You're finished, Monty", "Where's your major, Monty?", "Eat a salad, Monty". Who knows, perhaps the latter is the kinder critic, telling it as he genuinely sees it…

All Colin Montgomerie can be sure of is that come 5pm tomorrow, here at the US Open at the stunningly treacherous Torrey Pines, when the beer is at its coldest and the hot dogs have long given up their soaking duties, the incentive for invective will bubble once gain. The old boy just prays that by then, as he turns for home in the first round of the major he was always supposed to win, there is a figure next to his name that can throw a ray of blessed doubt on those pronouncements.

Please let that number be red, or at least not be too blue. Please let the hope still be present, or at least not already on the carousel at Terminal 5 waiting for its owner to clear passport control.

But why all the fuss? Why even donate all this ink and energy to a golfer whose age (almost 45), whose mop (greying) and whose world ranking (104) starkly sum up the chances of this Never-Quite-Was who has the Ryder Cup in his sights, but surely only anti-climax in his destiny? Why not focus on young Justin Rose, the Englishman with the world at his spikes or to Oliver Wilson, another 27-year-old under the flag of St George, with so much to play for and so little still to lose?

Because one of European golf's more gripping tales is not over yet, that is why. And it is always difficult to put down an incomplete book, no matter how inevitable seems the ending. Especially when the author keeps assuring there is one more startling chapter to follow.

“I think I will play in 15 to 20 more majors of which I expect to really contend in four of them,“ so Montgomerie told The Independent. “And in one of those four I will really contend. Not just top five or backing my way into fourth. But really, really contend. I have one golden opportunity left when I will be right there. That will be my chance. And I've got to take, otherwise it is not going to happen for me.“

Self-delusion? Or just a case of creative accountancy? Or perhaps a bit of both.

Take this year, in which the newly-wed has walked up the aisle, but very few fairways. In the 10 stroke-play events Montgomerie has contested so far in 2008 - either side of his marriage to Gaynor, - he has enjoyed one top 10 finish.

And that came in Qatar in the third week of January. Since then, there has been just one top 50 placing - tied 48th in the weakest Irish Open field in two decades.

It is not even as if he saves his best for the majors. The last seven have gone, missed cut, missed cut, missed cut, missed cut, missed cut, 42nd, failed to qualify. Using these figures as the base in Montgomerie's equation, even if he did manage to play in 20 more majors, he would compete - “really compete”, that is - in exactly “nought” of them. Although it must be added that he would have a squeak of making the cut in one last USPGA Championship.

That is undoubtedly being cruel. But then it is mighty hard not to be cruel as the lights die out all around him and Montgomerie rages on the course like no-one has ever quite raged.. He is a full par five from being ignorant, however, and is the first to acknowledge that his form is, as he calls it, “dire” (“actually, make that 'absolutely dire',” he says). He leaves it there, though, and will not be drawn into admitting his career is grinding to a halt.

Despite the evidence that confronts him every time he steps up on to the tournament tee and looks across at his partner.

“They are getting younger and younger, rather like policemen,” he acknowledged.

“And they are much, much better than when we were when we came here out as pros. The whole thing has upped. The new boys on Tour are stronger, but more than that they do not back off and are definitely not frightened of winning.

“Sure, the stats people will point to the fact that scores have not come down much in the last couple of decades. But that's because courses are getting so difficult and pins are being plonked right on the edge of greens that are becoming faster and slopier. Hell, the scoring might not be coming down but the standard of play has improved ten-fold. Believe me. I've seen it happening first-hand.”

Montgomerie first witnessed it in Augusta, 1997 and if anyone is keen to know exactly when the beginning of his end actually started then they might do worse than going back to that third round of the Masters when he lined up alongside a black 21-year-old making unprecedented steps towards history.

“Golf changed for me that day,” admitted Montgomerie. “I fancied my chances in each and every major. I had been close in 92 [third in the US Open], 94 [second in US Open], 95 [second in USPGA], and afterwards that year at Congressional [second in US Open]. But during that round at the Masters I thought, 'what's all this about?', 'what does this all mean?'. I can now tell you what it all meant.

“Majors have become that much more difficult to win since he has come on the scene. That's why 2006, where I had that golden opportunity to win the US Open, was so disappointing because Tiger actually missed the cut. He left the door wide open for someone to walk through. Geoff Ogilvy ended up walking through it, but I should have. It's funny, but in America they always talk about how Phil Mickelson double-bogeyed the 18th to lose at Winged Foot. Was I there or was I not?”

Some cynics may be minded to suggest that Montgomerie should be grateful for America's selective memory and could even advise the Scot to try some history-rewriting himself. After all, when it is all over, will he be able to cope with the recollections of all those blown majors?

Montgomerie's line has always been that should that come to pass he has the eight Order of Merits to cushion those blows. But, regardless, he is not willing to forget Winged Foot in a hurry as he is rather proud of what he achieved that week. Granted, the simple seven-iron he fluffed from the middle of that final fairway will not feature on the “Monty's Magic Moments” DVD. Yet the manner in which he hauled his way back up into the world's top 10 understandably will. Winged Foot was the starring point in that rise, so it is obvious why he will be harking back to the experience this week.

“It wasn't easy,” recalled Montgomerie. “I was down in 83rd in the world rankings and then got back up to eighth. Now I am on the slippery slope again and I have got to get back up again. I feel I am good enough to be in the top 25. I have got to prove it though, unfortunately. And that is the thing with anything - proving it.

“But whatever anybody says or thinks, I am as competitive and ambitious as ever and yes, a good part of that motivation is the Ryder Cup. I don't want to miss out on the team, I really don't. Missing this year's Masters was one thing.

I've missed the Masters before. Been there done that. But I've never missed out on the Ryder Cup and that would be very, very difficult. It's that “P” word again. I have to prove to myself and others - especially one - that I am able to compete at that level. Nick [Faldo] knows that when I'm playing well I can.”

Can he do it? In all honesty, can he? Playing this poorly, missing this many fairways, this many leaderboards? For instance, he appears to have about as much chance around this, the longest layout in history, as he has of winning “Rear of the Year”. And more to the point should European care anyway? Should Faldo even care?

Well, the opposition certainly do, as exemplified by Paul Azinger. The American captain confessed recently that he wanted Montgomerie in Kentucky simply so they could enjoy seeing him beaten. “A lot of Americans want to see Monty feel the other side for a change," said Azinger.

One enthusiastic journalist even went as far to say that the toppling of Montgomerie would represent as much to American golf as the toppling of that Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad did to the American forces. Now, there are not many too sportsman who would take kindly to being compared with an infamous tyrant, but when told about this particular analogy Montgomerie threw his head back and laughed. If anything he took it as a compliment.

“I suppose that's a good thing isn't it?“ he said. “Let's just say, I wish Paul was picking the Europe team then. I can understand what they are saying. I think the American team would certainly like to see my singles record being hauled down. And without me there, they wouldn't be able to touch it. Perhaps, I should therefore be happy if I don't make it. It would be great to finish unbeaten in singles. But I am not wanting to get into the team because of my singles record. I want to get in and make it my ninth appearance and to help Europe win. Again.

“Saying that, nobody in either team has ever won seven singles matches. I have currently six [two halves] and that is a record I am very proud of. I would love to have it up there to be shot at again. But only if I'm worthy of the place. Paul will be a very good captain and I think it will be more difficult for Europe to win by such a great margin. You know, the last Europe captain to have a difficult task was Sam Torrance. Bernard Langer [2004] and Ian Woosman [2006] had an easy task because I believe those were the strongest two Europe teams ever put together. You could have had Guy The Gorilla as captain in those years.”

Alas, Guy is away in the mist somewhere and will have no say in this year's wildcards. That means Faldo will have to be Montgomerie's salvation. Get out the Bible.

Amid all the faux self-deprecation, Montgomerie has made optimistic noises recently about two wins being enough to earn a captain's pick - even a single win at the Johnnie Walker Championship, the last counting event - but he is kidding no-one, least of all Faldo. No, Montgomerie's chance lies in the here and now and in the challenge of him somehow relocating these pencil-thin fairways with the monotony that established him as such a US Open certainty.

“When I stand on that first tee of the US Open and I know what it takes to win, then I feel comfortable,” he said. “"It's not so much that I enjoy the US Open as the fact I know two-thirds of the field really, really don't want to play. I have always felt that way and that makes me more competitive in it.

It's the exact opposite to the Masters - I stand on the first tee there like two-thirds of the field at the US Open, feeling I'm not quite happy with this because the course does not really suit my style of play. This major is different. Within me, I've always known I can win a US Open.”

He means, “I always (ital) knew (unital)“. Montgomerie can barely even claim to be playing from memory now as his swing continually deceives him. Once he would hit 12 out of 14 fairways per round; these days he is lucky if it is eight. He cannot dwell on that statistic because if he does the implication is all too clear. Instead, he must cling on to the belief that the US Open owes him one. If anyone in this field feels forced to live on his past failures it is this man.

Otherwise that truly would be that for Monty.