Montgomerie's major quest a fickle affair

Out on the Old Course, against a brisk headwind, with the sky a deep blue and the clouds puffy and white enough to be part of a soap advert and the course so slick Torvill and Dean might have done a turn, Colin Montgomerie seems beyond any form of tyranny.

Out on the Old Course, against a brisk headwind, with the sky a deep blue and the clouds puffy and white enough to be part of a soap advert and the course so slick Torvill and Dean might have done a turn, Colin Montgomerie seems beyond any form of tyranny.

He hits the ball a mile, then delicately plunders birdies, including one at the 568-yard fifth, achieved so effortlessly the practising scorers put him on top of their make-believe board at three under.

But then it has always been the easy part of the game for Monty. Playing it, that is. Just striking the ball is so much less draining than shaping an attitude if you have the kind of talent that makes failure at the highest level not so much a rough blow as a recurring stab at the heart. He receives another one, almost as a formality, before starting his practice round. "I'm not being hurtful here," says his interrogator, "but do you think it is more than ever now or never for you?"

Montgomerie, not quite impassively, says: "In the next few years?"

"No," his questioner persists. "This year."

The chains are on again, inevitably, and of course we know that Montgomery is powerless against this burden of expectation, partly because so much of it is created by his own unconcealed longing. "Not this year," he says quickly. "No, no. This is not now or never. If I don't win this Open that doesn't mean I can't win one.

"Mark O'Meara came here when he was 40 and he wasn't saying that. I believe I've got, say, five years at this level left. Let's be up in the top 10 for the next five years. I have been for seven years now and I'm very proud of that fact. I think I can remain in the top 10 in the world for the next five years. If I achieve that I have 20 opportunities of winning a major, right? This is just one of the 20."

Twenty opportunities, also, to be impaled on his own transparent desperation to convert a superb body of work into at least one major title, one mark of that excellence which comes when a golfer for four consecutive days holds together all of his talent and his nerve. And maybe gets a little luck. Ah, luck. He put the subject on the agenda at Pebble Beach after the latest eruption of Tiger Woods in the US Open, the one which means that after just four years as a pro the young American is now poised to complete the Grand Slam of majors - a glory for him, another poignancy for the unfulfilled Montgomerie.

In California the raw Monty had complained that over the years he considered himself generally unlucky, but now at this new dawn he was more philosophical. Maybe it wasn't so much his bad luck as the good fortune of others, at the odd time, that is. It is not so much a chip on the shoulder, you have to believe, as a constraint on the heart.

Montgomerie says: "There has never been a winner's speech where the guy stood up with his trophy and said, 'boy, I was unlucky.' You generally hear of bad luck more than you do of good. It's like a gambler: you only hear of the gambling guy that's won. You don't hear the fella that's actually lost. There's an awful lot of good breaks as well. We just have to accept that this week.

"Yes, the ball will hit the odd up slope or down slope or kick off or whatever. But four days is a long time and it should even itself out. As I say, the winner will have had a little time in his round, especially the last day, where either he has got fortunate or his opponents have had bad fortune."

Out on the course, the contradictions and the agonising fall away. He strikes the ball masterfully, chats with his father, James, and amiably offers Mark McNulty a brief seminar on optimism when he finds a bunker on the ninth.

Earlier he had talked with shining clarity about the demands of St Andrews in the historic tournament of 2000 - and could scarcely have been more upbeat about his own mood and form. "I feel I'm better than 12 months ago. I feel I've improved. I feel I'm possibly more relaxed coming in here. I spoke to you 12 months ago after having won Loch Lomond well and going into Carnoustie there was a certain weight of expectation that is sometimes difficult to play on, and I didn't do it and finished 15th or something not particularly good. This year the weight of expectation is not so great and I believe I'm more relaxed. And I know that when I'm relaxed I play my best golf. That's what I have to try to remain through today and this evening."

Staying relaxed. It doesn't sound so much when he says it quickly, but then you have to think of all the assaults on his composure, the cruel line he walks between brilliant success and disembowelling failure. He thinks that 12-under will be around the winning mark and that a good score, given the expected treachery of the pin positioning in defence of the name of the great course, will be 67.

At practice, Montgomerie makes such targets seem a potential stroll along the shore, but then that is the bright light of his talent. The shadows remain as ominous as ever. He agreed that he was fed up of Tiger Woods dominating every conversion, and an American, perhaps aware of this, followed up on his theory that inexperienced players could easily be suckered into dangerous attempts at covering the flag with the question, "Are you trying to say Tiger Woods is not quite the favourite everyone might think?"

Montgomerie snapped: "I never said he wasn't experienced, for God's sake.

"All I said was we are all hitting the ball an awful long way because of the condition of the course. A lot of people can drive the last right now. I did it yesterday."

The exasperation is fleeting and plainly Monty is having a good day. He has a measure of belief in himself and, no, the success of his fellow Scot Paul Lawrie last year at Carnoustie has not brought unwelcome pressure. He will get there in the end, he insists. He has a whole five years.

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