The Open 2003

Monty mania mobilises the Troon army

The home hero: Pride of Scotland, driven by a desperate gallery, rides the storm and keeps his game together - just

At a little before three o'clock yesterday, the ungainly figure of Colin Montgomerie loped to the first tee. "C'monnn Colinnn," a raucous voice cried above the cacophony of acclaim.

At a little before three o'clock yesterday, the ungainly figure of Colin Montgomerie loped to the first tee. "C'monnn Colinnn," a raucous voice cried above the cacophony of acclaim, its conveyer, crimson-faced, whether from the sun's rays or from the pounding of a fanatical heart, and bearing a Saltire round his shoulders. Monty-madness has replaced Henmania in the British summer calendar. The Troon Army has never been slow in answering a call to arms, and it hailed him as one. Their subject acknowledged an appreciative gallery by touching a hand to his visor, and in the sporadic afternoon sun drove off with a venom, not to mention an unerring sense of direction, which suggested a determination to reward the unremitting faith of a nation.

Even as he did so, from across the Irish Sea, a squall approached menacingly, teasingly. An ugly, angry brute. For those in peril on the sea, the thought crossed your mind, as a ship, like a ghost, vanished from view in the far distance. On land, there was more concern for those in peril off the tee. After two benign days, the coming of the very element that Colin Montgomerie detests. When the wind gets up, Montgomerie winces. Yesterday began with a breeze but soon the wind and rain had all but the hardiest aficionado scurrying for cover. As for the player himself, we could only wonder which persona would reveal itself: the real Monty or Monty's cussed double, unsettled by all manner of authentic and perceived ills?

Scotland positively yearns for a Montgomerie triumph; aches for it as agonisingly as England does one from its own best-lovd son, Henman. Despite the capricious weather, which eventually settled down to merely gusting, Montgomerie maintained his followers' expectations, just. On the way out, he made no further progress, carding a level-par 36, but at least kept his game together. Tim may be nice, but damned to disappointment by a talent that never quite equals expectation; Monty, golf's equivalent, that perennial manufacturer of crisis from a drama, well, surely he possesses the potent force for victory within him? If only, in this period of renaissance following domestic upheaval, the newly-discovered Metal Monty wouldn't buckle, would he?

The Scot, paired with the Canadian left-hander Mike Weir, saved par from a greenside bunker on the second but caused consternation when he dropped a shot at the third, driving straight into the fairway bunker. He muttered something about "a challenge". It was already becoming one, particularly as the skies took this moment to change their mood. It could have been an expensive error considering that some further off the pace at the start of play - including, ominously, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els - were picking up shots. Yet Montgomerie responded defiantly with a two-putt birdie on the par-five fourth. Indeed, he was only narrowly adrift from an eagle with a 40-foot putt. He repeated the feat at the seventh.

The route back to the clubhouse threw all manner of hazards at him. Yet, he emerged from deep rough next to a gorse bush at the 11th, then managed to extricate himself from a bunker at the 14th - though the recoil despatched him against the back wall, leaving him on his backside but somehow still smiling to record 10 pars in a row.

If only he could have maintained that momentum. But at the 18th, just as on Friday, he contrived to spurn a four-foot putt, despite the the mental strength of a crowd willing him to succeed. He will require its partiality again today. "I'm praying for their help," he reflected, as he conceded: "I didn't play very well. I didn't hit many greens, but I got it round. The way I played, 72 was still a good score."

The atmosphere fairly crackles with his presence as his footfall rumbles up the fairway. During these first three days, his response to those who exhort him to achieve the ultimate prize has been jaunty. One could almost say jocular. That furrowed brow has loosened somewhat; those oft-hunched shoulders even occasionally raised in a cavalier stance. He will never quite surmount the belief that he has aged before his time. He has been middle-aged for years, despite being a relative stripling of 41. It must be something in the air. This is also Gordon Brown's birthplace. Yesterday a golfer who can rarely be said to be a politician was in conservative dark blue slacks and lighter blue pullover. In the sartorial stakes, this is Des O'Connor to Ian Poulter's Johnny Rotten.

Royal Troon is a carpet he has trod many times, and there must be something wonderfully comforting about wiping his feet on a mat which says "welcome home, son". Welcome to the practice ground where had learned to play golf for three and a half years. Welcome to the 18th fairway, adjacent to which was the venue of the wedding reception after his marriage to girl-next-door-but-one, Eimear, the woman he once described as "a wife in a million", but from whom he parted after 14 years of marriage three months ago.

Now he is back, with his memories and his regrets placed firmly, he insists, at the far recesses of his psyche. His immediate future is all that concerns him as he walks to the course every day from the home of his father, James, the former secretary of this club, half a mile away.

The amateur shrinks among us have been enraptured by it all. Has this tortured soul truly been released by domestic events so that he can concentrate on winning that elusive first major, and notably this one, at his 50th attempt? Is the return to a scene which offers such conflicting recollections - the happiness of his early life, and latterly the misery - cathartic? Or is his quest being undertaken on comforting terrain which is sustaining him when he might otherwise dwell morosely on the past?

Only he will know the answer to those questions. Either way, the sympathy vote is unanimous from this highly-partial electorate.

Even at five shots off the lead, it's still set up for an intriguing conclusion with the portents auspicious and today's weather, which is predicted to be "cloudy and very breezy", remaining relatively kind to the home player. Montgomerie is heartened by the fact that Justin Leonard was in a similar position in 1997 and "did not have the support that I am going to have."

He added, when asked how enjoyable an experience yesterday's round had been: "Anyone who says that this is fun is joking. They are having a laugh. This is a job, and a horrible one, but it may well be all enjoyable when one looks back on Sunday evening at around seven o'clock."

Montgomerie will keep believing. The only trouble is, sport is rarely that obliging.

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