Colin Montgomerie has experienced some rough old days in his quest for a first major title, but yesterday at Lytham it was as if his whole career was microscoped into one round. There was hope aplenty, misery by the bucket, frustration, some specks of delight and by nightfall when the dust had settled on an extraordinary third round, the rising belief that this could still be the stage for the big Scot's redemption.
But he is a perverse creature, Monty, a born non-conformist, a rebel, at least at the office. When the conditions were at their most benign early in the afternoon, he struggled with a stone-cold putter and wayward irons. Later in the day, when his rivals faltered over the last three holes and a freshening breeze added to the sense of insecurity, Montgomerie strode into his element, if not gaining ground on the rest, then not losing any either.
He kept some of his best golf for last. At the 17th, he hit one of his sturdiest irons from the light rough, to 12 feet, and on the final hole came within inches of returning to the top of the leaderboard where he had happily resided for the opening two days. He would have settled for being one stroke behind the leaders coming into the final round if he had been offered it at breakfast on Thursday, that much is certain. And the fact that Tiger Woods, whose own cause came close to total collapse, is four strokes behind will add to the sense of quiet satisfaction.
In many ways, this was both the new relaxed Monty and the same old tortured soul haunted by the same old frailties on the green. The consolation was that the final outcome could have been a lot worse. His partner for the day, Pierre Fulke, began brightly but could make little impression and those who did overtake him – and there were an army of them at one time or another – came from way off the lead or faltered over the final holes. That Montgomerie drew back from the abyss when by nature he must have wanted to hurl himself over the edge was a tribute to the strength of his self-control.
"I don't suffer from nerves," he said. "Everything was OK, I was just getting on with it. I just didn't putt well on the front nine, that was the key to it today."
But the sea change in Montgomerie's role in the sporting consciousness survived the day intact, along with his temper. Cries of "Come on, Monty" rippled round the course, though "stick with it, Monty" was one of the more appropriate calls as Montgomerie ducked his head into the wind down the 17th. If national will had been decisive, the birdie putt on the final green would have rammed the back of the hole not slipped agonisingly past. If not quite basking in the glow of acceptance after all these years, Montgomerie is coming to terms with an uncomplicated support for his plight.
Yet his head was not about to be spun by his sudden elevation to the head of the leaderboard and into the hearts of the British public, tempted into betraying his self. By yesterday morning, his daily routine was entering the land of superstition inhabited by Goran Ivanisevic. Same space in the car park, same meal, cheeseburger, at the same time, 20 minutes, before tee-off.
At Wimbledon, if Ivanisevic served an ace on a critical point, he demanded the same ball back to serve again. After nine holes yesterday, Montgomerie would have liked to have adopted the same policy for missed putts.
Yet no one should have been surprised at Montgomerie's stubborn refusal to change. Ivanisevic had won Wimbledon at last by doing what he does best.
There was no reason to believe that attack should suddenly become Montgomerie's chosen form of defence, not on a course which has tended to reward the good middle-class virtues of solidity and thrift. Almost overnight Montgomerie's challenge has moved onto safer ground, become tinged with the gallantry of the old soldier's refusal to die.
Before the pressure of winning, though, came the pressure of leading, not a burden that Montgomerie has had to bother with much in the context of an Open Championship. Fulke, who tied equal seventh at St Andrews last year, boasts a higher Open finish than anything Monty could muster in 11 Opens.
Montgomerie needed early inspiration, some sign that this would be his day. Instead, the skies rained frustration. On three successive holes, he missed putts of around five feet, the first of which, on the fourth, cost him his joint lead, the other two chances to reclaim a share of it.
On the third tee, Montgomerie strained to see a leaderboard. Had he succeeded, he would have found the names of Darren Clarke and Bernhard Langer joining the growing band of pursuers, one shot behind. On the third, Montgomerie dropped his second shot into a hollow to the left of the green, but his pitch back up the steep slope was rolling perfectly towards the centre of the hole before taking a spiteful kick to the left and missing by a fraction. But the omens were not good. Though rock steady with his irons off the tee, Montgomerie's approach shots were unusually erratic.
Yet just as heads all round the course began to drop, merciful relief. Birdies at 10 and 11 renewed the spring in his step, only for a wicked placement in a fairway bunker on the 13th to wreck the revival. "The easiest hole on the course too," he added. "Not quite what I needed."
Rammed up against the steep left rim of the bunker, Montgomerie had little choice but to manufacture an ungainly recovery. Sadly, the ball fell further into the bunker, costing the Scot a double bogey. Any other options, he was asked. "Yes," came the reply, "I could have split my pants." Monty's humour is alive and well. And that is the best news of all.Reuse content