Revenge for Montgomerie drives Tiger to distraction

Click to follow
The Independent Online
There were times here yesterday when you might have moved this whole affair from the golf course that the great Ben Hogan described as a monster to the bear pit of Madison Square Garden.

There were times here yesterday when you might have moved this whole affair from the golf course that the great Ben Hogan described as a monster to the bear pit of Madison Square Garden.

But then if Colin Montgomerie versus Tiger Woods had been officially described as a fight, there might have been a temptation to turn your face away ­ and that would have been to rob yourself of one of the most magnificent spectacles in 77 years of Ryder Cup action.

Seven years ago, it seemed to many that a 21-year-old Woods had torn the competitive heart out of Montgomerie on his way to his first Masters title, and there was an echo of that conviction yesterday as the Scotsman launched himself brilliantly at the American partnership that the US captain, Hal Sutton, said was unbeatable.

As Woods and Phil Mickelson buckled under the impact of Montgomerie's burst of two birdies in the first four holes, and Padraig Harrington's superb support system, a voice from the gallery cried: "Monty, you ain't won a major ­ and you ain't going to win today." The first half of that statement was as true as it was meaningless; the second had to be ranked in terms of perception with an official communique from the Flat Earth Society.

Monty may never win a major ­ indeed the force of evidence says that it is extremely unlikely at this point of his life and career ­ but he will always have this damp and chilly morning of the American autumn. Down the years it will make a spellbinding story for his grandchildren. Yesterday it had the raw force of a man battling the worst of his fears ­ the impact of Tiger was cruel indeed on that day in Augusta ­ and emerging a winner.

A winner in certain conditions of team golf, perhaps. A winner when taken away from the roaring tides of self-doubt which have so often consumed him in major tournament play. But a winner, and a gloriously unforgettable one on this day when his peers and his captain turned to him and said: "Monty, we need your leadership. Go and get them."

Monty consumed the pairing that Sutton, wearing a black cowboy hat given to him by the American caddies, sent off from the first tee as the men to strike the first blow of revenge for Europe's three-point victory at The Belfry two years ago. As the blue of Europe flooded the scoreboard, as the team captain, Bernhard Langer, waved jauntily to the pockets of European fans in the sullen American galleries, Woods and Mickelson became increasingly estranged.

At one point Mickelson, who went seven holes before making a meaningful contribution, stretched an arm around his tormentor and whispered a word of friendship. It seemed like a bizarre confirmation of the distance between Mickelson and Woods, the man who threw such a shadow over his career before victory in the Masters earlier this year. A bullet of a jibe came from the galleries: "He has to speak to somebody." At the time Monty was communing with the gods of golf. In the build-up to the vital first match, which so quickly poured confidence into the European pairs who followed to drive Europe into a early stranglehold, he was asked how he planned to impose himself on the aristocrats of American golf.

"How you do that," he said, "is make a birdie on the first hole. Then make another one as soon as you can. It's basic psychology, you know." Indeed. It is as basic as a one-two combination in the first round of a heavyweight fight. Montgomerie made birdies at the first, the fourth and the six to keep the European momentum after he and Harrington had taken a two-hole lead.

That they steadied themselves so brilliantly on the approach to the first hole was not the least stunning aspect of the extraordinarily explosive start. First Montgomery, then Harrington found sand. Woods joined them before Mickelson hit a cameraman. This wasn't leadership, it was something close to anarchy, but Montgomery's nerve held when he curled a perfectly flighted second shot 12 feet from the pin.

Harrington, who at this point was the trusty lieutenant ­ later he would bring his own authority to the challenge of holding off the American threat, which ended with defeat by 2 and 1 ­ followed him on to the green with a birdie chance. It was then that all the doubts about the Tiger's ability ­ or willingness ­ to adapt to Ryder Cup golf came flooding into the open again.

He was close to a scowl when the galleries urged him on to greater effort. He looked grimly into the middle distance. Mickelson might have been occupying not the other side of the green but a remote corner of Venus.

Pressure came to Montgomerie and Harrington at the fifth and seventh holes when birdies from first Woods and then Mickelson brought the Americans to within a hole of equality, but each time the big men roused themselves they were met by the stiffest of resistance.

On the first tee Sutton's confidence seemed to be overflowing. In his cowboy hat he appeared to be setting a challenge of confidence and exuberance to his relentlessly understated opposite number, Langer. One impressed American said: "What's Langer going to show up as? Colonel Klink?"

In fact Langer appeared as himself, a man who had brilliantly prepared his team for the first round of action. After three holes of play, Sutton's stetson had disappeared. He was less John Wayne than Barney Rubble.

Montgomerie confirmed that status, temporary or otherwise, when he sank the short putt that put the battle beyond the reach of the Tiger. He gave a small, taut smile and raised his right hand in the air before marching on to help Harrington in the 4&2 ransacking of Davis Love and Fred Funk in the afternoon foursomes.

Harrington said: "Monty is just a natural leader when he comes to the Ryder Cup. He raises himself up and carries us along with him. He gave us a brilliant start."

When the Tiger resumed an experience that was breaking down to one of his greatest ordeals on a golf course, he looked like a man who had taken a wrong turning and was utterly lost. Mickelson was even more devastated, blowing the chance to win the battle with Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood on the last hole. The reigning Masters champion was prolonging an appalling run of nine straight defeats in Ryder Cup and Presidents' Cup action.

That was the scale of Montgomerie's impact. In the Ryder Cup, it seems, all those old wounds simply disappear.