The 'new' Monty manages to smile

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The Independent Online

When things are going well for Colin Montgomerie on a golf course he displays the most serene countenance imaginable. He is at peace with the world, oblivious to the distractions he has frequently blamed in the process of turning a good round into a bad one. Irritating movements in the crowd seem to escape his attention. Of course, nobody can tell what is going on in Montgomerie's mind but there is not a hint of emotional disturbance. He smiles and the audience smiles with him. "I got tremendous support out there," he said after shooting 65, the first time he has ever broken 70 in the first round of the Open Championship.

Is this it then? Montgomerie's week, his first victory in a major championship after all those disappointments? Not wanting to tempt fate, he recalled a miserable experience in the US Open four years ago when he lost by one shot to Ernie Els after compiling a 76 in the third round. "Friday cost me," the Scot grimaced. "Jet-lag caught up with me, I was shattered and it showed in my game."

So to another Friday, another test of Montgomerie's brittle temperament. No excuses you see. He likes the Royal Lytham links, says he can handle the wind if it gets up and has never been happier with his putting. Only 24 putts in his round including three at the par-four 14th. "When I'm putting as well as I have over the past few weeks, especially at the Irish Open, I'm a different player," he added.

On Wednesday, looking as relaxed as he usually does on the eve of a tournament, Montgomerie spoke about removing negatives from his mind as advised by the sports psychologist he will be consulting throughout the championship. Nerves weren't a problem. Confidence is they key. "After what he has recently achieved, there isn't a more confident player here than Retief Goosen," he said.

Montgomerie, going off with Fred Couples and Stuart Appleby, got the start he was looking for at the par-three first. Everything quickly fell into place.

Playing third from a tee that is shielded from the win by adjacent structures, he proved better at club selection than either of his playing partners. One putt, birdie, off and running.

When Montgomerie's birdie at the next was posted on the leaderboards, it was said that people began to desert Tiger Woods who was three groups ahead. Certainly, the galleries around Montgomerie appeared the grow and he was responsive, immediately recovering from a dropped shot to chip in for eagle at the sixth. He was still smiling, not a big smile but enough of one to establish a bond with his many supporters. Bearing this in mind, Montgomerie should reflect on the benefits that can accrue from a sunny disposition. It could work wonders, even bring him that elusive first major.

Things can change dramatically in golf, but, as things stand, Montgomerie is entitled to suppose that he is now one of this week's leading contenders, up there with Woods, who is five shots behind. "Hey, level par is a good score around here," he said, "Tiger's standards are higher than most but he won't be all that unhappy with level par. With the greens drying out, I would have settled for it."

Since Montgomerie has never come across as one of sport's philosophers some of his remarks were surprising. When has he remarked before on his good fortune. How lucky he is to be out there. What a difference it makes when the little white ball is running kindly. Is this a new Montgomerie? "Wait until tomorrow," somebody said. "Two or three bad holes and he will be back snapping at spectators, complaining about cameras, the same old Colin."

For the time being, Montgomerie is keeping himself together. After birdies at the eighth and ninth holes, he turned in 30 and immediately went another shot under. The par-five 11th proved crucial. Bunkered right of the green, he pitched out into long rough just off the putting surface. Left with a difficult putt for par he made it, causing a cheer to go up in the gallery.

"Come on, Monty," people shouted, declaring renewed faith in him.

The 14th brought a rotten experience for Couples that clearly affected Montgomerie's concentration. With his ball impossibly plugged in a green-side bunker, Couples only got out at the fourth attempt, dropping three shots to be back at level par. "We're quite friendly," Montgomerie said, "share the same coach, play practice rounds together, so it was painful watching Freddie struggle in that bunker."

The effect was evident at the next hole when Montgomerie found himself struggling to make par. It was becoming a real battle with the course, but he was up to it. Further saves at the next two holes were the blows of a confident man. The 18th proved to be a bonus. One putt, birdie for 65. As the ball dropped, a big cheer went up in the grandstands and Montgomerie departed the green with a beam on his face. It was still there 30 minutes later. He should take up smiling as a hobby.

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