Monty drives for perfection

Andy Farrell finds last year's US Open runner-up in the frame of mind to go one better
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The Independent Online
TO listen to Colin Montgomerie talk about the US Open it is a wonder anyone manages to win the thing, let alone hold a burning desire to do so. "It is such a mental struggle," Monty said. "It is the most demanding of all the major championships, the toughest one to win, mentally. Every hole and every shot is a real challenge. It's 110 per cent concentration. Even at the British Open courses there is a breather hole where you can make a par. But in a US Open you are really struggling if one shot doesn't come off - the fairways are so narrow and the punishment is so severe."

By now it is difficult to believe that anyone who himself believes this can attain such perfection. "If you win the US Open in any sport," Montgomerie continued, "you are at the top of the tree. Bjorn Borg never managed it. I feel, as an international player, to go over and win the US Open would be my greatest achievement." He paused for a moment. "For me, it's probably the toughest one to win," then he smiled, "and has proved that way."

Three times Montgomerie has hauled himself up the tree only to be unable to reach the very top. Third in 1992 at Pebble Beach, the Scot, along with Loren Roberts, lost out to Ernie Els at Oakmont in 1994. Then came last year at Congressional when only one shot separated Montgomerie and Els and that shot was the South African's beautiful, right-over-the-flag five-iron at the 17th hole.

"It's getting me down, this major business," Monty said then. Last month, he added: "There will always be a blip in my career if I don't win a major. There will always be a `but'. I want to eradicate that `but'."

Before flying to California for the US Open which begins at the Olympic Club on Thursday, Montgomerie attended the opening game of the World Cup. It is tempting to see Scotland's late own goal as a metaphor for Montgomerie's own experiences on the big occasions. Usually, though, someone else just does something better. His last hole dramatics at both the Ryder Cup at Valderrama and at Wentworth in the PGA Championship suggest a man who does not buckle under pressure.

Montgomerie's credentials for playing US Open courses are simply stated: with a three wood he rarely misses a fairway. "As long as the fairway is wider than the ball, he'll hit it," said Denis Pugh, who worked with him during last year's majors.

During that time Montgomerie was subtly transformed from a player who was always three under par to one with the ability to shoot really low scores, but then par the next day. An extreme example was his 65-76 opening rounds at Congressional, where jet-lag, a rain delay and a boisterous gallery all played their part. "I probably made his best golf a little better and his worst golf a little worse," Pugh added.

Without the former, Monty probably could not win a major. The key to containing the latter is his attitude to his putting. He gets down too early if the first couple of chances do not drop on birdie-fest style courses, but at a US Open two-putt pars are exactly what are required.

Tom Lehman, the man who has led after 54 holes of the last three US Opens, can appreciate Montgomerie's mind set. "The tournaments I go low are when it is tough and you don't expect to go low," he explained. "Sometimes it happens when you don't force it, when you would be happy with pars."

Lehman and his successor as Open champion, Justin Leonard, plus David Duval and Lee Westwood, the two prolific winners from either side of the Atlantic, must be contenders along with Montgomerie. Leonard, especially, has the priceless ability to work the ball into the reverse-camber doglegs that feature so strongly at the Olympic Club.

But the three men Monty says he needs to beat, the three men above him in the world rankings, are Els, Tiger Woods and Davis Love. Since each has struggled with back injuries of late, with the South African's striking so cruelly on Thursday, Monty might be the last one left standing.

"I am as confident going into the US Open as Tiger Woods is going into the Masters," Montgomerie offered definitively. As for Woods, it would be something of a surprise if he were to win - something that was unthinkable a year ago when he was meant to be on course for a Grand Slam - because he has yet to win on a tight golf course and Olympic is as tight as it gets.

His course management skills have yet to reach a similar level to the rest of his game as seven doublebogeys, two triples and a quad in the last three majors last year showed. Against that, he played Olympic a number of times when he was a student at Stanford University and he was none too happy at being written off as a US Open contender after finishing 19th last year.

Olympic's reputation is for a major figure in the game to be humbled by a lesser being, as Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson found to their cost against Jack Fleck, Billy Casper and Scott Simpson. None of the big three went on to win another major, although Watson just about still might. Which current multi-major winner might fulfil the role this time? Nick Faldo? Although it would be great to see the old grinder up there again, let us hope the full prophecy does not come true.