Troon glory eludes Monty

Guy Hodgson asks why Europe's best driver had the roughest ride of all
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The Independent Online
The paradox was almost too cruel for Colin Montgomerie. A testament to his knowledge was on top of the leaderboard, while he was mopping up the dew among the early starters at Royal Troon yesterday. Maybe he knew too much.

This was supposed to be Big Monty's Open, the week he returned to win his first major. He had been brought up 150 yards from Royal Troon's clubhouse, his father is the club secretary, his wife hails from the Ayrshire town. Instead of the claret jug coming home, however, Monty had played like a stranger.

And yet Darren Clarke, the man who Monty had coaxed round the sand dunes earlier in the week, led the field at the halfway stage. Clearly there was nothing wrong with the message he had imparted, just the man.

"I'm not coming to terms with links golf," he said. "I've got to play these courses but I'm not learning as quickly as I would have liked. To judge shots in these places is very difficult." He could say that again.

There was just a glimmer of hope for Montgomerie yesterday. The optimist's day went along the lines that he got out early when the air was still and shot a 66. Then the leaders would be blown towards him by the wind. The problem was that he could not deliver. The winds freshened in the afternoon but not enough to hamper anyone's swing, while Montgomerie was under par but not by so much to gain any real encouragement.

His weakness, and this is the biggest irony of them all, is that the most accurate driver in Europe could not find the fairway. Only three were located in the first round, four in the second. "I hit a three-wood off most of the bloody holes," he said, "because I don't know where the driver was going. I've lost confidence out there and I'm playing defensively because of it. That's not me." You had to ask whether the strain of playing at his own club was too much.

In 1989, when Montgomerie was 26, he relished the prospect of the Open at Troon to such an extent he tried too hard in qualifying and failed. Eight years on, he no longer has to gamble in the pre-tournament scramble but the onus of wanting to do well remains. "I've looked forward to this ever since it was announced," he said beforehand. Disillusionment struck him quickly.

As it did yesterday. The first club he took out of his bag told him his golden scenario probably would not occur. The swing looked sweet from side-on but something was wrong and the ball hooked into the rough at the left. A 30-foot putt landed him a birdie, but that camouflaged his problems off the tee. At the par-five fourth and sixth he should have been collecting more scores below par but his constant flirting with the rough pegged him back. He had no bogeys yesterday, but no inspiration either.

"I had 16 pars," he said, "and I needed something better. It's a good score but nothing's happened. I stood still really."

Nothing embodied his bafflement more than the 557-yard par-five fourth. His approach raced over the back, but when he arrived he was so disorientated he assumed he had found a front bunker. "Where's the ball," he asked the crowd after searching the sand and was astonished to learn the answer.

"I pitched it exactly where I wanted," he said, "straight on line and 40 yards short. A 3-iron should have gone 305 yards, perfect, instead it's gone 310. When there was no cheer from the crowd I imagined it had broken left or right into a bunker."

Left or right, it summed up Montgomerie's play. As he left, the Scot was asked what was his record score at Troon. "In the mid-60s," was his reply, "but I've got better since then." Could he have shot a 64? "It's within the realms of possibility, yes." Sadly for him and the gallery of thousands who had come to applaud him, "could have" was not enough. The Open still waits for the full Monty.