In search of major relief

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CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Golf’s eternal bridesmaid has gussied up his game for yet another potential major party.

Over the years, Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie has become an expert at putting on a brave face at pre-Slam interview soirees. At 44, Montgomerie has spent so many years chewing on major futility that his face no longer betrays any bitterness.

“I never have been a world-beater,” Montgomerie said less than two weeks removed from snapping his two-year victory drought with a closing 65 at the European Open. “A world-beater is someone who wins many, many majors, and I haven’t. I’ve come very close, don’t get me wrong. I’ve done OK with five seconds. But I’ve never classified myself as a [world-beater].”

Once upon a time, Montgomerie and everyone else on the European Tour would have argued against such a casual dismissal of the man who won seven consecutive Order of Merit titles starting in 1993. Only two players in the history of the European Tour boast more victories than Montgomerie’s 31: Seve Ballesteros (50) and Bernhard Langer (42). Of course, both the retiring Spaniard and the mercurial German have won multiple majors.

Few players since Sam Snead can boast a swing that features more fluid rhythm than Montgomerie, whose sweeping, seemingly effortless action has yielded battered fairways-and-greens for two decades. And nobody on either side of the Atlantic can claim a better Ryder Cup resume than Montgomerie, the man who has anchored the European dominance in the event since 1993, authoring an unparalleled 6-0-2 record in Sunday’s stress-filled singles.

But if Montgomerie quit today, his career would be defined by his enigmatic disconnect in the majors, the four events that author the ultimate golf epitaph for every elite player. As he says, he often has come close, a fact that only makes his 0-for-62 record in the Slams more galling.

He finished third at the 1992 U.S. Open, accepting early Sunday victory congratulations from Jack Nicklaus before long-suffering Tom Kite survived the nasty weather at Pebble Beach to shed his major-less mantle. He was twice-bitten in other Opens by Ernie Els, losing in a playoff in 1994 (Oakmont) and famously missing a 6-foot par putt on the 71st hole at Congressional to collect another silver by a mere stroke. Sandwiched between those two disappointments was a blown final-round lead and eventual playoff loss to Steve Elkington at the 1995 PGA.

Those near-misses left him tortured and semi-obsessed, qualities tabbed by his former wife, Eimear, when she left him in 2004. Demonstrating his amazing resilience, however, Montgomerie rebounded from marital and competitive strife in 2005, collecting an eighth Order of Merit title in a season that saw him push Tiger Woods for more than 54 holes at the British Open before succumbing to yet another runner-up result.

Then at last year’s U.S. Open, he authored perhaps his defining major miscue. From a perfect lie in the fairway of the final hole at Winged Foot, Montgomerie fatted a 7-iron short of the green, gouged a wedge well past the pin and then three-putted to finish one stroke behind champion Geoff Ogilvy. Though Phil Mickelson’s 72nd-hole swoon overshadowed Montgomerie’s mess, the Scot’s double-bogey rates far worse given his perfect drive.

“Winged Foot, that was the one that I really should have done better on the report card,” said Montgomerie, momentarily wistful yesterday before moving back to the present. “But never mind, there you go. Now we’re a year later, and we’ll see how we do here.”

Montgomerie’s second at Winged Foot put him in the ignominiously unique position of being the only player in history with five runner-up finishes and no major championships, begging the question: Is Montgomerie the greatest player in golf history without a major?

Actually, he has one long-forgotten peer in the category. Among players with 30 or more victories on the PGA or European Tours, there is only one other man without a major title: “Lighthorse” Harry Cooper, who strangely finished with a Montgomerie-matching 31 titles en route to becoming the only major-less member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Between 1925 and 1942, Cooper posted 19 top-10 finishes in the majors without a victory. His closest scrapes with greatness came at the 1927 U.S. Open, where he three-putted the 71st hole at Oakmont from eight feet and eventually lost in a playoff to Tommy Armour. And at the 1936 U.S. Open and Masters, he held multiple-stroke 54-holes leads before slumping to runner-up finishes.

At the 1936 U.S. Open, Cooper was accepting victory salutes when Tony Manero closed with a 67 at Baltusrol to clip him by two strokes. It later became obvious that Manero had cheated, receiving advice throughout his final round from Gene Sarazen, a fellow second-generation Italian immigrant. But both denied the claims of numerous witnesses, and Cooper died unheralded in 2000 with his resume lacking in only the major category.

“I could never picture myself accepting the trophy,” Cooper said of his major travails shortly before his death. “I’m convinced it was all mental.”

Montgomerie has admitted as much about his own major futility on numerous occasions. And is spite of his magnificent wealth, his Slam shortcomings undoubtedly haunt an otherwise enormously successful career. Unlike most other modern sports bridesmaids (see Dan Marino, Karl Malone, etc), Montgomerie has neither teammates nor management to blame. His is a lonely burden. But not this week.

This week on his home soil, all of Scotland will be helping him shoulder his major monkey during what would represent the ultimate cathartic victory. Montgomerie has played Carnoustie more times than any player in the field. He holds a share of the course record (64), which he matched in the 1995 Scottish Open. A European hasn’t won a major since 1999 (Paul Lawrie), when the claret jug last visited Carnoustie. Virtually the entire golf world would smile if the game’s most decorated Scot would snap a pair of insufferable droughts come Sunday.

“I’m swinging the club the way I did in the mid- to late-“90s. I knew where the ball was going then; I do again,” Montgomerie said. “That gives me the confidence to hit the ball harder and longer and straighter. … I’m playing well enough. I have a chance, of course I do.”

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