- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. The fourth and 17th tees at Pebble Beach are literally back-to-back, so close a player on one tee can eavesdrop on a conversation on the other. Colin Montgomerie was getting ready to hit his drive on 17 eight years ago in the final round of the U.S. Open when he heard a caddie on No. 4 he thinks it was Andy Dillard's say with utter certainty, "Well, there's your winner." He was talking about Montgomerie.

A lot of people thought Monty was going to win the Open that day, including Monty himself. He had teed off 2 and 1/2 hours before the final group, being well behind the leaders, and had the good fortune to play the first half-dozen holes without the fierce winds for which Pebble is famous. The front-runners who followed him weren't so lucky and struggled from the get-go. Gil Morgan shot an 81. Payne Stewart came home with an 83. Mark Brooks wobbled in with an 84. It was ugly.

Montgomerie, however, fired the day's low round, a 2-under 70. And when he rolled in a testy 5-foot par-saver on 18, "I felt I holed that putt to win," he reminisced yesterday. "I must admit, I felt [standing] over the putt that that putt was to win the tournament."

Jack Nicklaus, working in the TV booth after missing the cut, had the same feeling. Under these conditions, he told viewers, it's going to be awfully hard for anyone to beat Montgomerie's score of even-par 280. The wind was gusting to 40 mph, shots were veering strangely off course, nerves were getting frayed. The best place to be was the clubhouse and that's where Monty was.

Amazingly, though, somebody did beat Montgomerie's score. In fact, two somebodies did. Tom Kite wound up at 3 under, chipping in on No. 7, and Jeff Sluman slipped in at 1 under.

And here's Monty, back at Pebble Beach at 36 (almost 37), still looking for his first major championship.

It's a heavy burden he carries. No golfer likes to be known as the Best Player Never to Win a Major. The title suggests an inability to deal with the attendant pressure, to make the right shot at the right time. And lord knows, Montgomerie has had his chances in the '92 Open, the '94 Open, the '97 Open, the '95 PGA. In two of those, he lost playoffs to lesser players (Ernie Els, Steve Elkington), which doesn't exactly enhance one's reputation.

The '97 Open at Congressional is the one that gnaws at him most. I'm not surprised. His 65 in the first round that year was as good an 18 holes as I've ever seen played. If he had gotten a few more very makeable putts to drop, he could have put up a 61 or 62 under Open conditions.

"Then I shot a 76 [on the second day]," he recalled, "and after that a 67 and 69. Those three scores in the first, third and fourth rounds are plenty [good enough] to win a U.S. Open, especially on a course like Congressional."

But that 76 …

"Unfortunately, I had played the previous week in England and won and I was tired," he said. "And jet lag is something that hits different people at different times, and it hit me on Friday afternoon. There was a rain delay that day, and I had to come out in the afternoon and finish my round, and I didn't finish strongly. If it turns out that I don't win a major, that's the round of golf I'll look back on and say, 'I should have done it differently and possibly not played the week before.' "

Montgomerie didn't make that mistake this year. He took it easy last week (while the rest of the European Tour was flailing away in the Wales Open). But he played the six weeks before that "a lot for me," he said and his game has rarely been better. He won twice in that stretch, his 25th and 26th victories in Europe, and never finished lower than eighth. After Tiger Woods, he's probably the hottest player in the world.

And let's not forget: The Open plays to Monty's strengths more than any other major which is why he hasn't missed a cut in eight tries. The narrower the fairways, the longer the rough, the better he likes it because he's such a straight hitter. What he has to avoid is that 76 in the second or third round that leaves him with too much ground to make up. (Little-known stat: His scoring average in the final round of the Open is 69.75. Els and Lee Janzen, both of whom have won the tournament twice, average 71 strokes.)

But again, Montgomerie has to get to Sunday without mortally wounding himself, and he thinks he might know how to do it. "I'm trying to get to level par by Friday evening," he said. "That's my goal the first two days. Whatever anyone else does, I feel level par on Friday evening will put me in good shape heading into the weekend. Of course, I won't deliberately double-bogey the 18th if I'm 2 under …

You wonder if Montgomerie's career would have gone differently if he had managed to win that '92 Open. You wonder if he would have won a couple of other majors by now and would be thought of as one of the greatest golfers of all time. He was 28 in '92, competing in his first Open, and so many players who win majors at an early age go on to do wondrous things. Not that Monty is lacking in accomplishments; he just hasn't been very, well, historic.

Maybe that will change here at Pebble. "I feel like I'm mentally stronger than I was in '92," he said. "I've been in certain situations in majors now where nothing much would surprise me. I just hope Lady Luck throws a shot or two to my side. I don't think the winner of any tournament, major or not, has ever made a speech afterward and said he was unlucky."

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