- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Yes, Colin Montgomerie is still stomping about, still trying to win the major championship that eluded him throughout the ‘90s. He’s been divorced, dismissed, derailed, depressed — but he hasn’t stopped being Monty, the one-of-a-kind Scot who, when he’s right, has one of the sweetest swings in golf.

Yesterday was one of his good days. While many in the U.S. Open field were being humbled by Winged Foot’s supermodel-thin fairways, crew-sock-high rough and living-room-rug-sized greens, Montgomerie was posting the only sub-par round, a 1-under 69 that left him with a one-shot lead. Once again, he’s positioned himself to take a run at the title on Sunday, just as he did at Oakmont in ‘94 and Congressional in ‘97.

We all know how those Opens turned out. In the former he imploded in the playoff, and in the latter he missed a 5-foot putt on the next-to-last hole. That’s Monty for you — letting his emotions get the best of him, losing his grip on the greens. But this Open might be different — for two very important reasons. One, Monty at 42 is different from Monty at 33; and two, Winged Foot is different from other Open courses.

“The expectation of me in the ‘90s to win this thing was very high,” he said. “I think I’m more relaxed now. I might have wanted it a little bit too much then, and if you want something, sometimes it doesn’t quite come to you. … It’s nice. I can go out and sort of free-wheel and not worry about things the way I used to in the ‘90s.”

As for the venue, Montgomerie is convinced putting is less important here than hitting greens in regulation.

“And that’s to my advantage,” he said. “I’ve always been pretty good at that.”

Few players have ever hit their teeballs straighter or their irons closer to the pin than Monty. That’s why it was always assumed that if he won any major, it would be the U.S. Open, which tends to reward ball-striking above all. But with that assumption, as he noted, came pressure, and after two near misses — and another in the PGA Championship — he kind of disappeared from the big events for a while.

Indeed, the title of “Best Player Never To Win A Major” seemed to hang on him like a cement overcoat.

That is, until last year, when he was the top money winner on the European tour for the eighth time — but first since ‘99 — and showed well in the British Open (second) and one of the World Golf Championships (T-3 in the American Express). Unfortunately for him,Tiger Woods brought his A game those weeks.

“It’s nice to contend with Tiger on a course [St. Andrews] that was built for him 200 years before he was born,” Monty cracked. It was also, he said, “good for me to feel that I could still compete at that level, because it had been a few years where I hadn’t really. It gives me confidence.”

Along the way, Montgomery has become … not exactly huggable, but definitely less curmudgeonly. In the past, U.S. galleries would try to knock him off his high horse — not to mention his game — with the occasional bleacher-bum bon mot. But that began to change in the ‘02 Open, held just down the road from here at Bethpage Black, when Golf Digest distributed a bunch of badges that beseeched spectators to “Be Nice To Monty.”

“I had a lot of support [in Round 1 yesterday],” he said. “I didn’t need my Golf Digest badge, thank goodness. They made 25,000 of them. I don’t know why they made so many.”

(But, of course, he does. There were times when Montgomerie’s Scottish certitude, his sense of propriety, could be a bit much.)

“I think [Golf Digest] gave me all the spares,” he joked, “— and I think there’s only two [missing].”

See, that’s the other side of Monty. Say what you want about him, the man has a sense of humor. And he really does appear, in this latest incarnation, to be a little less tightly wound. He showed up at Winged Foot on Tuesday, played 18 holes, and was so pleased with the results that he didn’t even bother to take another lap Wednesday. He just did some chipping and putting and spent the rest of the time relaxing.

That’s his normal routine in majors now. No point in obsessing about it, he figures.

“I know my way around, I know what to do. … It doesn’t matter how many practice rounds you play, you still have to stand up there [on Thursday] and hit it. I decided to do that, and it paid off today…. I’ve got my rhythm back again. My whole swing always was all about rhythm.”

Even he isn’t jumping to any conclusions, though, not with so many holes to play. The pain of ‘94 and ‘97 may have subsided, but the scars are still visible.

“We’ll see how it goes,” the New Monty said.

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