Everything seemed in place for what the buoyant people of the Emerald Isle might call a bit of craic last week at the Irish Open. The setting was in the middle of an explosion of color, in a region south of Dublin known as the Garden of Ireland, at a run-on sentence of a village called Newtownmountkennedy. The golf course, Druids Glen, although only a year old, wends its way through an ancient forest that conjures up a cauldronful of romantic images. The sponsor was Murphy's, the maker of a stout that has the look of a root-beer float. And of course there was sly Irish humor everywhere, starting with favorite son David Feherty, who reported that "things are great. I've been married a month...and people said it wouldn't last."
Unfortunately, craic—Gaelic for fun and games—isn't an automatic on the PGA European Tour. Golf courses tend toward the funky, and so does the weather. Crowds are often thin, and fields even thinner. This year, unlike the past two, Murphy's chose not to pay big appearance money for drawing cards like John Daly or Greg Norman. Crowds in Newtownmountkennedy were respectable, although somewhat diminished by the docking off Dublin Bay of the largest nonnuclear aircraft carrier in the world, the USS JFK. While Druids Glen was mostly bathed in sun-streaked vistas that could have been lifted from The Quiet Man, play was interrupted by hail—twice—with players coming to the uphill 18th looking like the survivors of a shipwreck in the Irish Sea. Finally, a course set up to put a premium on par drew criticism for its length, its rough around the greens and the amount of sand in its bunkers. By the time Andrew Oldcorn of Scotland three-putted the 72nd hole for a nightmare double-bogey 6 to lose by a stroke to Colin Montgomerie, the grimness meter had hit the red line.
But Montgomerie does grim very well. The 33-year-old Scot lorded over the proceedings like a Victorian aristocrat calling for his private carriage. With his blond curls, fleshy patrician face, splotchy complexion, down-turned mouth and high-pitched voice, Montgomerie is a near caricature of a British blue blood, with central casting needing only to supply the powdered wig. Montgomerie also suffers from smart-kid syndrome—he's verbal, perceptive and too often rude. European writers rate him as one of the most acute interviewees in golf, but the most common adjectives they use to describe him are impatient, imperious, dismissive, condescending and sarcastic.
At Druids Glen, Montgomerie glared at noisy spectators and lectured photographers, criticized his fellow players for criticizing the course, then criticized the officials for not dealing expeditiously with the threat of lightning. Lately, Montgomerie has been in danger of crossing the line. At last month's U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, his behavior reached a nadir. Within a stroke of the lead when he reached the par-3 13th in the final round, Montgomerie bounced his tee shot into heavy greenside rough, which led to a killing double bogey. He went into a glowering pout, and two holes later, when a fan offered encouragement, he responded with a resounding "F—-off!" The next day he was called the "insufferable Scot" in the Detroit News.
He improved only marginally at Druids Glen. On the first green on Saturday he spotted a spectator violating tournament rules by carrying a camera and said, "Put your camera back in your pocket, sir, and keep it there." Then, as he marked his ball on the next green, he heard the shutter go off on an inexpensive camera carried by a teenager. He screamed. "Put that thing away or I'll wrap it around your.... How rude to bring a camera on the golf course!" Amid the murmuring crowd, a droll Irishman drew a laugh when he said, softly but brightly, "Now there's a friendly face."
Montgomerie's behavior is usually a barometer of how well he's playing, which is why fellow Scots liken his outbursts to an infant's hurling toys out of a pram. But last week, despite his tantrums, Big Monty didn't play like a baby. Instead he gave a vivid demonstration of why he should be considered the favorite at next week's 125th British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes on the west coast of England. His victory was one of will as he huffed and puffed, bad mood and all, to rounds of 69-69-73-68 for a five-under 279.
On Thursday, on his fourth hole, Montgomerie had a triple bogey that included the first whiff of his pro career, on an attempted wedge recovery from a stream bank. He began the third round with a double bogey on the first hole. On Sunday, after taking the lead from Oldcorn with three birdies in the first six holes, Montgomerie gave it back with three-putt bogeys at the 8th and 9th. But he didn't make another bogey the rest of the way, and his 25-footer for a birdie at the 71st got him to within a stroke of the 36-year-old Oldcorn, who, with his third career victory in sight, succumbed on the 72nd. Needing a par to win on the 452-yard par-4, Oldcorn hooked his drive into deep rough, pitched into the fairway and left his approach 30 feet short of the pin. He ran his first putt four feet by and, perhaps with visions of Davis Love III at the U.S. Open in his head, pulled the downhill comebacker out of the hole.
It was an important victory for Montgomerie. Since winning in his first appearance of the year, at Dubai, he has been snakebit, with close calls at the Players Championship as well as three European tour events—the Benson and Hedges, the Deutsche Bank and the English Open. His 11th career victory got Montgomerie back on track, solidifying his bid to top the European money list for a fourth consecutive season—he stands first with £412,811, more than £135,000 ahead of runner-up Ian Woosnam—and moving him closer to what he considers "a hell of an achievement," supplanting Norman atop the Sony Ranking. Most important, the win gives him confidence going into Royal Lytham.
"The timing couldn't have been better," said Montgomerie in the wake of his win. "My putting's improving, and going into Lytham, it's good to hit shots down the stretch like I did today." He has yet to win a major championship and has never been better than eighth in the British Open, last year failing to make the cut. But with Nick Faldo so far unable to recover his Masters form and Norman slumping, Montgomerie is clearly the man to beat. Majors seem as if they should be his métier, as only Faldo's game is better built for their rigors. A professional for eight years, Montgomerie has already come close to winning four Grand Slam events—the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he was third; the 1994 edition at Oakmont, where he was last in a three-man playoff; this year's outside Detroit, where he was 10th; and last year's PGA at Riviera, where he lost in sudden death to Steve Elkington. Montgomerie is due.
Others at the Irish also served notice that they are in top form for Lytham. For now Bernhard Langer appears to have overcome the yips, as well as the discouragement that was so obvious at the U.S. Open after he was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. In a rare moment of weakness, Langer wondered aloud if his game would ever be good enough to hold up on a course as difficult as Oakland Hills. But the 38-year-old German is back, having finished second earlier this month at the French, where he lost a playoff to Robert Allenby, and a solid tie for 12th at the Irish. Langer attributes his return to a new grip. And prayer, particularly with his wife, Vikki, whom he refers to as "my prayer warrior."