Colin Montgomerie hits irons that you could hang your wash on and wins the European money tide every time they hand it out. He is well-liked among his golfing peers on both sides of the Atlantic. His friends say that Montgomerie brandishes both intelligence and wit, two qualities that rarely mix in pro golf. "He reads the front of the paper," one longtime acquaintance says.
Monty, as he is known, has also single-handedly revived villainy in a sport that has never bought into the idea of bad guys. The last time American fans anointed a villain, they couldn't even stay mad. Jack Nicklaus, considered a heel because he had the temerity to beat Arnold Palmer, long ago ascended to the status of icon.
Now there is Montgomerie. The burly Scot has been as popular in the U.S. as haggis. A campaign of jeering that began during the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional, where Montgomerie finished second to Ernie Els, and continued at the Open the following year at Olympic, peaked last fall at the Ryder Cup. No golfer has ever been subjected to the derision that rained down upon Montgomerie at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. His wife, Eimar, was called names you don't hear in gangsta rap. His father, James, the retired secretary of Royal Troon Golf Club, left the course before his son had made the turn in his singles match against Payne Stewart. "It was terrible," says U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw. "Nobody should have to go through that."
Crenshaw and Stewart made an effort to quiet the abuse at the 9th tee. When a couple of fans began yelling at Montgomerie before he hit his tee shot, Crenshaw and Stewart walked to the ropes and fingered them. "The gendarmes went after them," Crenshaw says.
Montgomerie, 36, does not back down, neither from his competitors nor from dolts behind the ropes. When a fan cheered a missed putt as Montgomerie walked off a green during last year's Open at Pinehurst, Montgomerie looked into the bleachers and said, "Save it for the Ryder Cup!" Rule No. 1 for pro athletes: Don't empower the abuser by acknowledging him. But Montgomerie's mercurial temperament renders him incapable of ignoring any injustice to him or to his game. "He's been a guy with a bull's-eye on his back, because they know he can't handle it," says Davis Love III, who played with Montgomerie at Congressional and is a fan.
Montgomerie nearly won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in '92. He returns there next week confident that he has begun the transition from the dark side of the mind of the American golfing public. "That feeling is diminishing," he says. "There's more respect for me and my game after Brookline. I look forward to going back to Pebble Beach. Plus, it's a different crowd on the West Coast, nothing like the East, especially the Northeast."
There should be plenty of respect for his game. With his accuracy off the tee and with his approach shots, as well as his competitive gumption, Montgomerie has won 24 tournaments on the European tour, including two of his last four starts. ("I hope I haven't peaked too early," he said two weeks ago after winning a third straight Volvo PGA.) He has a record of 12-7-4 in five Ryder Cups. In singles competition, when the pressure is the most intense, he is 3-0-2. Montgomerie's colleagues on the European tour, which he has led in earnings for a record seven consecutive years, cannot speak highly enough of him. Success, says '99 European Ryder Cup captain Mark James, has not gone to Monty's head. "He's not cocooned in a superstar existence," says James. "He's not one of those who thinks he's somebody because he's walking around with $10 million in his back pocket. There are some players on this side of the Atlantic, and plenty on the other side, who think all they have to do is bend over to give us a ray of sunshine."
Adds Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland, a Ryder Cup teammate, "He's a really nice guy. When he gets on the course, he gets irritated easily. He tends to get a hard time, and he reacts to that, unfortunately. If he wins—when he wins—his first Open, I think everything will get better."
Oh, how he reacts. The British writers who cover him have become armchair meteorologists, all reading Montgomerie's expression to see whether the sun is out or a storm is brewing. After a quick, friendly chat with Montgomerie before his pro-am round at the recent Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Alveslohe, Germany, one writer dubbed that day's version "Happy Col." As Montgomerie marched off the 18th green a few days later, having bogeyed the previous hole to fall from a tie for third to a tie for sixth, a waiting reporter recoiled with alarm: "Look at that face! Jesus God!"
At the Wednesday pro-am in Germany, Montgomerie could not have been a more solicitous partner. He doled out tips and sympathy to his three amateur teammates, two of whom couldn't have broken 100 with an eraser. The third partner, Friedrich L�rssen, a shipbuilding executive from Bremen, has played with Montgomerie each of the last two years. "He's very nice," L�rssen said. "This time he was more happy, more relaxed. He was charming." When told of the reputation Montgomerie has in the U.S., L�rssen said, "I haven't seen the other man. Are they twins?"