Colin Montgomerie once again got an earful from American fans during the U.S. Open, but if the tune sounded vaguely familiar, the lyrics were drastically different from what he has heard in the past. "Atta boy, Monty," a marshall said while applauding Montgomerie's tee shot on the 1st hole of the opening round. "C'mon, Colin, we're rooting for you!" a man shouted after Montgomerie struck his approach a few minutes later. As Montgomerie was leaving the 7th tee with his playing partners, Tim Herron and Lee Janzen, Paula Haigler of Wilmington, N.C., called out to him, "We love you, Monty!"
We love Monty? "Before, when he was winning, he had a real arrogant attitude," Haigler explained. "Now that he's not on top, he's much more lovable."
Montgomerie didn't give his new American pals much to cheer about the rest of the week. Though he made the cut by a stroke with rounds of 72 and 75, Montgomerie, 42, was never in contention, finishing 42nd at 13 over par to continue his slide to irrelevancy in the Grand Slam events. He hasn't had a top 10 finish in a major since the 1999 PGA Championship, at which he tied for sixth, and he has missed the cut in six of his last 16 majors. Vijay Singh has proved that players can still compete past 40, but Montgomerie is unlikely to follow that example. "Everyone knows Vijay is the practicer of all practicers," says Montgomerie's caddie, Alastair McLean. "Monty still has a lot of game, but he doesn't practice so much."
Montgomerie's play has been the least of his problems this year in Europe, where he has been pilloried since incorrectly replacing his ball during the Indonesian Open in March. Such is the state of Monty's reputation across the Atlantic that he had to come to America to feel like a fan favorite. "It's nice to play in front of a crowd that's warm and makes you feel like you belong," he said last week. "The fans here have a lot of respect for me, as I do them."
Despite Montgomerie's best efforts to avoid revisiting what happened in Indonesia, the controversy continued to resonate because the points he earned for a fourth-place tie at that tournament helped him get to 50th in the World Ranking by June 1, the cutoff for earning an automatic exemption into the Open. He remains stoutly unapologetic about that reward. "I'm not hiding anything," Montgomerie said after his opening round at Pinehurst. "I've explained what happened several times, so there's nothing more to say about it. I have no regrets, and I'm very happy to be here."
If Montgomerie could offer some better explanation for what happened, perhaps the contretemps wouldn't continue to dog him. The episode in question began as Montgomerie, who was fighting to make the cut at the Indonesian Open, prepared to hit a pitch shot at the 14th hole during the second round at Cengkareng Golf Club in Jakarta. As he was contemplating an awkward stance, which forced him to put one foot in a bunker, Montgomerie spotted a lightning bolt. Without waiting for the horn to suspend play and--worse--without marking his ball, Montgomerie walked off the course without saying anything to his playing partners, Arjun Atwal and Thongchai Jaidee. Says Atwal, "Everyone knows when [Monty] is not playing well he's not the best person to be around, and he wasn't playing well. I noticed he didn't mark his ball, but I'm not in his league as a player, so what am I going to say to him?"
The next day, Montgomerie's ball was gone. As dictated by the Rules of Golf, he called over Atwal and Jaidee to ask them where they thought his ball had been. "We never saw his lie because we were on the green," Atwal says. "He said, 'Is this where you think the ball was?' We were like, 'Yeah, you should know.'"
Technically, Montgomerie followed the rules, but he should have marked his ball. Television replays later showed that Montgomerie replaced the ball about 18 inches from its original position, which allowed him to take an easier stance with both feet out of the bunker. Montgomerie saved par and eventually made the cut, but the European tour referee apparently did not have access to the inculpatory video until after the tournament officially ended.
Two weeks later, following a rare public rebuke from the European tour players committee (of which Montgomerie is a member), Monty donated his winnings from the tournament (about $45,000) to the tsunami relief effort, but he did not offer to forfeit the World Ranking points he earned in Jakarta. "You're not allowed to do that," Montgomerie repeated last week. "The rules won't let you." Yet former European tour executive director Ken Schofield says such a request might have been granted. "I'd like to believe that at the time the tapes were reviewed and the prize money was offered to charity the equitable thing could still have been done, and that would have been to give Colin a DQ," Schofield says.
Even so, the controversy might have blown over had Gary Evans of England not popped off last month during the BMW Championship in Surrey, England. Evans claimed that "98 percent" of his fellow Euros were still upset about what had happened in Jakarta. The British press had a field day with Evans's tirade, causing Montgomerie to cancel a visit to Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth was to award him a medal celebrating his contributions to golf. As if on cue, the London Express published a photo of Montgomerie's ex-wife, Eimear--who has been linked romantically to the actor Hugh Grant and to the rugby star Gavin Hastings since her split from Monty in April 2004--stepping into a tony London restaurant with tycoon Joe Dhinsa. "The press back home has been brutal," McLean says.