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So Close Again
June 26, 2006
A European hasn't won the Open since 1970, but that almost changed at Winged Foot, where Colin Montgomerie, among others, made the case that it will happen--and soon
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June 26, 2006

So Close Again

A European hasn't won the Open since 1970, but that almost changed at Winged Foot, where Colin Montgomerie, among others, made the case that it will happen--and soon

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All last week Colin Montgomerie, the most English Scotsman you could ever imagine, talked about how relaxed he was now that he's in the early stages of middle age. He was a "week shy of 43" and in a good place. He has won 30 times on the European tour in his career, three since turning 40. He was the soul of the victorious European Ryder Cup team last time in Detroit and likely will be again in Ireland in September. He's had the experience of dating Elizabeth Hurley and has been the beneficiary of a Golf Digest campaign labeled Be Nice to Monty. He's golfing royalty in Dubai, and the Winged Foot crowds were practically serenading him. Montgomerie doesn't use trendy phrases like, "It's all good." He says, "It's good stuff." � Of course, this being a discussion of a real golfer's actual career, there are bound to be chinks in the armor. Entering last week's U.S. Open, Montgomerie had been bageled in the 57 major championships in which he had played. BPNTHWAM? No player had ever spent more time heading that list, not even Phil Mickelson. Monty came to Winged Foot as the best player never to have won a U.S. event of any sort, with a PGA Tour record of 0 for 98. "Not even a Walt Disney Classic," Johnny Miller noted drily on TV. When golf heads talked about the best Europeans of the post-Connery-as-Bond era, there were Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal and Ian Woosnam on one level and Montgomerie on another. Last week, through 70 holes, that looked as if it would change: Colin could get himself a major and a U.S. win. Then he could take a seat at the big table, with Nick and the lads.

MOWN-tee! If it wasn't going to be Phil, the Winged Foot crowd wanted Monty. Par-par would get him no worse than a playoff. That's what Montgomerie figured as he stood on the 17th tee on Sunday. So relaxed. So, so relaxed. Two pars could change his standing in the game forever.

He had had his chances at other U.S. Opens. In 1992 at Pebble Beach, Montgomerie finished early at 288 on a day when the flagsticks were doing the wave, and Jack Nicklaus, working a TV booth, congratulated him on his victory. Except Tom Kite came in a couple of hours later with a 285. In 1994 at Oakmont, with the furnace blasting, Montgomerie sweated through five rounds and lost to Ernie Els. In 1997 at Congressional, at the height of the " Colin Montgomerie is Mrs. Doubtfire" craze, he finished a shot out of first, with the truly relaxed Els winning again.

At Winged Foot, behind the Montgomerie-- Vijay Singh two-ball and in front of it, other European players were making a mark. When Montgomerie was a shot off the lead after two rounds, he noted that no European had won the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970. But he predicted that the drought was bound to end soon because Europe was producing fabulous talents. He figured that Winged Foot would be as likely a place as any for it to happen because of its extreme difficulty and exquisite fairness, making the course exotic to every player in the field and favoring no nationality. (Someday, if he wants, Montgomerie will have a brilliant career as a TV commentator, combining Miller's candor with a proper British accent and a satiric wit.) Indeed, by the end of the workweek, among the top 25 finishers, 10 were from Europe.

As a Ryder Cup preview service we offer you the names: Peter Hedblom of Sweden, a brawny free-swinger who made two eagles last Saturday; Olaz�bal, still the best player in the game, including Phil, from 60 yards to five feet; Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain, the only smoker (cigars) in the Winged Foot locker room last week; David Howell, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Kenneth Ferrie and Luke Donald, all Englishmen in their 20s, all freethinkers; Padraig Harrington of Ireland, who will wear you out in match play with a ponderous game nearly devoid of mental errors; and Monty, the ancient warrior.

By and large, they're hard not to like. "I'm not a household name, but I'm learning my trade," Ferrie, Mickelson's Sunday partner, said last week. Poulter, pink and black from head to toe on Sunday, carried his travel bag, stuffed to the zippers, down the narrow locker room steps without assistance on Sunday night. All of them kept one eye on the soccer and an ear out for news about the ill wife of Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke, a certain Ryder Cupper. There really is more of a sense of community among the Euro players than among the Americans. You'll see it come September. Last week many of the European players (and caddies and writers) were staying at the Crowne Plaza in White Plains, N.Y.: perfectly serviceable, nothing fancy, soccer on the bar TV. Now it's true that Monty wasn't there, but he was at the mall behind the hotel, checking out the finery at Neiman Marcus. He's a little more country club than the others, but they accept that.

On Sunday on the 17th tee he had one of his little meltdowns that make Monty Monty. During his takeaway a teenager in the gallery dropped to one knee, a courtesy to the others behind him. The move caught Monty's eye--most everything does--and he stopped and started again. When he hit his shot for real, it finished in the right rough. Monty picked up his tee and flung it at the boy's chest, hitting him. The kid loved it, and Monty made a birdie. A win-win.

In recent years, after his divorce and his growing pile of near-misses in the majors, Monty has become a sort of underdog despite his lavish skill, like Greg Norman after he lost to Faldo at Augusta in 1996. But shed no tears for him. Montgomerie should be close to the same golfer he is now for the next five years or so. His game is not tied to fitness or great putting. He has a long, languid swing and plays nothing but fades. He can contend again.

On 18 he drove it in the fairway, as he is apt to do. Singh was fussing around in the right rough and Montgomerie, with 172 yards to the hole, was making little swings with a six-iron. But when it was finally his turn to play, he shoved the six back in the bag, took out a seven-iron--assuming his adrenaline would give him an extra 10 yards--rushed his swing, hit the ball fat and short, pitched on and three-putted for a 6 and 286, a shot behind the winner, Geoff Ogilvy. Monty didn't bother showing up for the USGA awards presentation, where there was a silver medal waiting for him as a runner-up with Mickelson and Jim Furyk. He's been there; he's done that.

In the locker room--open windows and overhead fans and no air conditioning, as British as anything over there--Monty threw some clothes around and banged around a bit and was consoled by Harrington, who finished a shot behind Montgomerie. On a warm, soft New York evening, Monty slipped on a black sweater and his fancy loafers, put on a forced smile, and making no excuses for 18, said to reporters, "I look forward to coming back next year to try another U.S. Open disaster."