Suddenly Sympathetic Slumping on the course and miserable off it, normally peevish Colin Montgomerie was a changed man upon his return to Troon

July 25, 2004

To be honest, I didn't pack any hankies when I set off last week
to follow Colin Montgomerie at the Open Championship. I'm an
American, see, and all we Americans need for a day with Monty is
one of those bulb spritzers that opera singers use. (It soothes a
throat left raw from yelling clever things like "Miss it, Monty!"
and "Did anybody ever tell you you're fat?") ¶ But until I got to
Troon, the little Scottish town where Montgomerie spent part
of his childhood, I didn't realize that he had recently become a
tragic figure capable of inspiring a sniffle or two from the most
hard-hearted Brit. A writer for the London Daily Mail, under the
headline we're with you, monty, coolly laid out the case:
"Humiliated by the beautiful wife he adored and devastated by
eviction from the family home, he has been struggling to rebuild
his shattered life under the gaze of a vicarious world."

Wow! I knew that Montgomerie and his wife, Eimear, had announced
in April that they were divorcing after 14 stormy years. I also
knew that the British tabloids had speculated that the six-time
Ryder Cupper was being cuckolded by various parties, including
actor Hugh Grant. But I never realized that while Montgomerie was
grinding over short putts in order to feed and school his three
children, his missus was sipping champagne and stepping out in
designer gowns.

"Yet he does not hide," continued the Daily Mail. "He straps his
heart to his sleeve and he strides out, that jaw of his jutting,
to confront his demons."

That was exactly how Montgomerie looked last Friday when he
strode onto the sunny 17th tee at Royal Troon. Head up. Toothy
smile. Eyes sparkling under the bill of his visor. As he waited
for the green to clear, thousands of spectators jostled for
position. Montgomerie was five under par and tied for third,
having just birdied the 16th. He looked splendid. And I, who had
followed him for every hole of his first two rounds, had to look
deep within myself and ask, How did I get it so wrong?

Let's be frank, I am one of those who used to criticize
Montgomerie. I foolishly believed the spiteful writers,
embittered caddies and former friends who characterized him as a
charming and well-spoken narcissist who exploded with rage at the
slightest provocation. I believed the former Montgomerie caddie
who said that he "got a chill" whenever his man bogeyed the final
hole, knowing it presaged a full-blown, vein-popping, profane
tongue-lashing. I believed the photographers who said that
Montgomerie stepped away from putts and glared at them when they
hadn't even moved. I even believed my own eyes when Monty backed
off a shot last week to rebuke someone squirming in a crowd of
people at the rail of a hospitality tent, 50 yards behind him.

But I learned at Troon that there's also a new, improved
Montgomerie, a sensitive man who takes late-night walks in London
whenever his heart begins to ache, who watches homeless people
from a distance, humbled by their plight. "I have trouble at
home, trouble on the course," he told a banquet audience on the
eve of the Open. "I was invited to spend a month among the
crocodiles and reptiles in a jungle." He smiled. "I thought it
might be my wife's solicitor." Brilliant. A little humor at his
own expense.

Mostly, though, Montgomerie clings to the British tradition of
the stiff upper lip. "I don't feel as alone as you might feel I
do," he told reporters after his first-round 69. "I spend a lot
of time on the road, on my own, so there's no difference,
really." (Did he sigh? I think he sighed.) He went on to thank
his fans for helping him survive "what's happened to me in the
last three months." It was because of their vocal support, he
added, that he had birdied the 12th hole when he was staggering
from the loss of three strokes on the two previous holes, not to
mention the treachery of She Who Would Not Be Named. ("If the
woman wanted a man who worked nine to five," the Scottish Daily
Record pointed out, "she should have married an accountant.")

Montgomerie is 41, and his scores now are north of 70 more often
than not. Since 2002, he has plunged from 10th to 71st in the
World Ranking. This year, because of the family strife and a
dodgy back, he even had to go to Sunningdale in June and play in
an Open qualifier. It was there, you may have read, that he
botched his drive on the 9th tee after spotting an unwelcome face
in the gallery. "I can't believe he's out here watching," said
Montgomerie, shaking with indignation. "That's unbelievable!"
Like a Sherlock Holmes villain, the mystery man disappeared into
the mist. He was later described by the London Evening Standard
as "a new close male friend of Eimear."

What better place to heal than Troon, where he learned the game
as a tyke? The Old Course at Troon is as familiar to Montgomerie
as his face in the mirror. The Postage Stamp. The hump of Ailsa
Craig rising out of the Firth of Clyde. The spot by the 18th
green where, in 1990, he and Eimear were ushered into a lavishly
decorated tent for their wedding reception....

Granted, that last memory was probably no comfort. But
Montgomerie insisted that the Open "couldn't be at a better time
or a better place for me." To prove it, the two-under 69 he shot
last Thursday was the best first-round Open score of his career.
He then shot the same number on Friday.

The Scottish fans knew that Montgomerie had never finished better
than eighth in an Open, so they clattered down the steps of the
grandstands as he played through and joined his gallery. When he
birdied the 16th hole on Friday, they responded with a
full-throated roar that practically propelled him onto the 17th
tee. It was there, with the townspeople watching and the sun
casting a golden glow over the scene, that it sunk in: Monty
might win.

That surely occurred to him as he played in, probably to his
detriment. He walked onto the 18th green with the throng
standing, applauding, calling his name ... but moments later
there was a collective groan as he made a lazy stroke and missed
a three-footer for par. On Saturday, at the end of a scrambling
third round that had kept him in contention, he repeated the
gaffe, missing another three-footer for par. It's speculation on
my part, but Monty, standing over his putt, may have imagined
something white, like a bridal gown, fluttering in the grandstand
behind him, where the party tent once stood.

That's when I pulled out my shirttail and blew my nose. Not only
had Monty's domestic life soured--it's not love, actually brayed
a headline in the Daily Star, playing off the title of a Hugh
Grant movie--but also the game he adored had proved to be a
faithless harlot. None of us were surprised, then, when
Montgomerie went out on Sunday and shot a 76, which dropped him
to 25th place. "I'm going home now," he said, presumably
referring to his Chelsea flat. "It was a wonderful, wonderful
experience I've had this week. I'll always remember it."

So will we all. And Monty, I promise--I'll never shout "Mrs.
Doubtfire!" again.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN HOME HOPE Montgomerie, who grew up playing Royal Troon, threatened to finally win his first major championship, at age 41. COLOR PHOTO: ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES LOSING FACE Montgomerie's troubled marriage with Eimear had been dissected in public for years. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK HELPING HAND Scottish fans sided with Monty during his divorce and seemed to lift his play at critical times last week.

I learned there's a new, improved Montgomerie, who watches
homeless people from a distance, humbled by their plight.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)