Sunday 26 March 2017

Whatever you might think of Colin Montgomerie, you can't deny his ability to entertain

Dermot Gilleece

Given time even the most notorious grouches can mellow. We saw it last weekend at the climactic stage of the Senior PGA Championship at Harbor Shores in Michigan, where Colin Montgomerie exuded so much bonhomie in defeat as to make the viewer strangely ill at ease.

Dammit, on top of the normal courtesies, there was even a fist-bump with Rocco Mediate who had deprived him of equalling the record three successive triumphs in the event, set by Hale Irwin in 1998. Later, Monty commented graciously: "I can hold my head high and say I just got beaten by the better man on the day."

At the risk of seeming unkind, even perverse, I have to admit that I felt much more comfortable with the old Monty and his notorious tantrums. Indeed the return of the US Open to Oakmont later this month brings to mind one of his classics, in which, unwittingly, I happened to have a prominent role. It was when the man once hailed as pure gold by British colour writers provided a better story through a stormy departure on the Friday evening, than he might ever have done in an hour-long interview.

Mind you, none of this was of particular interest to me, given the challenging position of Graeme McDowell, who was five strokes off Angel Cabrera's lead at the halfway stage.

Going into the event, however, Montgomerie commanded considerable attention, not least for the fact that he had lost a play-off for the US Open to Ernie Els at Oakmont in 1994. And his enduring fascination with the championship gained rich emphasis at Winged Foot in 2006, when, with an elusive Major triumph within his grasp, he stumbled disastrously on the final hole to be tied second once more, this time behind Geoff Ogilvy.

A year later at Oakmont, the Scot effectively killed his chance with an opening 76 and while I was out on the course following McDowell on the Friday, Monty's problems continued to pile up in a disjointed outward journey to his second round. Unaware of this, I was making my way back to the clubhouse up the right-hand side of the ninth, when I noticed him coming towards me in the opposite direction, down the 10th. That was when he left the fairway and headed towards his girlfriend, Gaynor Knowles, on the other side of the ropes. As he approached her, I heard him say: "It's such a shame. It's really upset me. It really, really has."

Since there was no indication of a warning for slow play, the only clue to Montgomerie's discomfiture was the decidedly frosty body-language between himself and his caddie.

In the build-up to the championship, the Scot had caused quite a stir by sacking his long-time bagman Alastair McLean. And on the recommendation of the local caddie-master, he opted for 62-year-old Billy Goddard, a veritable gem who was guaranteed to meet the player's requirement of not talking too much. Mind you, that particular quality was later to come under some scrutiny.

Though Montgomerie rallied through a difficult homeward journey, it ended badly, with a double-bogey on the last for an 82 - his worst-ever US Open score since his debut at Baltusrol in 1993. And a foretaste of his likely post-round mood could be gleaned from a thunderous glare when a shouted "Get in the hole", greeted the third of six strokes down the last. Embarrassed at what he might have provoked, the noisy youth turned to his fellow spectators and pleaded: "I was only trying to encourage him."

Nobody could depart a tournament as expeditiously as Monty at his best. As the big frame swept purposefully towards the car park, not even the slightest hint was provided of a quick word for a persistent scribe. So it was that a potentially juicy story seemed to be disappearing with his every stride.

That's when I came to the rescue of my fellow golf writers. Relating to them the words I had overheard from Montgomerie to Ms Knowles on the 10th, I suggested that a chat with the caddie could prove to be fruitful. Which it did.

On being asked if he had any idea as to the source of Montgomerie's black mood and dispirited words on the 10th, Goddard was immediately forthcoming.

It seems that when the player approached his drive down the long fourth, with the infamous Church Pews bunkers on the left, he asked Goddard for the yardage. "Lay up or go for it?" enquired the caddie. "I'm going for it," came the reply.

Goddard went on: "After he made a bogey on the hole, he said to me: 'You should never have said the words lay up'. And after that, we hardly talked. That was the first taste I had of his reputation."

Goddard added: "He's a good guy but he just gets mad at himself. And he got mad at me, absolutely."

Still, it made a colourful tale. And Goddard's description of the Scot was right on the money. I particularly remember an interview I did with him during a company day for Lexus at Mount Juliet in September 2002. After we'd talked for about half an hour, I discovered my tape-recorder needed batteries.

Which meant that when the problem was solved, I imagined having to rely on memory for our early exchanges. Monty generously insisted, however, that we start all over again, even though he was being pressurised by the sponsors to move on to some other aspect of the day's schedule.

The popular view is that Montgomerie's best chance of a US Open victory, which his remarkable accuracy off the tee seemed to make eminently achievable, was at Oakmont in 1994. That was when he and Loren Roberts were involved in an 18-hole play-off with Els, before the 24-year-old South African later emerged victorious in sudden-death.

It is often overlooked, however, that Els and Roberts both squandered chances of victory on the Sunday. And Montgomerie's play-off prospects were ruined by his 42 on the first-nine on the Monday, which ultimately deprived him of a sudden-death place.

In truth, his best chance was at Winged Foot in 2006. But it was as if his solid putting and precise driving with a characteristic fade, were preparing him for comfortable pickings at senior level, where he has earned $599,803 from 10 tournaments so far this year, even without a win.

Meanwhile, Oakmont will remember Montgomerie for a worthy challenge 22 years ago, and a faultless getaway in '07. Which, in their contrasting ways, carried the stamp of a true golfing entertainer.

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