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Monty walking thin line between mirth and majesty


Europe's Captain Colin Montgomerie on patrol with Darren Clarke during yesterday's play at Celtic Manor

Europe's Captain Colin Montgomerie on patrol with Darren Clarke during yesterday's play at Celtic Manor

Europe's Captain Colin Montgomerie on patrol with Darren Clarke during yesterday's play at Celtic Manor

This Ryder Cup's big non-truth is that it means "nothing" to Colin Montgomerie. "No, not personally," Europe's captain insists. Each time he says it the room suppresses giggles. If the USA are victorious this weekend, Montgomerie will leave south Wales under his own Atlantic front.

A gleaming history of personal accomplishment will be stained; the one refuge he could retreat to when the Major titles eluded him will suddenly seem a dark and painful place. The risk Montgomerie took in accepting such high office was that the USA would finally chop him down. To lose as one of a 12-man team is bearable in the end. To go down the same chute as Nick Faldo in Valhalla two years ago is not a fate he could square with the happy personal memories he claims not to acknowledge.

"I'll probably be called Captain Useless if we lose," he said before this tournament started. Fear masqueraded as a joke.

With his own game in decline, it may be no exaggeration to say the second half of his professional life hangs on the result here at Celtic Manor, where the parallel drama of captain versus captain pits him against Corey 'Bulldog' Pavin, who recovered from a succession of faux pas to steer the USA team to victories in both the first two sessions.

The Ryder Cup, according to Stewart Cink, that indomitable American, is about throwing "poison darts" at your opponents -- the brilliant shot that deflates the enemy's spirits at a pivotal moment in a match and shapes the outcome. If only it were so simple for the captains, who can tumble down an endless array of PR and strategic holes, from wild-card picks to pairings to wet weather gear to the choice of prime motivational speaker: the F16 flying Major Dan Rooney, in Pavin's case, and the ailing Seve Ballesteros for Europe.

If you wanted to see the intoxicating effect of all this decision-making on Montgomerie you had only to hear his green-side interview shortly after Pavin's Americans had taken a 6-4 lead into the third session on an afternoon of captivating golf. Roused by an adoring crowd, Montgomerie seemed in danger of hyperventilating as his feelings gushed into a TV mic.

"We must get into the singles eight-all, minimum," he said. "If we can get into it eight-all, God, what a day we have got ahead of us tomorrow afternoon."

Then he offered the best insight yet into Europe's current mood. "I'm just telling them how good they all are," he said. "That's all I can do. The motivational tapes are on in the lounge when they come in. They see themselves lifting trophies, they see themselves holing putts. All I can do is give them passion. Their motivation is there, as I've said all week, from losing two years ago. Now it's all about passion here, and want. They have got to want this, and by God, they do."

This was the moment cunning gave way to textbook Monty fervour. It upped the ante in an already enthralling, rain-delayed contest in which all 24 golfers fanned out across the Welsh countryside to push this Ryder Cup in the direction of a Sunday night finish.

The extra pace and energy only added to the quality of the play as the USA attempted to recover from the embarrassment of their first-day wardrobe malfunction (dubbed "Watergate" by their press), and the Molinari brothers lost the first hole in their foursomes session after their caddies took the wrong pin-sheet to the course. "I can't believe what has been said on the first tee," Montgomerie huffed. "If caddies are offered a revised pin placing they usually take it. But from what I heard they were offered it and didn't take it."

These small errors are recited back to captains in inquests. But Pavin had more to fear from an autopsy. Conflating sport and war with his claim that US soldiers "laying down their lives" might inspire a bunch of multimillionaires in slacks exposed him to the suspicion that his team needed artificial encouragement to make them care about the Ryder Cup as much as the Europeans, who drew their own fuel from a call from Ballesteros.

Nor had Pavin distinguished himself by misreading the autocue at the opening ceremony and forgetting to introduce Cink, an apparently inconsequential slip that added to Montgomerie's slight smugness. Equally, the American captain's willingness to send his players out on Friday dressed like Little Britain's Vicky Pollard turned out to be more than a fashion crime.

It ended with a PGA official queuing with spectators at the merchandising tent to buy 20 wet weather suits. At his unveiling as captain, Pavin had said his wife would be sorting out the threads. "Lisa has an unlimited budget with clothing at home, so I just want to give you guys a fair warning right now about the clothing," Pavin said that day. He said nothing about waterlogging.

Ian Woosnam is said to have found the 18 months of Ryder Cup captaincy so stressful that his health suffered. At least Montgomerie had a map from Faldo's stewardship of mistakes to avoid. Having DJ Spoony in the camp and offspring riding around on the captain's buggy were obvious ones, but from two years ago Montgomerie also saw the need to appoint four vice-captains and have eyes and ears all over the course, as Paul Azinger did with his Americans in Kentucky.

In the end, though, the players will determine the captain's place in history, and for much of this middle day Europe were in the chasing role.

By the end of the first fourball session Montgomerie was already on a recovery mission. The last four Ryder Cups have fallen to the team who won the opening exchange. The two and a half to one and a half advantage was the USA's first opening-session lead on European soil since The Belfry in 1989, when the match was tied 14-14.

Then six foursomes matches thrilled a packed and muddied crowd. The USA won these three and a half to two and a half to take that 6-4 lead. Hence Montgomerie's breathless urgings as two alternate shot pairings and four fourball matches slogged towards sundown. In the foursomes, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood struck mighty blows at Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods and were five up after seven holes.

Westwood was an inspiration, carrying the rookie Martin Kaymer through the first part of the day, then hooking up with Donald to rough up Woods. Wild-card picks feature heavily in captaincy reviews and Montgomerie could just about claim vindication, even if every swing of the club was an ordeal for Padraig Harrington.

Paul Casey and Justin Rose were left out, in favour of Edoardo Molinari, Donald and Harrington, who was a liability before recovering to win for only his second match in 11 Ryder Cup outings.

In a tournament of 11 rookies there was plenty of buggy action, as captains and their assistants nursed virgins through the strain of having to deliver amid so much expectation. As Europe led America in all six matches out on the course as the light began to fade -- a halt was called around 6.45pm -- Montgomerie approached his final major test: his playing order for the singles, which will kick in when the foursome and fourball marathon finally ends today.

"We're in a very strong position and it wasn't going too well at lunchtime," Montgomerie said. "We didn't have the passion. I felt it with the team, I felt it with the spectators. The advantage here for the first time is that we've never had six games on the golf course in a Ryder Cup and we're up in all of them. This is good, to see the momentum."

Westwood had said earlier in the week: "He (Montgomerie) is a bit more relaxed this week. His mood swings are less. Having played with him at his peak at the end of the 90s he can be up and down quite a lot. But I think this week he wants to be on an even keel, and sort of nice and calm."

No leader in recent memory has had so much invested in a single passage of sport. Montgomerie has always walked the line between mirth and majesty. In these final hours he is cast as warrior, priest, statesman, propagandist, strategist and psychologist, with his team 6-4 down but otherwise ahead across the board. He tries to tell us this is a European socialist endeavour -- an entirely collective effort -- but we can't buy it. His walkie-talkie exhausted three batteries on a gruelling day. This is his life, his calling, his story.


Sunday Independent