2002: Mercurial Monty

The best player in the past two Ryder Cups, a question mark this time because of back trouble, has been described as charming, smart and witty. He also has been called a temperamental “ticking time bomb” and perceived as an arrogant, spoiled rich kid.

Dichotomy, thy name is Colin Montgomerie.

The professional golfer Americans have chosen to heckle apparently is not unlike a sheet of parchment: thin-skinned with two sides. The opinionated Montgomerie wears emotions on logoed-sleeves in public, yet is so private that some longtime staples on the PGA European Tour say no one really knows him. He’s strong enough to defy odds by winning seven consecutive Orders of Merit through 1999 with that reverse-C swing and unathletic body, yet fragile to the point of being easily distracted by a spectator moving 50 yards away. He’s so focused, yet cursed with too much peripheral vision.

He’s intensely ambitious but has achieved without much practice other than a few warm-up swings. He’s playful yet seems to take himself too seriously. He can be warm and aloof in the same interview. He so obsessed on winning money titles that it almost cost him his most valuable possession, his marriage. He can go from working a room engagingly to having someone removed from a room, as he did to David Feherty in the 1999 European Ryder Cup team quarters. In no time he can go from being best friends with the British press to having a dust-up.

The Full Monty is really the sum of the parts: The Half-and-Half Monty.

Perhaps no one else’s esteem is affected so much by today’s score. His moods can fluctuate as wildly and suddenly as the 74, 64 and 84 he shot at this year’s British Open. Or swing as much as his weight, down 30 pounds – to 210 – since April.

That’s as different as Mr. Surefire, which he has been on European golf courses for so long, and Mrs. Doubtfire, the movie-title nickname he loathes.

Montgomerie’s unfortunate problems with an infinitesimal number of insensitive American golf fans can be traced at least in part to his tendency, in animal terms, to have rabbit ears and eyes and react with a canine’s bark. To carry a theme, the manner can be accompanied by a scowling facial expression Feherty long ago joked resembles a “bulldog licking piss off a nettle.”

“Looking at that seven-year stretch in Europe, that guy’s got to have an incredible focus,” said three-time major championship winner Nick Price. “You wonder why he can’t block out some of the things hecklers say to him and get into that focus here.”

Fortunately for the Scot, harassment won’t be an impediment on English soil at the Sept. 27-29 Ryder Cup at The Belfry. Instead, recurring lower-disk back problems (since summer 2001) are the enemy in his pursuit to improve on his 12-7-4 overall and 3-0-2 singles records. At 39, the highly accurate power fader maintains he’s still driven to succeed, but he has been fighting injury for the first time in addition to inconsistent putting. It follows that he has gone winless this year for the first season in a decade. The slippage leads one to believe his window to win a major championship may have closed. The back condition casts doubt on whether Europe’s de facto leader, who says he’d like the 2006 captaincy, will be able to play in this Ryder Cup at all, much less the maximum five matches for the fifth time in a row.

“My gut feeling is I’m going, but I’ll make a decision next week,” Montgomerie said Sept. 15 after finishing ninth in the Linde German Masters. “If I can’t play five times for Sam (Torrance), I’m not going.”

In an attempt to improve his back, Montgomerie has dropped the two stone and is doing core exercises like sit-ups. The Half Monty is strengthening his abs, too, because this Ryder Cup means so much to him. His team lost in 1999 at The Country Club, and he was verbally pelted. However, he stops short of talking about revenge and reliving those difficult three days at Brookline, Mass. He declined in-depth interviews for this and other pre-Ryder Cup stories, partly because he said he was stung by unflattering published comments he made about some U.S. players, such as Brad Faxon, before the 1997 matches.

Among other things, Montgomerie questioned whether Faxon would be a factor because he was going through a divorce. Faxon received what he called a “sincere apology” from Montgomerie in person and by letter and says he holds no hard feelings. In fact, Faxon says, “I like the guy a lot. He cracks me up. I think he’s hilarious.”

Montgomerie has said his on-course troubles here started at the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional. He was leading after a rain delay in the second round, and he answered back to a couple of well-watered hecklers. “Save your shouting for the Ryder Cup,” he shot back near the ninth green. After that round, someone from a balcony yelled “Mrs. Doubtfire” as he and his wife walked into the clubhouse. Montgomerie has said he figures he was jeered partly because he was a foreigner in the lead, but he admitted to the Observer, a British newspaper, “Plus I made an error of my own. I answered back. That’s a no-no.”

Davis Love III was there for the beginning of the bad, paired with the Scot the first two rounds. “They were on him when he missed a little putt at 9,” Love recalled. “He backed off and looked at them. Then they got on him even worse.”

So much of life, of course, is not what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens to you. Self-deprecation is endearing. Surliness is not. Vulnerability is supposed to be embraceable. Had Montgomerie playfully donned a wig, dress, pearls and a pair of thick heels instead of resisting the Mrs. Doubtfire label, he might be the most popular golfer between the Atlantic and Pacific. “People here want to like him,” said the popular Feherty, whom Montgomerie once partly blamed for his problems.

Another criticism the admittedly “not very outgoing” Montgomerie has faced is that he doesn’t acknowledge galleries enough. Nor is he known for signing an abundance of autographs. Some, like Love, say he can be his own worst enemy.

“His body language can give the impression he’s always in a huff or upset with something or short with everybody,” said Steve Elkington, who beat the Scot in a playoff to win the 1995 PGA Championship..

For sure, Monty’s rock and chain has gathered moss. As European Ryder Cup teammate Jesper Parnevik put it, “It became the thing to do – going to a golf tournament to heckle Monty, even though you might not know who he is.” The summer after Montgomerie went 3-1-1 and was the Man of the Match in Europe’s 1997 Ryder Cup victory, he was pestered again at the U.S. Open, this time at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where a radio man encouraged the razzing and a fan yelled, “Go home!” Speaking of inflammation from electronic media, edgy national sports talk host Jim Rome has gassed the flames with taunts of “Mawn-ty” over the years.

The worst abuse, of course, would be hurled in the boisterous caldron of the 1999 Ryder Cup. He stepped back and pointed upon being sworn at during a putt the second morning. The barrage escalated to the point that Montgomerie’s father walked off during Sunday singles because of crude comments he heard in the crowd. His opponent, Payne Stewart, called for galleries to be peaceful.

Yet, so determined not to be beaten down by the raucousness, Montgomerie turned in probably his best performance ever in America, likely even better than his marches to playoffs at the 1994 U.S. Open and ’95 PGA. At one point at Brookline, he told partner Paul Lawrie, “We have the chance to put it back in their faces.” Though Europe lost, Monty did score a put-back. He hit shot after shot close to pins and putted better than usual, and his 3-1-1 ledger counted Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval among the vanquished.

“Every time he got another hole up on his opponent, it was like he was getting back at those heckling him,” said teammate Padraig Harrington of Ireland. “It was perfect. He plays so well at the Ryder Cup because he likes to control things like that. He can see and control everything that’s going on when it’s only him and the other guy playing.”

Not always. After losing and being bothered by some fans in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February in Carlsbad, Calif., Montgomerie couldn’t get out of the States fast enough. He is alleged to have told spectators that the good thing about losing was that he didn’t have to stay in “this (expletive) country another day.” He talked of never playing in America again, but he changed his mind a few days later, saying a small, unruly minority wouldn’t deter him.

Since, public relations apparently have improved. A national golf magazine launched a “Be Nice to Monty” campaign, complete with pin-on buttons, before the U.S. Open in June. And last month he told the Observer that he’s being treated “better than ever” in the United States, that the treatment has improved since the 1999 Ryder Cup.

But that same week, the greatest modern player never to play regularly in the States had a run-in with two men making noise in the 18th grandstand at the WGC-NEC Invitational near Seattle. “Excuse me, please,” Montgomerie said while backing out of a bunker and staring. He then bladed his bunker shot over the green and said sarcastically in the direction of the two spectators, “Thank you.” The next day a local newspaper carried the headline, “Montgomerie lives up to image as a hothead.” It’s unlikely that bold print will make it into his autobiography due out next month.

To a man, other players say Montgomerie would be better served to chill the whine.

“One thing over the years you realize is that the more you react to the heckling, the more they will come back at you,” Price said. “There might be two that will heckle you on one hole, and if you react, there’s six on the next hole.”

“You can’t respond,” veteran U.S. Ryder Cupper Paul Azinger said. “It’s aggravated the situation for him.”

“He bites back,” said Harrington. “He grabs hold. He knows talking back doesn’t help his situation, but he feels he needs to say his piece.”

Adds Love: “He’s a good guy, but he doesn’t do himself any favors. When he plays good, he’s happy and friendly with everyone. When he plays bad, it’s like ‘everybody screwed me.’ He gives the appearance he’s blaming his bad play or bad fortune on somebody else, and people don’t like that.”

That said, European teammates, perhaps to a man, call Montgomerie “nice,” particularly off the course. He has given Europe’s five rookies unsolicited Ryder Cup insight. Europeans and Americans alike say they enjoy being paired with him. Some say he’s entertaining at dinner. “He’s really funny,” Parnevik said. “He’s not as weird as Feherty, but he has some of Feherty in him. He’s very quick, very witty.”

Some say Montgomerie is misunderstood. Some say his introverted nature is mistaken for arrogance. Some say he changes after he slips on a glove, especially on U.S. soil. Some say he just sees people moving when other players don’t.

“He’s a good guy,” Azinger said. “Everybody likes him. He’s funny, he likes to laugh. But you’d never know it unless you hung out with him. It’s just that he’s so Jekyll-Hyde on the course. It’s like he’s two different people. He gets a bad rap because his face is so expressive. Guys get criticized for being robots. So you hate to see a guy being criticized for not being a robot.”

Though Montgomerie is so demonstrative, some European Tour regulars, among them Lee Westwood, Niclas Fasth and Harrington, say they don’t know him well.

“He’s a very likable bloke,” said Pete Cowen, renowned British teaching pro. “But nobody really knows him. He doesn’t let people get close to him. That’s been one of his strengths (as a player).”

“Very few people know him,” said Andrew (Chubby) Chandler, the affable agent for several European players, including Darren Clarke and Westwood. “You’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody who knows him.”

Well, the British press knows him. And it likes the outspoken Scot because he’s prone to say something interesting, unless he’s begging off with “I’m not the story” or “Not today, thank you” after a poor round.

“He’s by far the best copy a European golfer has ever produced, including Seve (Ballesteros)” said Mark Garrod, golf correspondent for Britain’s Press Association Sport wire service. “You never know what’s going to happen next – with his play or his mood.

“He’s endlessly fascinating.”

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