2005: British Open - A runner-up’s positive spin

St. Andrews, Scotland

If Colin Montgomerie were up to his neck in horse manure he’d more than likely see something positive. Political spin-doctors have nothing on Monty.

He was at it again in the wake of his fourth career runner-up at a major championship. Minutes after finishing five shots adrift of Tiger Woods, the most famous nearly-man of his generation was talking about rebirth, as if he was some phoenix rising from the ashes.

“Fortunately I’ve remained healthy enough that my career is having a resurgence after three years in the wilderness,” Montgomerie said.

“It’s fantastic to get back to where I was in the ’90s. I’m taking lots of positives from this week. There’s no shame in losing to the best player of our generation by far. I do feel this is a big step, a big push in the right direction in my career.”

A big step forward, or the last throw of the dice for a man who has been to the table so many times but has yet to throw the lucky seven?

For 31⁄2 days Montgomerie looked like he could do it. For 31⁄2 days he believed he could do it. So, too, did the Scottish crowds. Partisan galleries roared as loudly as they could, some waving Scottish flags, trying desperately to urge their man over the line.

Once again he fell short, as he did at Pebble Beach in 1992, when he finished third in the U.S. Open. As he did at Oakmont in ’94, when he lost a playoff to Ernie Els in the U.S. Open. As he did at Riviera in ’95, when Steve Elkington cruelly slammed in a 30-foot birdie putt at the first playoff hole to take the PGA Championship. As he did at Congressional in ’97, when he lost yet another U.S. Open to Els.

“It’s nice that at 42 I can come back and do the same again. I’m pushing but unfortunately there is always a barrier. It’s either Ernie Els or it’s Ernie Els or it’s Tiger Woods.”

The turning point in Monty’s latest tilt at major championship glory came at the 11th hole Sunday, when all of Scotland realized he would not become the first Scot since Paul Lawrie (1999) to hoist the Claret Jug. One shot behind Woods, Montgomerie flushed a 6-iron that finished just over the back of the green and he failed to get up-and-down.

“I hit the wrong club and it threw me a bit,” he said. “I didn’t get the same momentum coming home after that bogey. Tiger made the birdie on 12 and the gap widened to three shots and that was that.”

That’s when Montgomerie’s head went down. He dropped shots at Nos. 13 and 16 and finished 9 under, five shots away from a playoff and possible membership in the major club he desperately wants to join.

Is membership still attainable? Montgomerie thinks so.

“I want to prove I can compete at this level,” he said. “I missed out on the Masters this year and U.S. Open last year, two tournaments I didn’t really like to watch on television. I’m a great believer if you don’t play, you can’t win.”

Woods, ever the diplomat, is in Monty’s corner, too.

“If Monty can just putt well, like he did during that run when he had seven Order of Merits in a row . . .” Woods said. “He was probably the best ball-striker in Europe and also one of the most consistent putters. If he putts well, there is no reason he can’t win a major championship.”

Montgomerie always has talked about his only goal being to improve year-on-year. He did that for the first 13 years of his career before he started sliding down the world rankings, and down the European Order of Merit that he ruled from 1993-99. He appeared bound for the twilight zone in 2003-04 when he won only one PGA European Tour event, the relatively minor Caltex Singapore Masters.

Longstanding rumors of a marital rift with his wife, Eimear, proved true when the couple separated in April 2004. Montgomerie’s life went into a downward spiral, much of it featured on the front pages of British tabloids.

Given all that was going on in his private life, it’s not surprising the Scot struggled on the fairways. Things started to turn around when he put his personal life back in order. Not even the allegations of cheating that surrounded his misplaced ball in Jakarta could deflect Montgomerie’s march back to something resembling his former glory.

“At the start of the year, I had a chat to myself and said ‘what am I doing here, what’s going on, what’s happening, what do I want to do. I’m 83rd in the world. Come on, you go one way or another’ and the one thing I had to do was stop the slide. That was No. 1. Once I stopped the slide then I could start going forward or think about going forward.

“I gave myself a kick up the backside, and first tournament in Singapore I came out and shot 65. That put me on the map again. That put me on the scoreboards and leaderboards. I’m much more comfortable being on the leaderboard than off it. A number of players wouldn’t say that, but I can.”

Montgomerie has pegged confidence as his defining quality throughout his career. After all, this is the man who used to insist on taking seat 1A when traveling on commercial airlines. That confidence has been missing for most of the last two years, only showing itself in spurts, such as the Ryder Cup. It came back in spades at St. Andrews.

“I feel with putting better, and with my life better, that I can contend again in these championships,” Montgomerie said. “I gave a great effort and I’ll be starting the next major full of confidence that I’m capable of doing well.”

Empty words or portents of things to come? One thing for sure: Monty believes in himself again. Only time will tell if he lives up to his own spin.

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