Q: If you could pick whom you would play with in the final pairing, who would it be?
Colin Montgomerie: Me and the fellow that's three behind me. (Laughter.)
Colin has been over here in the States for over a week now. He played at Bay Hill - not well, but he played. He brought from England the same bugaboo that plagued him last year - his putting. 'I played particularly badly the last day and shot 1-under,' he said. 'So at least I putted well the last day.'
For seven years, Montgomerie was untouchable when it came to European golf. From 1993 through 1999, he was No. 1 in the Order of Merit, which is what Euros call their money standings. Last year, he played 23 times, which was the most ever since 1994. And he finished sixth. That is the price you must pay when you don't get the ball in the hole - which Monty didn't do nearly enough last year.
For several years, of course, Montgomerie was a feared man in the U.S. championships. It started in 1991 when he was a nameless Ryder Cup rookie and played Mark Calcavecchia in singles at Kiawah Island. Calcavecchia was 5-up at the turn. With four holes left, Calc was still 4-up. But Monty, of course, did the unbelievable. He won all four of the final holes and came back to tie the match.
The U.S. Open of '92 really brought his name to the public. Fighting terrible conditions at Pebble Beach, he finished a couple of hours ahead of the finishers on Sunday. An even-par finish after 72 holes convinced Jack Nicklaus to crown him the winner. But Tom Kite rallied on the back nine to beat him, as did Jeff Sluman with a birdie at the 18th.
In '94, he lost a playoff for the Open to Ernie Els. In '95, he lost a playoff for the PGA to Steve Elkington. In 1996 he finished tied for second in this Players Championship to Fred Couples. And in '97, he was second in the Open again to Els.
That, though, was his last time to compete for a major. After that, he had to be content to be Europe's best in the Ryder Cup in '97 and '99. The putter had killed him time and time again. He wasn't particularly horrible. He just didn't putt to major championship standards.
He says he has put in many long hours putting with his coach, Paul Marchand of Houston. He was starting his stroke by getting the blade back first. Now he is working on getting the entire club and his hands to make a simultaneous motion, getting the handle to rock backwards in time with the blade. 'But you've got to get back with it to get through, and it has not been going back to get through,' he explained. 'There's no point in not having a backswing to have a follow-through.'
Of course, there are the whispers. Montgomerie is 37 years old now, an age some fear is too old to think about that first major victory. He must show he can handle the putter again in a reliable manner. Some point to the problems he had in his home life last year, though Montgomerie says everything is rosy now. But he is nowhere the favorite that he once was.
Monty concedes all that. 'Yes,' he says, 'I would like to win here. But it will not change me nor my life in any way, shape or form if I don't.'
There was a time a couple of years back when Montgomerie considered establishing a base in the United States and playing a full-time schedule. One reason he didn't do it was that his string of money titles in Europe was still intact. Another was the hostile reaction he had received here recently in his Open and Ryder Cup appearances. Still another was that his children were growing up, needing desperately to be in their home country, and their father needed to be where he was most comfortable, too.
'Yes, I did consider it,' Monty said. 'And I considered it a great deal a couple of years ago, about three years ago, I believe. And it was just not right for me at that time.
'With the events on the schedule at that time, I felt like I was coming over here more anyway, so there was no need for me to play full-time over here. And that will remain. As I say, I play about eight or nine tournaments over here now every year, and I play about 15 at home and five other tournaments around the world, and that's my 30.'
Of course, Nick Faldo, Jose Maria Olazabal, Jesper Parnevik, and Miguel Angel Jimenez, to name a few, feel that they had achieved all they could in Europe and had to move here to get better. Should Montgomerie, now that he is already is his late 30s? The feeling is that his best golf days are already behind him and he would be wise to stay where he is with his wife and children. Apparently he feels the same way, too.
Montgomerie, by the way, feels The Players is a major already. It just hasn't been classified as such.
'This is a major championship,' he said with emphasis. 'You'd be doing well to say that you are not a major champion if you win this event. This is a major. I don't know who makes the rules or who decides the four or five or six or how many majors we have in this world, but this is a major championship of all proportion.'
He didn't seem at all the ogre that he sometimes appears on the golf course. Hey, maybe we were wrong. On the other hand, maybe we were right but he has changed.
At any rate, this is Colin, and he has made an enormous impact on golf in the States in the '90s, even though he hasn't lived here since he was a collegian back in the mid-'80s at tiny Houston Baptist. Stay in England but come here to play your eight times, Monty. The sport dearly needs you.