Colin Montgomerie first thought he had won the U.S. Open in 1992, when Jack Nicklaus came up to him after the Scot had completed his final round at Pebble Beach and said, Congratulations on becoming our national champion.
Montgomerie thought he had won it again at Oakmont in 1994. He led the putting statistics'and every other time he has done that in his career he has always gone home with a trophy.
And then there was last year, when he holed his Hail Mary putt on the 71st hole, a snaking 60-foot triple-breaker, and split the middle of the fairway with his final drive at Winged Foot. When you hole a one in a thousand putt'his Larry Mize at the 1987 Masters or Bob Tway at the 1986 PGA moment'how can you not think its your time?
Heres one fact that tells you everything, Montgomerie says with a rueful grin. There have only been a handful of times in my entire career when I thought Id won a tournament and it didnt happen.
Four of them have come at the U.S. Open.
Montgomerie knows firsthand that the Open is the most difficult tournament to win. Theres no let-up at the U.S. Open, he says. Every hole is a potential bogey. Look at Oakmont: Even the par 5s are bogeys if youre not careful. So you come off every year feeling mentally whacked.
A lot of great players have never won the Open. The list includes Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros and at the very top, Sam Snead.
But at least those guys won other majors. Montgomerie, 43, is the only player to finish second five times in the majors'three in the Open'and never win. The Open close calls hurt most because its the tournament that plays to all his strengths. Despite the disappointment of having Nicklaus verbally hand him the trophy in 1992 before first Jeff Sluman then Tom Kite snatched it from him, Montgomerie was quite happy with his third-place finish in his Open debut.
I wasnt unhappy finishing third, he says. Totally the opposite. I had fallen in love with the U.S. Open. I thought it was right up my alley.
And why not? Montgomerie is straight off the tee, putts well and is remarkably consistent. Hes Hale Irwin with an accent and better eyesight; yet Irwin has won three Opens and Montgomerie is 0 for 14.
Thats because no event exposes weaknesses like the Open, and Montgomeries lack of conditioning, fragile concentration and rabbit ears factored in all his subsequent second-place finishes.
In 1994, after playing four rounds in stifling heat and tying Ernie Els and Loren Roberts, Montgomerie showed up for the playoff wearing a dark outfit. That was mistake number one, he says. I had run out of clean shirts apart from one with a black tartan pattern. I was sponsored by Pringle, and felt a duty to wear one of their shirts. How would it look if I won the title and wasnt wearing one? Of course, I should have walked into the pro shop and bought a white Oakmont shirt.
The other thing that would be different if I had my time over again was that I would be a lot slimmer. If you look at old footage, I was enormous. I just had nothing left to give come the playoff. Montgomerie shot 78 and missed sudden death by four strokes.
At the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, Montgomerie arrived as one of the favorites, having won the previous weeks European Tour event by five shots. I was feeling so good about my game that I didnt even know where the practice ground was, he says. I turned up for my first round and thought Id better ask, so I went through the motions before playing. Then I went out, missed three 4-foot putts in the first four holes, and went on to shoot 65. To this day, Phil Mickelson, my playing partner that day, calls it the best round of golf in a major he has ever seen.
Montgomerie went to bed that night convinced he would win. He still believes it would have happened but for a rain delay the following day. What happened is that everyone went to the bar, he says. When play resumed I committed the cardinal sin of reacting to a fan who shouted something on the 16th tee. Thats the biggest regret I have in golf. It was not just that I lost concentration and bogeyed the next two holes. It was an incident that cost me years of competing in the U.S. Open.
The incident made headlines in the papers, and thats when I started having problems with American crowds. It wasnt until my Ryder Cup performances in 2002 and 2004 earned me respect, and I got sympathy following my divorce around the same time, that it all changed, and I actually started enjoying playing in America again.
His positive outlook didnt result in a different outcome last year at Winged Foot. Montgomerie stood in the 18th fairway, 172 yards from the hole, facing a shot that had become known as his stock-in-trade: a mid-iron to a hole cut on the right of the green.
If I had to play that shot 100 times, 99 of them would finish 10 feet or less to the left of the flag, he says. What unnerved me was that my playing partner, Vijay Singh, had hooked his ball into a tent, and it took an age to get a ruling. This is no criticism of Vijay, because I would have done the same, but if I could just have walked up and hit my shot I would have won.
Instead, I had five minutes to kill, and thats when the doubts crept in. Was it a 6- or 7-iron? In hindsight I should have spent the time swinging a club, keeping my rhythm, and concentrated on making sure I made a full backswing. Instead, when my time came, I was tight, I didnt complete my backswing, and as soon as I hit it I knew I was in trouble.
He hit a 7-iron slightly heavy, and instead of hitting it 10 feet left of the hole, he missed the green short right, leading to a double bogey. People dont realize how easy it is to lose the U.S. Open, he says. Look at Mickelson. He was chasing a third major in a row, and one bad swing from him and that all disappeared with a double bogey at the same hole. Look at Padraig Harrington, who needed to finish with three pars to win and had three bogeys.
But you wont get any rant from me about its unfairness. It should be that difficult to win the U.S. Open. So Ill come back this year at Oakmont and have
another go. Ive even looked at the future venues and contemplated whether they suit me. Ive not given up hope of cracking the difficulties and finishing the winner.