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Original Issue

So Close Again

A European hasn't won the Open since 1970, but that almost changed at Winged Foot, where Colin Montgomerie, among others, made the case that it will happen--and soon

All last weekColin Montgomerie, the most English Scotsman you could ever imagine, talkedabout how relaxed he was now that he's in the early stages of middle age. Hewas a "week shy of 43" and in a good place. He has won 30 times on theEuropean tour in his career, three since turning 40. He was the soul of thevictorious European Ryder Cup team last time in Detroit and likely will beagain in Ireland in September. He's had the experience of dating ElizabethHurley and has been the beneficiary of a Golf Digest campaign labeled Be Niceto Monty. He's golfing royalty in Dubai, and the Winged Foot crowds werepractically serenading him. Montgomerie doesn't use trendy phrases like,"It's all good." He says, "It's good stuff." ¬∂ Of course, thisbeing a discussion of a real golfer's actual career, there are bound to bechinks in the armor. Entering last week's U.S. Open, Montgomerie had beenbageled in the 57 major championships in which he had played. BPNTHWAM? Noplayer had ever spent more time heading that list, not even Phil Mickelson.Monty came to Winged Foot as the best player never to have won a U.S. event ofany sort, with a PGA Tour record of 0 for 98. "Not even a Walt DisneyClassic," Johnny Miller noted drily on TV. When golf heads talked about thebest Europeans of the post-Connery-as-Bond era, there were Seve Ballesteros,Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, José María Olaàbal and Ian Woosnam onone level and Montgomerie on another. Last week, through 70 holes, that lookedas if it would change: Colin could get himself a major and a U.S. win. Then hecould take a seat at the big table, with Nick and the lads.

MOWN-tee! If itwasn't going to be Phil, the Winged Foot crowd wanted Monty. Par-par would gethim no worse than a playoff. That's what Montgomerie figured as he stood on the17th tee on Sunday. So relaxed. So, so relaxed. Two pars could change hisstanding in the game forever.

He had had hischances at other U.S. Opens. In 1992 at Pebble Beach, Montgomerie finishedearly at 288 on a day when the flagsticks were doing the wave, and JackNicklaus, working a TV booth, congratulated him on his victory. Except Tom Kitecame in a couple of hours later with a 285. In 1994 at Oakmont, with thefurnace blasting, Montgomerie sweated through five rounds and lost to ErnieEls. In 1997 at Congressional, at the height of the "Colin Montgomerie isMrs. Doubtfire" craze, he finished a shot out of first, with the trulyrelaxed Els winning again.

At Winged Foot,behind the Montgomerie--Vijay Singh two-ball and in front of it, other Europeanplayers were making a mark. When Montgomerie was a shot off the lead after tworounds, he noted that no European had won the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in1970. But he predicted that the drought was bound to end soon because Europewas producing fabulous talents. He figured that Winged Foot would be as likelya place as any for it to happen because of its extreme difficulty and exquisitefairness, making the course exotic to every player in the field and favoring nonationality. (Someday, if he wants, Montgomerie will have a brilliant career asa TV commentator, combining Miller's candor with a proper British accent and asatiric wit.) Indeed, by the end of the workweek, among the top 25 finishers,10 were from Europe.

As a Ryder Cuppreview service we offer you the names: Peter Hedblom of Sweden, a brawnyfree-swinger who made two eagles last Saturday; Olaàbal, still the best playerin the game, including Phil, from 60 yards to five feet; Miguel Angel Jimenezof Spain, the only smoker (cigars) in the Winged Foot locker room last week;David Howell, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Kenneth Ferrie and Luke Donald, allEnglishmen in their 20s, all freethinkers; Padraig Harrington of Ireland, whowill wear you out in match play with a ponderous game nearly devoid of mentalerrors; and Monty, the ancient warrior.

By and large,they're hard not to like. "I'm not a household name, but I'm learning mytrade," Ferrie, Mickelson's Sunday partner, said last week. Poulter, pinkand black from head to toe on Sunday, carried his travel bag, stuffed to thezippers, down the narrow locker room steps without assistance on Sunday night.All of them kept one eye on the soccer and an ear out for news about the illwife of Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke, a certain Ryder Cupper. There reallyis more of a sense of community among the Euro players than among theAmericans. You'll see it come September. Last week many of the European players(and caddies and writers) were staying at the Crowne Plaza in White Plains,N.Y.: perfectly serviceable, nothing fancy, soccer on the bar TV. Now it's truethat Monty wasn't there, but he was at the mall behind the hotel, checking outthe finery at Neiman Marcus. He's a little more country club than the others,but they accept that.

On Sunday on the17th tee he had one of his little meltdowns that make Monty Monty. During histakeaway a teenager in the gallery dropped to one knee, a courtesy to theothers behind him. The move caught Monty's eye--most everything does--and hestopped and started again. When he hit his shot for real, it finished in theright rough. Monty picked up his tee and flung it at the boy's chest, hittinghim. The kid loved it, and Monty made a birdie. A win-win.

In recent years,after his divorce and his growing pile of near-misses in the majors, Monty hasbecome a sort of underdog despite his lavish skill, like Greg Norman after helost to Faldo at Augusta in 1996. But shed no tears for him. Montgomerie shouldbe close to the same golfer he is now for the next five years or so. His gameis not tied to fitness or great putting. He has a long, languid swing and playsnothing but fades. He can contend again.

On 18 he drove itin the fairway, as he is apt to do. Singh was fussing around in the right roughand Montgomerie, with 172 yards to the hole, was making little swings with asix-iron. But when it was finally his turn to play, he shoved the six back inthe bag, took out a seven-iron--assuming his adrenaline would give him an extra10 yards--rushed his swing, hit the ball fat and short, pitched on andthree-putted for a 6 and 286, a shot behind the winner, Geoff Ogilvy. Montydidn't bother showing up for the USGA awards presentation, where there was asilver medal waiting for him as a runner-up with Mickelson and Jim Furyk. He'sbeen there; he's done that.

In the lockerroom--open windows and overhead fans and no air conditioning, as British asanything over there--Monty threw some clothes around and banged around a bitand was consoled by Harrington, who finished a shot behind Montgomerie. On awarm, soft New York evening, Monty slipped on a black sweater and his fancyloafers, put on a forced smile, and making no excuses for 18, said toreporters, "I look forward to coming back next year to try another U.S.Open disaster."

The move caught Monty's eye. He picked up his tee andflung it at the boy's chest, hitting him. The kid loved it, and Monty made abirdie. A WIN-WIN.


Photograph by Al Tielemans


A poor pitch led to Monty's disappointing double on the 72nd hole and his fifthrunner-up finish in a major.




Poulter, who was 12th, was one of five Englishmen who contended and could playin the Ryder Cup.