The devilish grin and sharp tongue remain as potent as ever. It’s everything else that’s changed for Colin Montgomerie.
The polish and precision that made the sometimes irascible Scotsman one of the best golfers in the world for the better part of two decades has evolved into something more pedestrian. The newly minted Hall of Famer hasn’t won a tournament in six years or been a factor at a major in seven.
”I’ve been playing the last decade against players I have children older than,” Montgomerie said. ”It doesn’t seem fair to me.”
No wonder he isn’t wasting any time making his Champions Tour debut.
Four days after turning 50, Montgomerie will tee off in the Senior Players Championship hoping to rejuvenate his career and grab the major title that he couldn’t quite clutch with both hands during his prime in the 1990s. One of the near misses came in the U.S. Open 19 years ago at Oakmont, a couple of par-5s across the Allegheny River from Fox Chapel Golf Club.
Montgomerie survived four sweltering days to finish in a three-way tie with Ernie Els and Loren Roberts only to falter in the ensuing 18-hole playoff. It marked the first of five runner-up finishes in majors, though Montgomerie insists on viewing Oakmont as a memory more positive than painful.
”I was glad I survived that test more than most,” he said. ”Nobody beat me over 72 holes.”
Something Montgomerie hasn’t been able to say since capturing the European Open in 2007. He spent his late 40s toiling away in the middle of the pack, at least when he was able to make it to the weekend. Montgomerie has survived the cut just twice in seven European Tour starts this season, missing by a single shot at the BMW International in Germany last weekend.
It hasn’t been all bad. Since his last victory, he’s guided Europe to glory in the 2010 Ryder Cup and expanded his golf course designing empire. He’s also been remarried and is enjoying a softening of his sometimes combustible image. The tartness that arose when provoked by an opponent or the media — or both — during Montgomerie’s peak has been replaced by a sense of decorum.
Well, more or less.
When asked about Phil Mickelson’s snake-bitten pursuit of a U.S. Open title, one that included a sixth second-place finish at Merion two weeks ago, Montgomerie just chuckles while talking about his friend.
”I think Phil should take the U.S. Open off next year,” he said. ”He’s been so unlucky, so unfortunate.”
It’s a phrase that was regularly thrown in Montgomerie’s direction during his relentless pursuit for a piece of golf history. He fell to Steve Elkington in a playoff in the 1995 PGA. He put a shot in the water on 17 of the final round of the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional to once again lose to Els. He three-putted from 30 feet on the 72nd hole of the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, opening the door for Geoff Ogilvy.
Those failures have, at times, overshadowed Montgomerie’s 31 European Tour titles and his record eight Orders of Merit.
”I had a great career, a great normal career if you like,” he said. ”But of course there’s always an omission, isn’t there, when you talk about me? There’s a lack of a major championship.”
The Champions Tour, however, offers a chance at redemption of sorts. The Senior Players is the first of three straight majors on the schedule, followed next month by the U.S. Senior Open next month and the British Senior Open. There may not be a better chance to fill in the hole in his otherwise sparkling resume.
Yet Montgomerie insists he has no ”illusions” that he’ll walk onto the first tee with Bernhard Langer and David Frost on Thursday morning and be one of the players to beat simply because of his relative youth.
”Anytime you play Bernhard Langer, it’s going to be tough,” he said.
Then again, so is Montgomerie when his game is clicking. The change of scenery — and the slightly easier setup the Champions Tour provides — have provided him with a needed confidence boost.
There used to be a time he knew he could win on any given week. Not so much anymore.
”On the European Tour, the last say five years, I have been hoping that I would do well,” Montgomerie said. ”There’s a big difference between the two.”
Even with the modest returns of the last few years, Montgomerie doesn’t need to look far for inspiration. Rocco Mediate won his first Champions Tour start at the season-opening Allianz Championships in February then backed it up with three straight Top 10s.
Montgomerie would settle for being in the mix and putting some red figures on the scoreboard. He’s managed just 10 rounds under par in his last 25 events, a stunning slide for the player who ranked in the Top 10 in stroke average with regularity during his 30s and early 40s.
His metronome-like swing can still find the fairway. If his putter cooperates on the more reasonable greens, the guys he will play alongside expect to see Montgomerie’s name somewhere on the leaderboard soon.
”I would think this would be a great start for him,” Fred Couples said. ”It’s a perfect course. He drives it like a machine, but I think anyone would tell you that he’s going to be a huge factor for this tour and he’s going to be great for this tour.”