It was not quite like the 1990s when sub-70 scores in major championships were routine more than exceptional. But for a 51-year old Colin Montgomerie shooting 69 in the opening round of the 115th US Open was clearly something to be proud of.
Four birdies outdoing his three dropped shots, the 2014 US Senior Open champion – a victory that carried with it an exemption from qualifying this week – was beaming as only he can in the wake of a fine performance.
“It does feel great,” said the Scot. “In practice I was shooting more like 80. But this morning the course was softer. The greens were pretty receptive early on and allowed scoring. It’s just the overall length [7,497 yards] I have an issue with, especially off the tee. This is not a normal links course where you can run the ball into the greens. You have to carry the ball on to the surfaces and often that is right on my limit. So 69 was super. To break 70 was more than I was expecting.”
Which is not to say everything will continue on so smooth a path, especially on putting surfaces the eight-time European No1 did not hesitate to criticise, even in the wake of such a good round.
“I didn’t putt very well,” he said. “But the green surfaces are very poor, some poorer than others. But no one is going to putt consistently well on these greens. My course management was the best aspect of my play. I plotted my way round and hit the ball into the right positions. Which is what you have to do.”
Indeed, as far as controlling the distance of his approach shots was concerned this was the Monty of old. Perhaps only the immortal Ben Hogan has ever struck more iron-shots pin-high than the Scot.
“I can still hit to a distance,” acknowledged Montgomerie. “And that is hugely important this week. Where you land the ball is vital. You have to carry humps or not carry humps and, if you get it wrong, you can be 50 yards away by the time the ball stops. The turf here is very hard too, so judging the distances is more difficult. It is more challenging to get the right club, then commit to that shot. If you don’t do that, you can forget it.”
Still, for all his pleasure at breaking par on a backbreaking course, Montgomerie hesitated to make any claims that might be termed outrageous. Asked if he could win this championship – in which he has four times finished in the top three – he was quick to point out the problems ahead.
“Can I win?” he asked rhetorically. “Have stranger things happened? Not often. But what Tom Watson did at Turnberry aged 59 has given everybody over 50 hope. If the ball runs my way and I hole a lot of putts over the next three days, you never know. More realistically, I could get into contention.”
That would be a fitting climax to Montgomerie’s long and tempestuous relationship with America’s national championship. Six-times a runner-up and never a winner, Phil Mickelson represents the all-time nadir when it comes to US Open frustration. But Montgomerie is not far behind. On four occasions the former European Ryder Cup captain has been within touching distance of victory; four times circumstances have contrived to prevent him claiming the major title that is the gaping hole in an otherwise comprehensive résumé.
All of which is bad enough. But there is more. In 1998 the then five-time European No1 was booed at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. Four years later at Bethpage Black on Long Island, the American magazine Golf Digest distributed thousands of “Be Nice to Monty” badges in an attempt to avert a repeat of the by then routine heckling.
“You hear it, of course you do,” said Montgomerie of his targeting. “And it doesn’t help. America loves winners so I took it as a bit of a backhanded compliment. They don’t bother with you if you aren’t any good or a bit of threat.”
To apply such a label to an over-weight man in his 50s – he was briefly in hospital last week after complaining of chest pains – may be a little ambitious these days. Despite the belated success that has seen him win three senior “majors” in the past two years, playing against younger and fitter individuals over four days on a hilly course ill-suited to his age and physique offers a vastly more arduous challenge.
“Over the last 35 years I’ve had a lot of four-foot putts,” he said with a smile. “Eventually that tells on you. But the hospital was very good. I’m the same [health-wise] as I was 12 years ago apparently, so I can get round here all right.”
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