Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Colin Montgomerie has earned shot at Ryder Cup glory

However we reflect on Colin Montgomerie's capacity to make life seem like a whole series of china shops, it is surely hard not to acknowledge that he has made a pretty good, if not flawless, job of tackling the psychological minefield known as the Ryder Cup captaincy.

It also seems fair to believe that only an extremely mean spirit does not hope, maybe even ache, that come Sunday night he will be able to claim for himself a great and unblemished monument, something that one day he can point to and say, "Well, you see, there were a few days when I did get everything right".

Days when he didn't go out and search for demons of his own creation; when he didn't unload a vast mother-lode of angst on the nearest available victim and, finally, didn't suggest that as far as he was concerned the great Walter Hagen might have been speaking another language when he stressed how important it was for every professional golfer to occasionally stop and smell the flowers and count up all his good fortune.

Too often, of course, Monty has given the impression that golf is not a moveable feast but a travelling horror show. One doesn't mean to be impertinent because there is so much that cannot be taken away from this turbulent, error-prone man. Eight orders of European merit speak eloquently enough of a major talent and if his private life has been difficult, and recently come under some persistently prurient attention, this hardly makes him unique, or perhaps even particularly exceptional among travellers along the fast highway of professional sport.

Certainly his failure to win the major tournament for which his ability always made him look so well equipped was pitched on an epic scale with his ultimate disappointment, a double-bogey collapse when the US Open and a glorious redemption at the age of 43 was within touching distance at Winged Foot four years ago. It would be maudlin to extend this recall of the times Montgomerie has been betrayed by the unsteadiness of his temperament, even sadistic to chart the fine line between ultimate success and soul-grinding disappointment.

Yet if Montgomerie does emerge triumphant and unscathed from Celtic Manor at the weekend it will keep intact at least one marvellous consistency in a career which, but for the winning rhythm in Europe, has so often lacked this vital quality.

It will enable him to say that in at least one corner of golf he surpassed the greatest of British golfers, Sir Nick Faldo.

While it is true Faldo remains Europe's top scorer with 25 points, against Monty's 23 , his captaincy of the European team in Louisville two years ago was not so much a validation of a great contribution to the game but an embarrassing betrayal. So far, at least, Montgomery has only confirmed the depth of his feeling, and the extent of his contribution, to the competitive creation of the St Albans corn merchant Sam Ryder.

Some have already argued with this. They say he got it wrong when he rejected Paul Casey and Justin Rose, while plucking from the depths of lost form his friend Padraig Harrington. They challenge his decision to give his team long notice of their opening assignments, a criticism which England's football coach Fabio Capello would no doubt find amusing in view of the fierce reaction to his World Cup policy of keeping his players sweating to within an hour of kick- off.

When Montgomerie declared this week that he rated the threat of the likes of Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker higher than the one presented by Tiger Woods, some were taken back, abruptly, to the last time he put the world's No 1 on his keenest mettle.

That was in 1997 at the US Masters, which the 21-year-old Woods won by a game-changing margin after being advised by Montgomerie that he had some hard lessons to learn among the 'big boys'. When Woods was later asked if it gave him special satisfaction that he outplayed Monty so profoundly when they were drawn in the third round, the neophyte genius lingered over the question for a little while before declaring, with what seemed like the cruelest joy, "Big time". Montgomerie must pray that such a crushing denouement is avoided in the wake of the 38th Ryder Cup.

He must hope that he carries away from South Wales the same sense of achievement that came in Oakland Hills Country Club, Michigan, six years ago, because we can trawl through every day of his golfing life and fail to find anything more whole, more definitive, than the diamond-hard satisfaction that accompanied his winning putt.

With Harrington, Monty was Bernhard Langer's choice to open the European challenge, a job the German's counter-part Hal Sutton had handed to America's big guns Woods and Phil Mickelson. Sutton was wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat when he announced that he was applying maximum firepower to the European hopes. Soon enough Montgomerie and Harrington made Sutton feel less like John Wayne than someone with an arrow in his chest shouting, "Injuns".

Monty, unquestionably, was the top Injun in Oakland Hills and it had to be the most delicious gratification for the man who had been so crudely abused in Brookline Country Club five years earlier and yet still managed to beat the late Payne Stewart on the last hole.

For some, Faldo's bout of gracelessness at Valhalla two years ago had at its centre his refusal to consider Montgomerie for a wild-card chance of winning another set of Ryder Cup battle ribbons.

This is because whatever the swing of his mood, or his form, one certainty has always attached itself to Colin Montgomerie. It is that the Ryder Cup, at least until now, has always been guaranteed to bring out the best of him. One day he may reflect that not too many golfers could wish for a superior epitaph.

Belfast Telegraph


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