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Good Monty, Bad Monty

September 2010

Every golfer has thought it -- You wonder sometimes why you put yourself through this -- but only one golfer ever said it in public right after blowing a major championship.

"That's me, though, isn't it?" says Colin Montgomerie, the good Colin Montgomerie. "Say it out loud, right into a microphone. I just can't help myself."

The occasion was the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, his fifth second-place finish in a major, when a 7-iron anywhere on the last green would have put everything right. He'd have finally won in the United States. A reservation in the Hall of Fame would have been confirmed. The slump-shouldered, droopy-gaited, rabbit-eared Colin Montgomerie -- the bad Colin Montgomerie -- mightn't have disappeared completely. But he would have been downsized considerably, like Jack Nicklaus in 1992.

That year's Open at Pebble Beach was Montgomerie's first, and though the Scot finished third behind Tom Kite and Jeff Sluman, for a long time Sunday he had reason to believe he'd won, because Nicklaus said so. "He welcomed me into the TV booth," Montgomerie recalls, "shook my hand off the air and said -- and I'll never forget this -- 'Congratulations on being our national champion.' It was the first time I ever saw him in person. He had the tiniest little fingers. [A six-footer, Montgomerie is fitted with the hands of an even larger man.] I'd always had this impression of a huge Golden Bear who hit the ball a mile, and here he was, this little guy, calling me the American champion. I felt like walking out and walking back in again. Kite was on the 11th hole."

Far from the American champion, Montgomerie would come to be known, at least in America, as an American bust. As a matter of fact, he won a million-dollar first prize in the U.S. once, back when that was an exceptional sum. But the tournament was a match-play event, a precursor to the Accenture, and for some reason beating Ernie Els in the semifinals and Davis Love III in the final wasn't enough.

Monty 1991-1995

Left to right: 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah, 1995 PGA at Riviera.

But this is getting ahead of Montgomerie's American story, which begins in 1983 in Roswell, N.M., home of a lot of little green people with antennae poking out of their heads, and the New Mexico Military Institute. ("Good old NMMI," as Montgomerie calls it.)

His father, James Montgomerie, had scouted the empty campus during summer break, and in the absence of drilling cadets and fulminating upperclassmen, it seemed idyllic. When James was the secretary at Royal Troon, people said Monty didn't fall very far from the sour apple tree. But James' flintiness, like his son's resemblance to Robin Williams in drag, was exaggerated. Colin never really looked that much like Mrs. Doubtfire, and his father should have been known for gentleness. A good man who buried his wife too young, James was a bear for Colin's education.

"I instantly knew NMMI wasn't for me," Montgomerie says. "I went to see the colonel or whatever it was, and said, 'Look, I've made a mistake.' He said, 'Well, you're here for the semester anyway,' and I go, 'No, not really.' So I said goodbye to my roommate, who I don't know his name and never did, and ran away, to put it bluntly."

It wasn't that Monty was homesick. He was a veteran of English boarding school. For pure terror and treachery, none of America's bugle-blowing prisons can touch English boarding school. If Gen. George Patton had gone to English boarding school instead of West Point, he'd have whimpered himself to sleep every night.

Hopping a Greyhound bus, Montgomerie rode four hours to Albuquerque, and telephoned his dad. "Right," James said, "get on the first flight to a major American city and call me back." There were four planes leaving that morning, for Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and Houston. The first went to Houston. "OK, I'm here," he told his father.

"Where are you?"

"Houston, Texas."

"Let me see what I can do."

A friend of a friend of a friend, a minister, knew the golf coach at Houston Baptist University. Like nearly every cleric in the world -- priest or Protestant -- the vicar was at least a devout if not a profane golfer. Montgomerie's résumé (the Scottish Youth Team, basically) wasn't overwhelming. "But they invited me to be a 'walk-on,' whatever that was," he says, "and if I played well enough, they'd see about a tuition scholarship the next year."

Monty had a thousand dollars to last him five months. "It seemed like all the money in the world at the time," he says, "but it wasn't." He landed a $4-an-hour job at a country club picking up range balls in one of those little caged carts, "with everyone aiming at you," he says, "and I'd do the same." Figuratively, he would spend his entire career riding back and forth in that slow, rolling shooting gallery, being bombarded from every angle.

But Houston Baptist was a stunning success. "I had a thoroughly great time," he says. "It was a fantastic way of life." From the Astrodome to the Space Center, he took in everything he could. It's possible that Montgomerie knows America and Americans better than any other golfer who ever crossed the ocean. "I even went to the Southfork Ranch up in Dallas," he says, "to say hi to J.R. Ewing." Of course, about five minutes after Montgomerie unpacked his clubs, he was the No. 1 player on the team. He had that rhythmic, metronomic swing even then. Unlike most foreign amateurs, who just pause at U.S. colleges, Monty stayed four years and was graduated (business and pre-law). He missed the cap-and-gown ceremony for a Walker Cup at Sunningdale, the right choice then and now, but feels a palpable disappointment still.

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