ABU DHABI — He’s a Category 5 player this week. Which is not all bad. In DP World Tour language that means Colin Montgomerie is a “tour legend.” Fair enough, of course. Quite apart from his Ryder Cup heroics in eight appearances against the Americans—he was unbeaten in singles—the now 58-year-old Scot can point to eight Race to Dubai victories on his home circuit between 1993 and 2005.
But that was then. The unpalatable truth is that Monty is unlikely to add to his 31 European Tour wins (the most of any British player) during a three-week run amongst the game’s younger element. The evidence was all too obvious during the nine holes he played at the Yas Links alongside compatriot Connor Syme and Australian Maverick Antcliff. Into the wind on the 11th, Monty failed to reach the distant fairway. And one hole later, he made the short grass by no more than a yard. While there are those who argue that distance is not a problem in professional golf, this week it certainly is for Monty.
“I should be past being surprised by how far these young players hit the ball,” he said with a smile. “But I find it difficult when I’m playing alongside them. I still raise an eyebrow when someone hits a 4-iron from, say, 277-yards out. When I was commentating on television about six or seven years ago, I struggled to tell the viewers what clubs the players were hitting. When I thought it was a 7-iron, it was often enough a 9-iron. I was nearly always two clubs out.
“And it has gotten worse since then,” he continued. “Not worse. Although that’s me saying that it has. Now they’re hitting wedges. I see them all on the range. There’s 131 of them this week—because I’m 132nd—and they all seem to play the same game and in the same way. There is a one-dimensional quality to it that was never the case back in my day. I know I sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but golf never used to be one-dimensional. It’s not the same now. It’s all about brute force.”
Indeed, like so many of his generation, Monty bemoans the relative lack of nuance and subtlety present in modern-day tour golf. He yearns to see players “holding up” mid-irons against left-to-right breezes, displaying the artistry that has been lost amidst so much science.
“I don’t think ‘peak Monty’ would do as well on this tour as he did when he played here full-time,” he said. “I would have to find a way to add more distance, just to compete. Nick Faldo would be the same. And so would Luke Donald, even more so. Luke holed everything for 18 months and got to World No. 1, which is hugely commendable. But how he did it was never going to be a sustainable formula. Not now anyway. Luke couldn’t survive now. And neither would I. I’d have to adapt. I’d have to become one of those guys on the range hitting the ball the same way as everyone else.”
Still, as ever there was more energizing Monty’s always active mind than the eternal problems he is going to face in this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Before looking forward, he took a few minutes to glance back in time. Famously never a member of the PGA Tour during his prime years—he joined for the first time when he turned 50—he has mixed feelings about the fact that he never did win an event on the world’s biggest circuit. Nor, of course, did he win a major title, despite coming close on numerous occasions.
“There is irony in the fact that I’m playing full-time in the States now,” he said. “I do have some regret about not doing that when I was in my prime. I could have done it in an effort to win majors. If that had been my ultimate goal, then yes, I do regret not going. But if my goal was to be a better golfer, to compete and to win, then no, I don’t have any regrets. Because I was doing those things in Europe.
“I would love to have reached No. 1in the world,” he continues. “There is something about being able to say you are the best. Luke Donald and Lee Westwood can say they are ‘former No. 1s.’ You can’t beat that. I came close at Congressional in 1997, when I was second to Ernie Else in the U.S. Open. Had I won there, I would have been No. 1. I played great that week, tee-to-green. But Friday afternoon [and a second round 76] cost me.”
There is some consolation in the fact that Monty won three senior majors after making the switch to the PGA Tour Champions. But even there he admits that his “window of opportunity” is closing as he nears the age of 60.
“I won my majors when I was 51 and 52, which is what most people do,” he says. “[Bernhard] Langer is the exception, as was Hale Irwin. Although Irwin didn’t have the same level of competition when he was out there. No one improves after they are 60. I still enjoy the competition though. More than the game itself. I love to be competitive. And I can still win. Oh yes. I’m not yet thinking I can’t do that. I’ve always said I’ll stop when tenth is the best I can do. That’s not me. But I’m not there yet. Right now, I’m still better than that.”
Colin Montgomerie, seen here getting the Vardon Trophy after winning his eighth Order of Merit title in 2005, is frustrated the year-long honor isn't quite what it used to be.
For all that, the thrill of battle continues to tickle his taste buds, there has been more than golf to life on the Champions Tour. Famously reluctant to set foot on airplanes, Monty is “on holiday Monday and Tuesday” as he drives between events almost every week. This has given him the opportunity to take in many of America’s most famous—and not so famous—tourist haunts.
“I enjoy the freedom of driving,” he says. “It’s my time. I love to stop and explore. I’ve been to some interesting places. I’ve seen the re-enactment of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. I enjoyed that. They do it twice a day at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. I’ve seen the Hoover Dam. I love the Napa Valley and the wine-tasting there. I’ve been to Graceland. And I’ve been on the tour at Southfork, home of the Ewing family in ‘Dallas.’ I’ve seen Miss Ellie’s garden and the swimming pool. All of it. I’ve also been to the NASA base in Galveston. I’ve been to Cape Canaveral.
“I love New York and Washington, DC,” he adds. “And Philadelphia. I did the ‘Rocky’ run up the steps there. Stopped halfway of course. And I’ve been to the White House and stood in the Oval Office. But I love the unexpected stuff. In Birmingham, Ala., there is a park where there is a quarter-size Statue of Liberty. It was another gift from the French.”
Inevitably, however, the Monty mind returns to his first loves—the tour formerly known as European and the Ryder Cup matches. While he approves of the now DP World Tour forging stronger links with the PGA Tour in the face of perceived threats from Saudi-based interests, the lack of enthusiasm amongst the leading players for the Race to Dubai he won eight times is clearly painful.
“No one pays any attention to the Order of Merit [old habits and names die hard] until the last couple of weeks,” he says. “Collin Morikawa is a lovely fella and a fantastic player, Billy Horschel, too. But having them at one and two on the list last year just didn’t sit well with me. I’m sure they would agree that it wasn’t quite right. They hardly played in any ‘pure’ European Tour events. Look at Morikawa—he was back in the pack in Dubai last year and he was almost last of those who made the cut at the Scottish Open. Yet he won the Order of Merit. There’s something not quite right about that.
“I also mourn the demise in stature of so many European events,” he continues. “When I won the Scandinavian Masters in 1991, Seve was second, Woosie was third and Faldo was fourth. They turned up for nothing and played. That doesn’t happen anymore, which is a pity. All the national Opens don’t get the fields they deserve. So the end result is that the Race to Dubai doesn’t resonate like it used to.”
As Europe's Ryder Cup captain in 2010, Montgomerie proudly led his charges to victory at Celtic Manor.
The Ryder Cup does though. A winning captain at Celtic Manor in 2010, Monty is rightly proud of a European record that, until last year’s pummeling at Whistling Straits, saw the Old World beat the New in nine of 12 contests. That is an extraordinary feat for perennial underdogs. But it is also one that may never happen again. Like many, Monty fears the worst over not only the next match in Italy, but the ability of the Europeans to win again anytime soon.
“We haven’t lost at home since 1993,” he says. “That’s 30 years by the time the next one comes around. But 2023 is going to be difficult. Although I think and hope we will do better than last time. We were blown off the course at Whistling Straits. The gap was so wide not because the Americans were that great though. It was more that our team wasn’t so good. To put it simply, they played closer to their potential than we did. Much closer.
“But look at the World Ranking,” he continues. “If everyone plays to their potential, the likelihood is that we are going to lose. Ten of their 2021 team will play again next time. And they will want to win away from home. Because they haven’t done it for so long. And I must admit I look at what might happen at Bethpage in 2025 and shake my head. We might as well not turn up for that one. I wouldn’t want to be a rookie on that European team. For the first time in a long time, I think we could be headed for three losses in a row.”
Coincidentally, that is likely to be Monty’s fate over the next three weeks. By a distance, you might even say.