x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Door that remained unanswered

Great players are known for great wins. Colin Montgomerie, a great player, will be known for how, and when, he lost.

So many what-if nightmares lurk in the hems and contours of golf's grippingly lurid history that one or two crucial ones can go forgotten for years before unearthing.

So when the clock came round this week to another US Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, the mind came round to the long-buried memory of one warm Sunday in June 1997, one hot chase and one tell-tale heap of anguish.

Stashed just behind Tiger Woods's inconceivable 12-shot win at age 21 in the 1997 Masters, that US Open at Congressional became the first major to sail the deluge of All Tiger, All The Time. Droves of reporters and camera folk bird-dogged Woods. Fans chafed and said such throngs would ruin him, a forecast that proved almost peerlessly wrong.

As Congressional took Woods's penchant for daring, turned that trait over its knee and punished it right out of contention. He would finish tied for 19th, and the event wound up serving as a hilt in the arc of another curious career, that of a Scotsman so excellent at golf while so unable to conceal its torture.

As a cog in the storyline of a virtuoso who banged repeatedly on the major-title door only to find it brutally unanswered, the 1997 US Open at Congressional churned out some quotations that, at age 14, seem downright haunting, not even including the one in which Colin Montgomerie, at age almost-34, admirably said, "I cried after the round, sure. I think it's just the emotion of the whole thing and having come so close a few times now, you know, you do get quite emotional about the thing.

"And I'm only human in saying that."

By the morning of that Sunday, June 15, as the players completed a third round that a storm had shooed from Saturday, a man who would win the European Tour Order of Merit a stunning eight times had become a man who could win the US Open anytime. American connoisseurs knew him as a gifted threat. American creeps knew him as someone to taunt.

Famously, he had finished early on the menacing Sunday at the 1992 US Open at Pebble Beach, and finished with such aplomb at level par that in the broadcast booth Jack Nicklaus congratulated him on his first major title, figuring nobody could undercut Montgomerie in those conditions as Tom Kite somehow did.

Come 1994 in the spiteful furnace of Pennsylvania, Montgomerie had looked so blanched in the heat that you could fret for his health even as he aimed for his title, reaching a three-man Monday play-off with Ernie Els and Loren Roberts before fading with a 78.

As a bonus in his what-if collection, he also had ridden three closing, zinging birdies into a play-off at the 1995 PGA Championship in Los Angeles only to have Steve Elkington, the Aussie allergic to grass, birdie the first sudden-death playoff hole so that Montgomerie could say, "He won the tournament. I did not lose the tournament."

On the lid-lifting Thursday at Congressional in 1997, Montgomerie had played golf about as well as anyone ever did, shooting a glistening 65 even while - foreshadowing, here - bogeying the monstrous par-4 No 17. He had come into the tent and called the US Open "my favourite event", extolling its demands for precision and noting that he "hit the ball certainly better today through the green, ball-striking wise, than I ever have".

From there, he shot a hurtful 76 on Friday, bogeying No 17, but a helpful 67 in the two-day third round, bogeying No 17 but alighting three shots behind leader Tom Lehman and one behind both Els and Jeff Maggert. By Sunday afternoon, around the turn they came, four separate from the pack, possibilities flaring with the 1994 champion Els, the top American concern Lehman, in his third straight turn as third-round US Open leader, the fellow American Maggert, and the hard-knocking Montgomerie, with his world ranking of No 3 behind Woods and Greg Norman.

At certain stages their scores would calibrate into one big, nerve-clattering draw. Els said it must have made great television. Montgomerie said it must have made great television "if you weren't involved in it ... The trouble was, I was involved in it."

Finally the playing tandem of Els and Montgomerie reached that No 17 again - Els: "I don't think you'll find a harder par-4 in the world" - with both at 4-under par when came Five Lousy Minutes.

Maggert and Lehman had slid to leave Els and Montgomerie at the fore. Lehman's hope would extinguish altogether when he would find water on No 17 to dredge his quote, "I was just feeling an incredible amount of pain," meaning the emotional kind. Montgomerie drove 10 yards ahead of Els, so Els approached first, a coolest-cool 5-iron 212 yards to 15 feet. Montgomerie followed and, fearful of the water on the left of the green, came out of his swing, aimed right and went right in green-side rough.

Els putted to two feet. Montgomerie fashioned a daydream of a flop with a sand wedge to maybe six feet. Then, the five minutes, five minutes that perhaps unveiled golfers' innards to show tranquility (Els) and turbulence (Montgomerie).

With holes 17 and 18 widely deemed too close together - indeed, this week that No 17 is No 18 - commotion reigned as crowds shifted. Montgomerie waited. He checked with Els and the caddies and waited. And he waited. And he waited, flustered.

"Yes, in glorious hindsight," he said, "if we all had hindsight, we'd be better people for it. But, at the end of the day, I felt I had to wait to hit the putt. I didn't want to rush the most important putt I've ever hit."

Said his friend, Els: "You know, I'm sure the crowd was bothering him, but I felt that we could have played the hole without waiting so long. And, it got to me a little bit. It almost got to me there ... They must be, what, 15-, 20-thousand people sitting there, and you're not going to get 20-thousand people quiet when a couple of international boys are leading the US Open ... So, I don't know, he probably just wanted to feel comfortable over the putt."Montgomerie's six-footer "was breaking into the hole and it decided to go the other way at the end", as he put it.

Els briefly thought it good. But as if howling at Montgomerie with a fourth bogey on No 17, that ball blithely and devilishly hugged the hole's outside edge, renewing golf's meanness in its narrow passageways that harden into impenetrable legacies.

"I just lost the tournament, unfortunately, on 17 there," he would say.

When they counted it up, Els parred the last four holes to win by one over Montgomerie, who said, "I'm not here to finish second; I've done that before," and by two over Lehman, whose possession of the British Open's Claret Jug from 1996 did not seem to salve his anguish, and by five over Maggert. The 1997 majors played out from there with Justin Leonard winning the British Open at Montgomerie's beloved Troon and Davis Love taking the PGA Championship at Winged Foot in New York.

Come 1999, Woods started barrelling over everything, and 14 years on from a warm Father's Day in southern Maryland, where stands everybody? Els added a third major title at the 2002 British Open at Muirfield and arrived at Congressional considered a prospective winner at 41. Lehman kept that one British Open title. And Montgomerie, adding the haunt of his botch from the No 18 fairway at the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot, has never won a major.

For a player of his calibre who finished top-10 in 10 majors, including five US Opens, and top-five in six including four US Opens, golf history would seem to have committed some sort of typographical error.

While Montgomerie's inner turbulence might have proved pivotal in the five minutes, lesser players have won majors of less-exacting demand. Montgomerie, almost 48, works Congressional this week as a television commentator, having failed to qualify at Walton Heath.

And the unearthed 1997 US Open at Congressional retains a buffet line of utterances that seem aching by now.

You might choose Els saying, "Obviously I've got a feeling for Colin. We've had a lot of close matches, you know. ... I guess this was my turn. I don't know when Colin is going to get his turn. I do feel for him. Believe me. I think he's a great player. We are pretty good friends, I would say. He's a great competitor. He must be in the top two in the world right now ... And I know he's going to win. He just needs to stick to it."

Or you might opt for Lehman with, "Well, it's a tough situation because, I mean, yes, I have won a major. But, I also feel like I've let a couple get away, and the more often you let them get away, I mean, you have only so many chances. I've only won one. He hasn't won any. I think, yes, we should have won more, but that's part of what really hurts, knowing that I'm still lacking something ...

"And Monty, maybe, is feeling the same thing."

Or you might go with Montgomerie saying, "It's getting me down now, this major business."

Or for ultimate ache, you might choose his quotation that followed: "But if I knock on the door enough, as I seem to be doing, especially in this tournament, the door will open one day and I just have to be patient."aa

Yeah, maybe that one.