• Alistair Tait

The U.S. Open that haunts Colin Montgomerie


Doug Sanders said he didn’t think constantly about that putt he missed to win the 1970 Open Championship at St Andrews. The flamboyant American said:

“It sometimes doesn’t cross my mind for a full five minutes.”

Wonder how often Colin Montgomerie thinks about Sunday 18 June 2006 and the final hole of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, venue for this week's U.S. Open? When his ball landed on the 72nd fairway, how many of us thought: Montgomerie is going to win the U.S. Open? He’s finally going to throw a huge gorilla off his back, one that comes with a label that reads possibly the greatest player never to win a major.

I certainly did. What happened next is almost inconceivable all these years later.

Monty didn’t hit the green from 172 yards with his 7-iron. We all remember what he said when the ball left the club.

What kind of shot is that?”

A fat one, that’s the type of shot it what was.

He didn’t get up and down from short right of the green for par to win. He didn’t even make a bogey to get into a playoff against Geoff Ogilvy. He took an almost inexplicable double bogey to finish T2 with Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk.

He lost the U.S. Open he held in the palm of his hands by one shot. As he flew back to the UK in a bit of a stupor, the same three words kept popping into his head.

“What just happened?”

What happened was that Montgomerie had made his last run at a major. It was his fifth runner-up in the tournaments that really matter, three of them in a U.S. Open. Then 42 years old, the Scot probably thought he’d get at least another chance to join the major club. He didn’t. His best finish afterwards was T42 in the 2007 PGA Championship.

The other four seconds were obviously disappointing. Ernie Els defeated him in an 18-hole playoff for the 1994 U.S. Open, then bettered him by a shot in the 1997 US Open. Montgomerie lost in a sudden death playoff to Steve Elkington in the 1995 PGA Championship after birdieing the final three holes to get into the playoff. He finished a distant five shots behind Tiger Woods in the 2005 Open Championship. The 2006 U.S. Open had his name written all over it when he stood on the 18th fairway. No wonder he said in his autobiography Winged Foot is…

“…the major near-miss which can still wake me up in the middle of the night.”

Graeme McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, made an interesting admission in Thomas Bjorn and Michael Calvin’s excellent book Mind Game: The Secrets of Golf’s Winners. As he stood on Pebble's 18th fairway waiting to play his third shot to the par-5, McDowell admitted to trying to silence the voice in his head that could have cost him his major win. He says:

“The inner voice will tell you what you’re trying to do. That’s any given shot, any given day. We’re no different from amateur golfers; we see trouble, we see badness, we can hit bad shots. Being able to acknowledge that voice, put him in the bin and replace him with good information has always been effective.
“It doesn’t always happen, of course. Sometime, when I attempt to get him to shut up or laugh at him, he gets louder. Right before you’re about to pull the club away, or in the middle of your backswing, there he comes again. Being able to fill your mind is a big thing, especially in your pre-shot routine, because this sport is very complex.”

Is that what happened to Monty?

The eight-time European Tour order of merit winner recently told PGATour.com he had too much time over his approach shot to Winged Foot’s final green, and it cost him dearly. Monty had to wait ages for playing companion Vijay Singh to get a ruling. He said:

“It was the time I had to think. That’s why I’m a quick player normally, because I’m convinced that the longer you have over a shot, the more doubt and the more negative thoughts spring up. And that’s what happened, and unfortunately I mishit it.”

What many forget about that U.S. Open – given the almost totally blinkered focus on Phil Mickelson also taking six and failing to win – is that Padraig Harrington bogeyed the final three holes to finish two shots behind Ogilvy. Three straight pars would have given him the title. Even the Irishman was surprised at Montgomerie's collapse.

“What was out of character was Monty," Harrington told PGATour.com. "Monty spent his life hitting the green with a 7-iron. I was gob-smacked. Not so much with Phil. Phil is like that. I was gob-smacked with Monty.”

Despite those three bogeys, Harrington left Winged Foot with a huge positive: he showed he could contend in a major. So it proved: a year later he won the Open Championship. Defended it in 2008 and then won the PGA Championship.

Harrington’s Scottish Ryder Cup teammate never got another chance. That’s why Winged Foot in 2006 is the U.S. Open that haunts Colin Montgomerie.

#JustSaying: “Don’t overthink it. Golf is a game of variables and we try to over-prepare, try to be ready for every circumstance. Eighty per cent of the guys playing …can win, if we take their brain out. Maybe only ten percent can win with their brain intact.” Martin Kaymer

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