Monty—the one and only Colin Montgomerie, the Hall of Fame golfer from Scotland—is the greatest active talker in the game today. A plus-five. Possibly better than Lee Trevino in his prime. Monty is 53 and playing the Champions tour fulltime and doing some work as an analyst for Sky Sports. In that capacity, he’ll return to Augusta in April. If he ever wanted to make golf-on-TV his main gig, he would immediately become the most insightful and incisive broadcaster in the game. But in the meantime, he enjoys playing too much. He has won three senior majors, and last year he won an event called the Pacific Links Bear Mountain Championship, with a first-place prize of $375,000.
As he tours America, playing the senior tour out of his BMW 750 Li, he pontificates daily, with playing partners, with pro-am participants, with his longtime caddie, Alistair McLean, with the young woman behind the front desk at the Hampton Inn or the Ritz-Carlton or wherever he may find himself. His themes change from day to day and hour to hour. His subject one day might be what he discovered at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson. The plains of West Texas. Brexit. Anything and everything.
On Wednesday, the same day that Tiger Woods canceled his pre-tournament press conference at the Genesis Open at Riviera, Montgomerie’s subject, at least for the better part of an hour, was Tiger Woods. Twenty years ago, Monty played with Woods in the third round of the 1997 Masters. Through 36 holes Woods was leading at eight under and Montgomerie was second, three back. After Woods shot a Saturday 65 to stretch his lead to nine shots, Montgomerie, asked by a reporter if Woods could be caught, famously said, “There is no chance. We’re all human beings here. There’s no chance humanly possible.”
You don’t really interview Colin Montgomerie. You simply let him talk, which is what he does here. Ladies and gentlemen, in all his sui generis glory, here is Colin Montgomerie:
“You have players out here, everywhere in golf, they are trying. Trying this, trying that. Tiger Woods, in his heyday, was different. He knew the putt was going to go in. His caddie knew it. We knew it. Our caddies knew it. The whole crowd knew it. The belief was massive. There was never a time you thought, Oh, he’s had it here. No.
“Everyone vilified me for the comments I made that Saturday night at Augusta. What I was saying is that we’ve just seen something very special here, that Saturday 65, to establish a nine-shot lead. The press was hesitant to believe that it was over, because [Greg] Norman had lost a six-shot lead the year before. Because now here’s this young lad, without Norman’s experience, he’s nine ahead, but you can lose from there. The press is thinking, It can happen again. Norman did it, and he’s a better player than Woods. And I was saying, ‘No, you don’t understand it—this guy’s different. Not only is he not going to lose, he’s going to win by more than nine.’ And he won by 12.
“It was something I had not witnessed. It was something nobody had witnessed. Golfers usually back into their first major. They don’t win by 12, in their first major as a pro. After shooting 40 on the front nine on the first day! I was trying to be as honest as I could with the press. I was saying that we are seeing something very special. And over the next 15 years that was proven to be correct. The talent, the focus, the vision.
“His caddie, Mike Cowan, was in amazement too. I said to Fluff on Saturday, `This is something else, isn’t it?’ And he agreed. That was on the front nine. On Saturday on the front nine I knew he was going to win.
“The length was only part of it. Tiger hit a driver and a 9-iron over the green on No. 2. I was short with a driver and a 4-wood.
“The pin was in the back left. Par-5. You go big on the 2nd, you have nothing. He had nothing. I said to Alistair, `He’s had it here, Al, hasn’t he?’ Because you can make 6 from back there in a hurry. The chip shot he played there! It was sublime. The press was focused on his length. I was focused on how he scored, how he got around the golf course, how he played chess around the golf course. How he got around it was different from how anybody else did. I had never imagined a second-shot 9-iron into the 2nd green. I was trying to leave myself an uphill chip shot for my third. Not flying a 9-iron to the flag!
“So I was trying to be honest with the press on that Saturday night. And they didn’t really quite take me up on it. But if I said to those reporters today, `Do you believe me now?’ They would all say, `You were right.’
“I do hope Tiger can come back. Everybody benefited from his run. I saw it in my life. How the game went from Palmer to Nicklaus to Trevino. Then Seve and Norman. But then it was taken to a whole different level by Tiger. And the marketing of the game has been hurt by Tiger being sidelined. Yes, we have a good set right now. Don’t get me wrong. The Jason Days, the Jordan Spieths, the Rory McIlroys, the Justin Roses, the Henrik Stensons, the Rickie Fowlers. They are good at what they do. But Tiger? Different, different. People talk about being A-list, about moving the needle. Well, he moved the needle. It would be good if Tiger could come back and contend. Just contend. Never mind win. Just to contend would be great.
“The economy was staring to hurt just at the time Tiger was losing his dominance, in 2008, ‘09, ‘10. The economy was slackening off and Tiger was slackening off and golf went through a bit of an odd time. It’s pulled out of that, but it needs that to continue.
“Before Tiger, I never thought about golf and injuries. I didn’t think about Arnold Palmer ever having an injury. I’ve never missed a round of golf for injury in my life. Everybody said it couldn’t last, the way Tiger went at it. The way he went into the rough and recoiled after the shot. If you spoke to any orthopedic doctor, they would tell you, `This is madness, what he is doing here. Madness! This can’t continue.’ And it didn’t. He broke down. He was an absolute stallion, on the edge. You see some football players in our game who pull up with a hamstring injury because they are right on the edge of fitness. With Tiger, the fitness thing got to a level where it was a wee bit too much.
“It hurt him, and it’s hurt a number of people. McIlroy is out for two months. Jason Day has had injuries. A good friend of mine on the European tour, David Howell, picked up Vijay Singh’s weighted club on the range and six months later he played golf again. He broke a rib or some such thing.
“All sports—save darts and maybe snooker—have a foundation, and it is the legs. The thought is, Let’s get our legs as strong as they can possibly be. You can’t get your legs strong enough. To me, we leave the upper body alone. A golfer has to turn his upper body. You have to be supple. You have to have feel in the upper body.
“Tiger became the best athlete in the world as a golfer. That had never been done. That sounds great. You certainly can’t knock his 14 majors. But as a sustainable entity, as a lasting entity, everybody said it was going to go, and it did.
“At that ’97 Masters, he was 6-1, maybe 170. Perfect. With that flexibility? That ability to turn? Thank you very much! What was wrong with that? He won the Masters by 12!
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Butch Harmon over the years. We do Sky Sports together at the majors. And I’ll say, `That’s the best I ever saw, Tiger in 2000, 2001, when he won his four majors in a row. And Butch says, `He tried to change things to get better.’ But he was at the top of the tree! Yes, you feel like you have to get better to stay there. But you have to be careful how you do it. It’s easy to be critical, but what he had was so fantastic. Look at the swing he had at the L.A. Open when he was 16 years old [in 1992]! Fantastic! But he was trying to stay ahead of the game in every way. He felt fitness was the key to this game. And people copied. Nick Faldo copied. Faldo got big through the chest. Suddenly, he couldn’t turn. No speed. The guy I think, in a God-given way, fell out of the cradle ready for golf was Dustin Johnson. His arms are three inches longer than they should be, which is great. But he’s so flexible. Flexibility is our key. Lack of flexibility is what stops you from playing. It stopped Faldo. It stopped Seve. It stopped Norman.
“What might Woods have done had the game never moved off the balata ball and the wooden wood? Many golf fans would say he would have won less. I believe he would have won far more. He has the 14 majors. Without the equipment changes, I believe he’d have well into his 20s now. Because now everybody has clubs where they can do what he could do.
“Two others lost out hugely to technology. Greg Norman was one. He was the best driver of the ball with the wooden club ever. He lost out when drivers went to metal and suddenly we could do what he did. He lost his asset. And the other was Seve. When Ping developed its L-wedge, with box grooves, we could suddenly do what Seve could do with a 52° club. He lost his asset too. Tiger had all that, in spades. And then we were given equipment that allowed us to do what he could do.
“I never won a major. Tiger won 14. But would I trade my career for Tiger’s? No. I started out this game a pretty good golfer and finished in the Hall of Fame. I feel I have overachieved. So how could I say I wish it were better? People will say, `Well, he didn’t win a major.’ And, yes, I would have liked to shut them up by winning one. But that’s my only regret, really. Great that I have won senior majors, which has quieted the odd person.
“I’ve made mistakes. We all make mistakes. But I’ve had a long career. I don’t think Tiger will be out here at 53. He might say, `I don’t need the money.’ But it’s not just money. It’s self-esteem. Self-esteem is huge in life. You walk a wee bit taller, having done something well. I like this life. I like meeting new people. I like the travel. I love the life. Whether it’s for everybody, I can’t say.
“If Tiger loved the life, I can’t say. For Tiger, I think there was a certain record in the back of his mind: 18, 18, 18. Or 19. Got to get to 19 majors. Whether he enjoyed the tour life, I don’t know. But that number was there—19. To be seen as the best ever. And really, he’s well beyond 19. There are the 14 majors, plus the 15 World Golf Championship events. In those, he’s beating 60 of the best players in the world! So to me, his number is 29. And then compare his 79 Tour wins to Sam Snead’s 82. Number 100 in Sam Snead’s day was a club pro who could beat Snead for a day, but never over four days. Today, No. 100 can win any week.
“Nineteen has been such a focus for him. If Tiger had his children with him fulltime, a wife, a settled home, he could have gotten to 18, to 19. I know from my own life how hard it is to play golf when your life at home is not settled. After that Thanksgiving night changed everything, he no longer had a private life. A private life by the term itself is a private life. You have a public life and a private life. And when the private life becomes public, it’s dangerous. It hurt. It hurt him. It hurt the game of golf.
“I know how difficult it is, when you’re not living with your children. I speak for myself, and I’m sure I speak for others. It’s hard to come out here and focus. Every par becomes a bogey. Every bogey becomes a double. You just about manage to get from a green to the next tee if you make a birdie. You make a bogey, and it all floods back. And you’re not focused on what you’re doing. You’re not focused at all. I feel for him that way. I do. I feel for any man in that situation. Whether it’s self-inflicted or not.
“I’m sure Tiger wants to be a committed father. His father was a committed father. And when you’re not under the same roof as your children, it’s damn near impossible. You make the most of it, but it’s not easy. I remember at the back of 18 green on Saturday at the ’97 Masters, Earl and Tiger. Tiger had just shot 65 by hitting a sand wedge into 18. There was a definite feeling of, We can do this.
“With my father, it was different. My father wasn’t as involved in my golf. Earl was about the focus golf took, the focus on winning, on getting to 19. My father was happy if I just made the cut. He still is! He’d say, `Oh, well done. You’ve beaten a lot of your peers.’ But when you win, you’re 10 feet tall. Your self-esteem is through the roof. That’s how it was for Woods after he won that Masters by 12. Being given an opportunity is one thing. But taking it is another. And he took the opportunity with two hands and he ran with it. Ran with it! Ran with it for 15 years.
“Now, Tiger’s sneezes, we all catch a cold. Every shot he hits is analyzed and over analyzed. And it must be difficult for him, because he knows that in his prime, he could beat these guys with one arm. To miss a cut by four or five shots must be painful for him.
“Going into the third round of the Open, at St. Andrews in 2005, I was paired with Tiger. The press said, `You’ve got a difficult pairing, you’re going out with Tiger.’ And I said, `Yeah, I’m not going to beat him driving the ball. He’s a better driver than I am. I can’t beat him with my iron play. I can’t chip and putt as well as he can.’ `Then what chance have you got?’ ‘The only chance I’ve got is that I can score lower.’ And I did. I shot 70, and he shot 71. And I did it playing my game. But he won that Open. Won it by four.
“The only win possibly greater than his ‘97 Masters was the U.S. Open in 2000 [at Pebble Beach], when he won by 15. But I put ’97 ahead of it. At age 21, by 12, in his first major as a pro, at Augusta? The world was like, What just happened here?”