The relationship has been stormier than a squall off the Scottish coast, but let it be known: Monty loves America, and America loves Monty. Colin Montgomerie, 51, drives from tournament to tournament, amiably chatting with U.S. fans as he motors his way through the heartland. There’s nothing he won’t sign, no selfie he won’t pose for. This new buoyancy in his bearing doubtless relates to Champions Tour success that has softened a heart hardened by five runner-up finishes in majors. In 2014, in the space of seven weeks, the Hall of Fame inductee and Champions Tour rookie won two major titles — the Senior PGA Championship and the Senior U.S. Open. Monty has much to look forward to this year. As reigning Senior Open champ, he has qualified for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, which would be his first U.S. Open since 2009. Happy and humble, the 31-time European Tour winner welcomed Golf Magazine into his Scotland estate near Gleneagles to share what winning (and losing) majors feels like, how nine holes at Turnberry changed his life, and why he’s finally connecting with U.S. fans.
When you look back at 2014 — specifically, your wins at the Senior PGA Championship and the U.S. Senior Open — what memory means the most to you?
The way I played in my first major win, in the Senior PGA, I felt like I was back in the ′90s, when I was on top of my game. I’m not hitting the ball as far. But my accuracy off the tee, my iron shots into the green and my putting was as good last year as it was back then. It made me feel good, really good. To score 65 on the last day, leading by one, and to beat a strong field — Tom Watson was second and Bernhard Langer third — was a delight, a real thrill.
Those two wins occurred within a two-month window. When it rains it pours, right?
To win two in a row, well, I feel like I waited 25 years for a bus to show up, and suddenly two turn up at once [laughs]. I won the Senior Open in a playoff, and that was good for me, because my career playoff record is terrible — it’s 1-9, I think — so to get that one was good. On the last few holes, I felt like I was in a true major championship. That’s the feeling I wanted to find again out on the Champions Tour, that pressure and excitement, that sense of, “Okay, this is something big.”
Did you feel like a weight was lifted, to finally win a major?
Definitely, definitely. Oh, by a mile, it was something I needed to do. And to win in the States was the thing — to win a 72-hole stroke-play event in America. I hadn’t won a 72-hole stroke-play event in America. It didn’t matter which event it was, I wanted that monkey off my back.
How much did finally winning a major — even if it was on the senior circuit — mean?
A lot. A hell of a lot. I was very aware of the fact that I was competing on the Champions Tour under the banner of “Hall of Fame member.” And I didn’t like it. I wanted to be exempt for reasons other than, “He’s only here because he’s in the Hall of Fame.” So it was most important for me to win, yeah. I was really, really so glad to earn my way onto that tour, as opposed to being given it through an honorary position.
Why didn’t you play more in America at your peak?
In the ′90s, there was a big change in my life — three children were born, in ′93, ′96 and ′98. And that was during my time as the No. 1 player in Europe. So I had three children at home in England, and I was comfortable in Europe, I was making money in Europe, the family was happy in Europe, so I stayed.
Looking back, would you have played more in the U.S.?
If I was single, or not having children at that time, I might have gone to America and given it more of a go, given myself more opportunities to win a major. I went over for the Players Championship and three majors, but I never gave myself the best opportunity because I was landing on Tuesday, flying back on Monday. I was playing in Europe the week before. I don’t regret anything, and who knows if I would have done any better. But I would have liked to have given myself a better opportunity.
You went to college in the States, at Houston Baptist University. Did you like America as a young man?
Ah, I loved it. I absolutely loved Houston. And I was there for four years. I came back home in the summer, and came back home at Christmas for a couple weeks. But I couldn’t wait to get back [to school]. I really enjoyed the lifestyle: the weather, of course, the ease of everything in America. The college system is brilliant, the competition is good. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Did your college experience prepare you well for life as a professional?
College was the reason. The only reason I am here now is because of America, because of the American college system. I learned how to win in America. When I arrived in Houston, I didn’t know how to win. I was fearful of winning. You get to a stage in an event and you don’t want to go any further because you think, “Whoa, hang on, being in contention is territory I’m not comfortable in.” I was like that, until I went to America and realized that winning is everything and the only thing. And when I turned pro after those four years in Houston, I was ready to compete on the European Tour.
After you graduated, instead of playing golf, you considered a job at IMG, didn’t you?
I did, indeed. In ′86, the Open Championship was at Turnberry — Greg Norman won it. And Ian Todd, who was the president of IMG, was playing the course on the Monday after the Open, and they asked me to join them for the back nine as a job interview. I was going to use my business management degree that I had got in America to manage the likes of Nick Price, Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer — all IMG clients. I thought it would be fantastic, so I played at Turnberry with two senior IMG executives. I shot 29 on the back nine. Afterward, they said, “Well, Colin, that was impressive. You’re not going to work for us, we’re going to work for you!”
That’s quite a career reversal.
Yes. I quickly changed my view about my career path. The next year, I managed to win the Scottish Amateur, and I did okay at the Walker Cup — I won both my singles matches. So I decided to turn pro.
Do you ever think about what might have been?
Would I have turned pro if it wasn’t for those two hours at Turnberry? Possibly not. I had come from a very conservative Scottish background, and my dad wasn’t one for taking many risks. Playing professional golf was a risk, so “Let’s get a stable, secure job” was the mindset.
What does the way you play golf say about your personality?
I have never been a risk taker. I’m a bit Langeresque, Faldoesque, whereby I was [more successful] for my lack of mistakes than I was for the amount of birdies I made. I was never one for scoring 63s and 62s. I was more consistently around the 68 or 69 mark, but put four of those rounds together and it’s okay.
Your playing style was effective — you were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013, despite never winning a major. Some questioned your qualifications for induction. Do you belong in the Hall?
You have to get 50 percent of the votes to become a Hall of Fame member. I got 51 percent. So did Freddie Couples. It was close. There is always debate over, “Well, he never won a major, so why is he a Hall of Fame member?” I think it was given [to me] more for the eight Orders of Merits, the eight Ryder Cups and the 31 European Tour wins. It was a fantastic honor I will never forget. My father came over to attend. The ceremony was extremely well done.
Your U.S. Senior Open win happened eight years after your near miss at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Everyone remembers Phil Mickelson giving that one away, but you also had the title in your grasp.
I should have won it. It was the one, of my five runner-up finishes, where I wasn’t beaten. Four of them, I was beaten, and you say, “Okay, well played to the winner.” Winged Foot hurt because I beat myself.
You were tied for the lead, with a 7-iron in your hand for an approach on the par-4 72nd hole. What happened next?
If I ever had the opportunity to hit one shot in my life again, that would be it. I couldn’t have placed my drive any better. The pin was located on the right side of the green. Now, for a fader of the ball, the right-hand pins are my favored pins. I just swing, aim for the middle of the green and let it go. It was too easy, and I almost took my eye off the ball because it was that easy: my standard-issue 7-iron. I’ve hit 7-irons close thousands of times. Did I relax too much? Did I take my eye off the ball? Something happened.
It sounds like you had too much time to think about the shot, which only added to the pressure.
I had far too much time. My playing partner, Vijay Singh, hit it into the tents on the left and had issues with his drop. It was about eight minutes from the time he hit his drive to his second shot. I was at my ball within 30 seconds. I had too long. By the time it was my turn, I was second-guessing myself. “Was it a 7-iron? Big 7 or little 7? Maybe it’s a 6-iron. Do I detect a touch of wind?” They say that he who hesitates is lost, and that couldn’t be more true. I would have been fine if I’d hit the shot in normal time, but I had too much time to think. I made a hesitant swing, left it short and made double-bogey. I blew it. Phil Mickelson double-bogeyed the hole behind me as well. So we both blew it. It still hurts badly, and it always will.
You’ll have another chance to win the U.S. Open — you’ve qualified for this year’s event at Chambers Bay. The course is links-style, which should suit you.
I turn 52 a couple days after that event. I played the PGA Championship last year at Valhalla, and I made the cut. That proved to me that I can still play well on a massive, long course. Chambers Bay is interesting — I don’t know the course at all, no one really does, so we’ll see. I look forward to it. I am not going just as a number. I am going to represent the Champions Tour, represent senior golf and hopefully represent it very well.
You have lots of time to practice. Then again, legend has it you’re not exactly a range rat. True?
One disadvantage of living in Scotland is the weather, so no, I don’t practice that much, and I never really did. People say it’s to my detriment, but I tend to think of the amount of people on a range in a European Tour event, practicing their mistakes and cementing those errors. I never did that. Physically, I feel about 35, because I haven’t had any injuries. Tiger Woods is a classic example of how practice, practice, practice doesn’t work.
You used to have an antagonistic relationship with American fans. They would heckle you, and at times you fired right back. But the relationship has warmed in recent years. It’s almost a lovefest. Why do you think that is?
Because for the first time, I have given them something back. They were always reasonable. I wasn’t.
Were you too tightly wound?
I was too intense. I was going through a time when I wanted the best for my family, I was trying to do my job. [The American fans] were always there wanting to warm to me, but I wasn’t allowing it. Now I’m allowing it. I’m more relaxed, and they see that and are warming the other way. So it’s taken both sides to make it click.
The public also knows you a bit better from your role as an analyst on Golf Channel.
Yes, I’m relaxed and myself on the set. I think that’s helped my persona with the American public. The first thing people say to me is not, “Great score!” It’s “I saw you on TV — you are great!” I really do enjoy it.
Are you able to be completely free with your opinions on TV?
There are definitely constraints on the job. I do wish I could be even more honest. If I was, I would lose my job, but it would be a hell of a good two minutes before they muted me! [Laughs] I would love to be able to tell the viewer the absolute truth that I might know from being in locker rooms and knowing the people involved. But you can’t say everything you know. You just can’t. There are constraints.
Fox Sports will call its first U.S. Open this June. Any advice for golf-broadcast newbie Greg Norman?
I have great respect for Greg Norman. He was my nemesis, No. 1 in the world when I was No. 2, in ′96 and ′97. I think he will be very good, as long as he’s kept up with modern play and the young guys coming up. The game has changed so much. It’s a bomber’s game. These players are going for 600-yard par 5s in two, and that wasn’t the case when Greg and I played. The days of the soft 7-iron held up against the right-to-left wind are gone. It’s now a bash with a wedge.
You personally witnessed Tiger Woods usher in this era when you played with him at the 1997 Masters.
Yes, I was hitting a 2-wood into the [par-5] second and leaving it short, and he was going through the back with a 9-iron. I was in awe.
Speaking of big bombers, Rory McIlroy is the Masters favorite. Is he your pick to win?
Rory didn’t play well last year, and he still tied for eighth. He hits those big high draws, so the course is suited for him. I would be — I won’t say “shocked,” but if he doesn’t win, I’ll be as disappointed as Rory will be to not win and get the career slam.
McIlroy’s primary goal for this year is to win the Masters. What’s your goal for 2015?
To contend. To get into a position to win. I love winning. The Champions Tour is fantastic. We have Langer, Couples, Davis Love coming aboard, and Miguel Ángel Jiménez playing more. Bring them on. Because when you do win, it means so much more.