Bill Elliott gets to grips with one of the game?s most charismatic figures, after a year in which Colin Montgomerie returned from the depths of personal and golfing despair to reclaim his place among the world?s elite.
The trophy is difficult to miss even against the spectacular backdrop of a 180º panorama of London ? from The Eye through to Buckingham Palace and beyond ? offered from his suite in a Knightsbridge hotel. But there it is, the sort of size normally associated with the vulgarity of the F1 circuit, sitting and gleaming on a bedside table as though Colin Montgomerie has ordered a very special cup with his early morning tea.
As I wait for Montgomerie to join me for a chat I take a closer look. It turns out it is the trophy given by the city of Glasgow to their sportsperson of the year. Craig Brown, the former Scotland football manager, has his name on it and so too does footballer Henrik Larsson, whose ability to score from any angle for Celtic delighted half the local population while annoying the hell out of the rest. Now it is Monty?s turn. With a bit of luck more than 50% of Glaswegians will be reasonably happy with the result.
?Nice isn’t it?? he asks, and then responds to his own question before I can say anything. ?Very impressive. Yes, very impressive.?
These words could, of course, be applied to Monty himself this year. At the beginning of it he was ranked a lowly 83rd in the world and was a man who was still suffering the aftershocks of a very public divorce, who was learning how to live a much lonelier life in a London apartment and whose game seemed locked into a spiralling decline as he wandered disconsolately into his 40s. I tell him that just 10 months ago I had feared he was toast as far as the bigger titles were concerned, that the great days were over and that though he might yet prove a force in, say, the Ryder Cup, the really impressive stuff was history. As opening statements go it perhaps isn?t my most sensitive but it has to be said and Monty, to his credit, takes it on the chin and then smacks it straight back.
?Toast? I can?t blame you for thinking that at the time. I was thinking it too. Or at least wondering if that was the case,? he says. ?All the emotional stuff I was going through was out there in the public domain when I was playing. It feels like the whole world is looking at you and that?s tough when you?re going through what I went through.
?But at the start of the year I thought ?right, let?s see if I can really play this game, let?s see where I can go, how I can improve, whether or not I can get back into the elite group again and all that that means?. The key to getting going was to remove the emotional thing as much as I could. To get it out of my head so I could concentrate when I was playing golf again. When that happened I knew I had a chance of moving forward.?
Moving forward? The most fiercely competitive British golfer of his generation has not merely moved forward, he has turbo-charged his way into the world top 20, won over £1.8 million from the European Tour alone and, of course, finished number one in Europe for the eighth time, six years after his seventh (consecutive) Order of Merit title.
This, judged however you like, is not just a case of a sportsman rediscovering himself and his god-given talent, it is more fundamental, and certainly more impressive. For the past 15 years Montgomerie has been by far the most interesting performer on the European scene. Admittedly he also has been irascible, occasionally irritating, now and then badly behaved but as well as all this he has managed to be more than a little inspiring at times and never, ever has he been boring.
“At the start of the year I thought ‘right let’s see if I can really play this game, lets see where I can go, how I can improve'”
He has got under the skin of Americans and they, to be fair, have got under his. Ignoring the flutterings of nearby idiots ? sometimes, sadly, they are not even idiots ? is not in Montgomerie?s nature and it is too late now to hope that it ever will be, but the majority of even his severest critics have joined in the applause for the sheer style and speed of this complicated man?s recovery.
When exactly did he feel 2005 started to go right for him?
As it happens, the answer is that events turned in his favour at the very beginning. His first round of 2005 was at the Caltex Masters in Singapore and he shot 65 to lead by three strokes. He ended up losing the title he was defending to Nick Dougherty but those opening 18 holes were pivotal to his entire season.
?To lead by three after my first round of the year said something important to me,? he says. ?I thought to myself, ?that?s okay?. If I had scored really badly then it would have affected me. Instead I started believing in myself a bit again and when that happens you become capable of anything. Plus I enjoyed it, really enjoyed it and I hadn?t enjoyed much for a while. I enjoyed walking into the clubhouse at the end of that round. Instead of being six foot one inches tall I became six foot two. Everything changes when you feel like that.?
The truth here is that Monty enjoys being noticed, loves the limelight and is attracted to attention like a moth is to light. He likes being a star and the nice stuff that comes with it even if he also knows that ?shit happens when you?re in the public eye as much as I am, but the pros far outweigh the cons?.
Slowly throughout the year the once familiar cocksure attitude grew. He wasn?t looking for something new, he was searching for something old ? the old Monty. And he found the man he was after, the one who competed and who had not just the game but also the steel to keep going when the nerves started to kick in. He found the winner inside himself again.
It took time, not as long as he feared it might, but it still took perseverance, patience and a huge amount of determination on top of the ability to hear and ignore the whispers of those who doubted him.
Central to his rejuvenation was the Old Course at St Andrews. The golf course that until this year had so often beat him about the head decided in 2005 to embrace him as one of its own instead. It was here in the spiritual centre of his sport that he finished second only to Tiger Woods in the Open Championship, his challenge to the world number one borne high on the fervour of the supporters who relentlessly roared him around this special place, the Saltires flying, his own spirits soaring.
?I left the Open feeling like a real winner again. As far as I was concerned I beat the rest of the world that day. The guy I didn?t beat is a phenomenon, a very, very special player, so there was no bitterness in that. I took so much from St Andrews in July it is hard to describe.?
And then St Andrews embraced him once again in October, rewarding his new-found optimism with victory in the Dunhill Links, a daft, hybrid event, part celebrity pro-am, part serious competition but all about money. The prize he won that Sunday took him past US Open champion Michael Campbell for the first time at the top of the European money listings and laid the foundations for his eighth Order of Merit title.
He still looks back at the glorious 65 he scored over the Old Course that week and wonders if much could be better than that. His amateur partner that day, the Hollywood star Michael Douglas, was so impressed by that effort that he stayed on for the final day?s climax, just another punter caught up in the twisting plot that is Monty?s life.
Now the future beckons once more. The best current golfer who has yet to win a Major is once again back in the hunt. In the last 12 months he has gone from no hope to some chance of finally breaking through. Except that he is convinced the Big One might really be on this time.
?I do believe my best ever golf is ahead of me,? he explains. ?Why? Well, I?m physically okay and my short game is a lot better than it was, and it has to be because I no longer can count on hitting 16 greens in regulation. I?ve struggled with that part of my game for a long time. Some players miss the green and see a challenge they relish but, me, I used to see a possible bogey. I feel differently now and it helps that my putting is so much better since I went back to the short putter. And I?m definitely mentally tougher because of what I?ve been through.
?Suddenly I?ve proved to myself that I can compete with the very best in the world. It?s nice to have shown this to other people but this year I mostly had to prove it to myself and I?ve done that. I know now that I can do this job.?
So Monty is happy. But is he content? No, not really. Not yet. He says he would like once again to return to a proper front door with someone waiting inside, although he has no idea yet who this someone might be. And he also wants somewhere to wash his car.
?Do you know, I haven?t washed my car for nearly two years,? he explains. ?Well, you don?t when you live in temporary accommodation and you park the car in an underground garage. I miss washing my own car. No, I won?t be content until I can do that sort of thing again.?