ORLANDO, Fla. Like just about everyone else, European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie is curious and even anxious about the return of Tiger Woods at the Masters. Monty was his delightful self Wednesday morning when he chatted with reporters at the Arnold Palmer Invitational here at Bay Hill.
Asked about Tiger's possible playing partners for the Masters, Montgomerie said, "You'd almost have to ask for volunteers. There are a number of players who will look at the draw sheet and be delighted if they are not playing with Tiger Thursday and Friday. But it's a very controlled environment at Augusta National."
If he was in the field, would he volunteer? Monty grinned. "Yes, I would volunteer," he said. "I think it would be very, very exciting to see him come back. It's a bonus that he's coming back sooner than we might have thought from his statement. We thought, hang on, he might not play this year. Then within a month, he's playing. So that's fantastic news for everybody. Golf will benefit from his return."
Montgomerie discussed a lot of topics, including the sagging state of his own game. When introduced, he was asked to talk about returning to Bay Hill after having a "year off."
"The way my game has been going, I've had a few years off," he joked.
He said he had just returned from a visit to Houston, where he briefly played college golf, and a session with instructor Paul Marchand that has him feeling optimistic about his own game. But Monty couldn't escape the No. 1 topic in golf, and he gladly talked about Tiger, including the potential for critical comments from spectators, something Monty dealt with a few times in the United States.
"In the '90s, I was No. 1 in Europe and No. 2 in the world to Greg Norman, so I was the biggest threat, I suppose," Monty said. "You play accordingly and you act accordingly. I sometimes got it wrong, but it did fire me up, there's no question. Especially when you play as part of a European team.
"I've heard Tiger say that he's nervous to come back [because of the public reaction], and that's the first time I've ever heard Tiger say those words. It's going to be interesting. It's very shrewd what he's done to come back at the Masters, the most controlled atmosphere. The patrons there are very knowledgeable and will respect him as the golfer he is. I think there will be no issue at all, and he'll get over his nerves Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday."
When the Tiger scandal broke late last year, Monty said it eradicated the invincible image that Woods had built up. Here's what he said then: "He is suddenly, I hate to say, more normal now. There is a mystique which has been lost, and let's hope that golf isn't damaged by that, and it shouldn't be. There was an aura, and that wall has been split slightly, so there are cracks and I feel that it gives us more opportunity of winning these big events now."
Monty didn't refer to those comments on Wednesday, but he did backtrack and made it clear that he expects Tiger to be a contender at Augusta despite the controversy and the layoff.
"It will be interesting to see how the other players react when his name is on that leaderboard again," Monty said. "He has that aura about him, and it will be interesting to see if other players react differently now, or the same as they did."
He continued: "Believe me, he wouldn't be playing in the Masters if he didn't think he could win. He's already been over there to practice ... He will be as determined as anyone has ever been on a golf course to prove that he's still the No. 1 player in the world, and in my opinion, the best player ever to play the game."
Montgomerie also said his personal goal is to win a tournament before the Ryder Cup, which will be played in Wales Oct. 1-3. "I'd like to stand in front of my team at the opening ceremony as a tournament winner myself this year," he said. He said America's dominance in golf has ended because the rest of the world has caught up to the standards that U.S. golf set in the '80s, and that Europe's winning five of the last seven Ryder Cups "was proof of that."
"Speaking with my European hat on here, although we don't have the top three in the world, we have the rest," he said. "It's the first time a captain of the European Ryder Cup team can say that. If you take our top 12 players in the world, the worst-ranked player is just about 20, which is incredible. We usually have teams that our 12th-ranked would be 60 or 70, and now we are down to 20."