Monty couldn’t admit it, not out loud. Maybe the most dominating player in Ryder Cup history — he has never lost in singles, and his overall record is 20-9-7 — had come to the PGA Championship on a tryout basis. Colin Montgomerie, the warrior Scotsman swaddled in cashmere, has been the “stalwart” (Jim Furyk’s word) in all those European wins in the Bush-Clinton-Bush years. But his 2008 campaign had been a slog, and to make this year’s team on points or as a captain’s pick, he had to do something sparkly at Oakland Hills. His Thursday round, a six-over 76, only hurt his chances, and now it was Friday — his last chance, realistically. Nick Faldo, the European captain, was in a trailer in the CBS compound. He watched Monty miss from four feet. Faldo shook his head.
The linebacker-sized Englishman, in a trailer that could barely contain him, started counting on his meaty fingers: “Ninety-one, ’93, ’95, ’97, ’99, ’02, ’04, ’06,” Faldo said. He nodded at his outstretched hands. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight — he’s played in eight straight.” It was as if the CBS commentator, Hall of Fame player and course designer had never considered Monty’s Ryder Cup record before, and maybe he hadn’t. Faldo, who has appeared in more Ryder Cups (11) and won more Ryder Cup points (25) than anybody else, witnessed the Monty years firsthand.
“It doesn’t look very good for him for this year, does it?” somebody said.
“Well, it’s not completely out of the question, but the bottom line is he’s struggling,” Faldo said. “His stats don’t look good. He’s 45. He’s been a strong Ryder Cup player.” It sounded as if he were preparing Montgomerie’s Ryder Cup obituary as a player. He’ll have a second life as a European captain someday, in either 2010, when the matches will be played in Wales, or 2014, when they’ll be in Scotland.
But for ’08 Faldo has a nice problem, and Montgomerie is not likely part of the solution. On Labor Day, Faldo will announce his 12-man team for the Sept. 19-21 matches at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville. Ten guys will make it on a points formula off two separate lists, one that tracks European tour play, the other worldwide play. Faldo will be left to handpick two players. Padraig Harrington, the British Open and PGA champion, has been lobbying for Faldo to pick Montgomerie. In 2004 the Ryder Cup was played at Oakland Hills, and Monty — skinny with anxiety, going through a difficult divorce and playing indifferently — was chosen for the team by Bernhard Langer, the European captain. In the first match on Friday, Harrington and Montgomerie defeated Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson 2 and 1, and the U.S. team never got over the shock. But that was four years ago.
This year captain Faldo might have to use picks to get Ian Poulter or Paul Casey or Martin Kaymer, young players with dependable putting strokes, on the team. He could pick the old boy — Monty’s fluffy hair, once blond, is now silver — but it would be surprising.
Paul Azinger, the U.S. captain, has an even more difficult problem (but one of his own making). He wanted four picks instead of the traditional two that captains have had for years, and he wanted more time to make them. The captain’s two choices once were announced the day after the PGA Championship. This year they’ll be released on Sept. 2, the day after the European team is announced. Azinger will appear in a hotel meeting room in midtown Manhattan and name his four guys.
With No. 1 Woods out recuperating from knee surgery, Nos. 2 through 9 were solidified at Oakland Hills. Ben Curtis’s tie for second vaulted him to No. 8 and knocked Steve Stricker to 10th. The only way Stricker — or Woody Austin or Rocco Mediate or Sean O’Hair or Brandt Snedeker or anybody else outside the automatic eight — is going to Valhalla is as one of Azinger’s four captain’s picks. These are the players who are now officially being outfitted for team uniforms: Mickelson; Stewart Cink, who missed the cut in the PGA; Kenny Perry, who withdrew because of an eye injury; Jim Furyk; Anthony Kim; Justin Leonard; Curtis; and Boo Weekley, who shot a final-round 66 to help secure his spot.
When J.B. Holmes was leading the PGA last Saturday afternoon, Azinger made no secret of the fact that he hoped the long-bombing, slow-playing Kentuckian would make the team. But Holmes closed with an 81 and finished 18th on the points list, and will have to play some inspired golf over the next three weeks to have a chance of being picked. The all-European one-two finish of Harrington and Sergio Garcia at the PGA, on a quintessentially American course, could not have been welcome news to Azinger. A guess for Zinger’s four picks would be Austin, Mediate, D.J. Trahan and Hunter Mahan, but much will depend on who plays well between now and the closing bell at the end of August.
Both captains were on the scene at Oakland Hills last week, Faldo in the broadcast booth, Azinger in the field and playing all four rounds (he finished 64th), or two more than Montgomerie. Oakland Hills was the place where Montgomerie’s status in the U.S. changed. His estranged wife was dating a movie star (Hugh Grant), and suddenly Monty seemed like a sympathetic figure. The week in ’04 seemed to rekindle his career, and two years later he was a runner-up in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot with Furyk and Mickelson. Montgomerie seemed to hole more putts in Ryder Cup play than he did in the rest of his career combined.
“He enjoyed having other players around him,” Montgomerie’s former caddie Alistair McLean said last week. (McLean’s current boss, Lee Westwood, will most likely play all five matches at Valhalla.) “If a partner was in trouble, he’d say, ‘Never mind, I’ll hole this.’ If he didn’t, it was only one hole. Match play suited him.”
Monty — like Faldo — was never one to run around with a crowd of players. But during Ryder Cup play things were different for him. “He loves to be loved,” Faldo said. “At the Ryder Cup he had 12 people who loved him.” Faldo’s take is the same as McLean’s: Being on a team freed up Monty.
Last week, at a place with good vibes for him, Montgomerie, newly remarried, was all on his own as he tried to do something good at Oakland Hills. For players who love Ryder Cup play — a Monty, a Davis Love III, a Fred Couples — trying to make a team is nearly as grueling as contending in a major. Two years ago at the PGA at Medinah, Love tried to play his way onto Tom Lehman’s team and came up short, unable, he said later, to make free swings when he knew Lehman was lurking behind trees, checking out his candidates. After holing his final shot from a bunker at the ’99 PGA Championship at Medinah, Couples took an American Airlines flight to Los Angeles and spoke by phone to Ben Crenshaw, the Ryder Cup captain, while in the air. When Crenshaw told Couples he had chosen others for the team, all the color drained from Couples’s tanned face.
Monty, with a spot on the line last week, shot an 84 in the second round. Too much at stake and not nearly enough game, not on that Friday. Not what he was looking for and not what Faldo was, either. In all likelihood Montgomerie’s Ryder Cup streak is over at eight. On Friday he holed a putt on 18 that was almost identical to the putt he holed to win the ’04 Ryder Cup. He took off his visor, ran his hand through his hair and shook the hands of his playing partners, Furyk and Aaron Baddeley.
Montgomerie signed his card and retired to the clubhouse, climbing a set of steps that featured a beautiful sepia-toned photograph of himself playing out a bunker in the glorious ’04 Ryder Cup, a picture so big it practically fills a wall.
Before he stepped into the clubhouse, he spoke to a group of reporters and was asked about the upcoming matches. “I wasn’t thinking about the Ryder Cup out there,” he said. He wasn’t under oath.
An old-gent newspaperman from Ireland said, “There’s an awful lot of people who want you to be on the team.”
“So I’m not on the team, am I?” Montgomerie said. “Sorry. I didn’t realize [you were] Nick Faldo.”
That’s when he split for the clubhouse. When he will be Stateside again is anybody’s guess.