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RYDER CUP Friday-Sunday at The Belfry

The European Plan

Underdogs have home-course advantage, but they'll need Monty to be very good

September 26, 2002|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England — It was the Good Monty who turned up at the Belfry ... the polite, engaging, well-spoken minister of golf in Europe and a shining beacon of happiness and good will.

Good Monty is a lot different from Bad Monty, who also has shown up on occasion.

Bad Monty is surly, curt, sarcastic and thoroughly disagreeable. Bad Monty is the one who threatened to pull out of a couple of tournaments to protest his treatment by the media.

Good Monty is the leader of the European Ryder Cup team, the gracious ambassador of the game.

And so it goes at the Ryder Cup, where the dual personalities of Colin Montgomerie showcase a typically unremarkable European team that many believe has a good chance to win back the Ryder Cup when matches begin again Friday after an absence of three years.

Montgomerie, 39, a Scot, is no longer the best player on Europe's Ryder Cup team. That distinction belongs to 22-year-old Sergio Garcia of Spain and 30-year-old Padraig Harrington of Ireland.

But he is the player the rest are looking up to because of his success in the mind-bending pressure of Ryder Cup competition. Montgomerie has played a total of 23 matches. Bernhard Langer of Germany has more experience, 38 matches, but it is Good Monty and all he brings to the table who could earn the Ryder Cup a return trip to Europe for the third time in the last four meetings.

It's not even as if it's a secret.

"He's obviously one of the strongest players," said Sam Torrance, captain of the European team.

Beginning with his Ryder Cup debut in 1991 at Kiawah, Montgomerie is 12-7-4. And if you exclude his 2-3 record at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., in 1995, which was a victory for Europe anyway, Montgomerie's record from the 1993, 1997 and 1999 matches is 9-3-3. He has never lost in singles.

He is rarely at a loss for words either, except for the occasions he doesn't like the question. A simple roll of the eyes, a quick turn and he exits. If Europe is to defeat a U.S. team that is slightly favored, the mature Montgomerie with the skillful irons and the smooth and silky putter is going to have to step forward and provide the answers, not the questions.

He sounds as if he is up to the task.

"I just like match play," Montgomerie said. "I like the format and I like the form of it and I tend to do quite well."

And what of the genteel nature of the Ryder Cup that we seemingly lost at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1999?

"It is a game of golf, as I heard Tiger say here the other day; it's not life and death here. And we do respect each other, and the crowd hopefully will respect each other as well, and it will be a good golfing event."

Cue the orchestra, please.

If he is a team leader, it is not in the team room.

"I still feel I have that sort of on-course role," he said. "Bernhard and myself would be seen as on-course leaders, I suppose. It's a position that I like and thrive on."

The players Montgomerie would be leading have a lot of work to do.

Just who are these guys? Beginning Friday, we'll find out for sure.

Garcia is hardly an unknown, even though this is only his second Ryder Cup. He was 3-1-1 at Brookline, he's ranked fourth in the world, he's 3-0-1 teamed with Jesper Parnevik and seems on the brink of superstardom.

Harrington is 31 and made his Ryder Cup debut at Brookline. He was at his best this year in big events--tie for fifth at the Masters, tie for eighth at the U.S. Open and a tie for fifth at the British Open. He hasn't won on the European tour this year, but he has seven top-10 finishes in 18 tournaments. Bothered by ankle and neck injuries, Harrington says he's feeling all right.

His playing partner in the practice rounds was Niclas Fasth, a 30-year-old Swede who has had one top-10 since July. One of four Ryder Cup rookies on the European team, Fasth is an up-and-comer very highly regarded for his mental toughness.

Torrance put Fasth in a practice pairing with Pierre Fulke, 31, another Ryder Cup rookie who is a good putter but not a long hitter.

Darren Clarke, the 34-year-old from Northern Ireland, is usually Lee Westwood's partner, but it was Montgomerie who played two practice rounds with Westwood. Both Clarke and Westwood, the 29-year-old from England, are huge question marks because of their inconsistent play.

Montgomerie says he's looking forward to helping lead Westwood out of the woods.

"It doesn't take Einstein to work out that there's a possibility I might be playing with him. Great," Montgomerie said. "I think Lee has never suffered through lack of nerves or emotion; it's just that he's lost his swing a little bit over the last couple of years and has a confidence thing."

Thomas Bjorn, 31, has been living off the fact that he beat Tiger Woods two years ago at Dubai and wasn't playing well until he won the BMW International in Germany three weeks ago. He is the first Dane to play in the Ryder Cup. His reaction: "Great."

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