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BOB RYAN

A year later, a full Monty returns

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- One can only imagine the hyperventilation among the Scottish press if Colin Montgomerie emerges triumphant in the 134th Open Championship.

For Monty is more than merely the greatest Scottish golfer alive. He is a larger-than-life personality. His ups and downs, his ins and outs, his agonies and ecstasies, his great rages and his heartfelt apologies are always thoroughly examined by his countrymen, who, of course, would also include the English. Born in Glasgow, but raised in Yorkshire, Monty has made London his home for some time. He is truly a man of this island.

In terms of winning a major, Montgomerie is no longer considered one of the usual suspects. He turned 42 in June, and in the minds of most golf experts, his time has come and gone, that time being the '90s. Monty owned the continent in that decade, finishing atop the Order of Merit (i.e. the European Tour money list) every year from 1993 to 1999.

But one person still believes in Montgomerie. ''I come here full of hope, as I do every year for an Open," he says. ''And this year is slightly different. I come here on quite good form, really, and I look forward to it in every way."

A year ago, Monty did not arrive at Royal Troon in ''good form." A year ago, Monty was, well, a proper mess. He was suffering through a very public divorce in which details of infidelity (hers, not his) were splashed all over the notoriously flammable British tabloids. For a man who prides himself on civility, this was a horrifying experience.

Things began to turn around for him in September, when he led the Europeans to a convincing victory in the Ryder Cup, an event that always seems to bring out the best in Montgomerie. This year he is playing much better. After finishing 28th and 25th in the Order of Merit the last two years, he is currently in ninth position. His world ranking creeps ever higher, as well. ''I've gotten closer into the 30s now, which is great," he said. ''And I want to be in the top 25 at the end of the year, and then move forward next." His life has settled down and he is resembling the Old Monty to some degree.

''I'm just confident in every aspect of my game, about eight out of 10, which is as good as it's ever been, really," he maintains. ''So I'm quite confident that way."

How will golf history judge Montgomerie? Will it rate him as a giant for his European Tour domination in the '90s combined with his dazzling record in Ryder Cup play? Or will it place him in the Underachievers Bin because none of his 28 career tournament triumphs have come in a major?

He has come close. During his great run, he placed second in two US Opens and one PGA Championship, twice losing in playoffs and once aiding his demise by missing a crucial 5-footer.

Of surpassing interest here is the fact he has never contended in the British Open. His record, in fact, is amazingly dismal. Since 1991, the best he has done in the championship he would most like to win is a tie for eighth at Turnberry in 1994. As often as not, he misses the cut. It is one topic on which he is a wee bit disingenuous.

''I don't have a widespread fascination by this event," he insists. ''You guys seem to do with me. I suppose it's because I did OK in Europe for a few years there, and I never won a major during that time. And I was supposed to have done so and I never did. I came very, very close on a number of occasions and I never did."

So here he is at St. Andrews where, he acknowledges, he ought to be enjoying some kind of home course advantage. By his own reckoning, he has been here once a year for the past 17, totaling at least 20 trips overall. ''And it must give you an advantage," he declares, ''as to people that travel from overseas having been here for the first or second time. It must be an advantage."

The way he sees it, what matters here is what you don't do. ''I think it's a classic course of mistakes that you don't make that's going to win, as opposed to all the good stuff that you do." he said. ''And that's what [Tiger] Woods did last time, he kept out of bunkers and kept bogeys off his card and won by eight. It's amazing how easy it is on paper to do that and how difficult it is in practice."

Now that he is back ''on form," he won't remotely concede his chances of winning a major are gone. ''As long as I'm flexible and fit," he said, ''I've got a load of chances. I think I've got five or six opportunities to do well in this tournament. I'm fit, I'm flexible, and as long as that remains, I'll be OK. The nerves are still there."

Americans need only look back to the events of last September at Oakland Hills to know that. Monty, as usual, was the rock of the European squad. Despite his lackluster performances on the European Tour, team captain Bernhard Langer unhesitatingly selected Monty as one of his choices and Monty didn't let him down. There is little doubt his glittering Ryder Cup resume will be the Montgomerie legacy.

In his heart of hearts, Monty knows this. ''If I stop here and don't win a major, and the odds are going against it -- we have to be realistic here -- I'll look back on the years I was No. 1 in Europe and the seven Ryder Cups I've played in and think, OK, well, that was quite successful, thank you very much, you know? The major championship at this stage would be a huge bonus for me, but it wouldn't alter the way I feel about my career."

Meanwhile, the Scots have requisitioned an additional forest or two for the additional newsprint -- just in case.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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