LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England - Colin Montgomerie has spent much of his career chasing an elusive four-headed monster, following it around the world for nearly a decade. It has taunted him during playoff defeats at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. It has teased him at the Masters.
Yet this creature has caused the most Grand Slam havoc for Montgomerie on his home turf, terrorizing him for years at the British Open.
The 38-year-old Scot finally found a sliver of redemption yesterday in the opening round of the 130th Open here at Royal Lytham and St. Annes.
Montgomerie started and finished with a flourish, making birdies on each of the first two holes, later chipping in for eagle and one-putting each of the last four greens, including a 40-footer for birdie on the par-4 18th. It helped him match his best score ever in a major and unexpectedly take the lead.
A 6-under-par 65 - the same score he shot in the third round of the 1994 British Open at Turnberry, the 1995 PGA Championship at Riviera and the opening round of the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional - put Montgomerie three shots ahead of the field.
Montgomerie had never shot better than 69 in 34 previous rounds at the British Open and has been a notoriously slow starter in the event, averaging more than 73 on the first day the past 11 years. In fact, the player who was born in Glasgow and now lives outside London has always seemed more suited for the U.S. majors.
"In a way I suppose it is quite frustrating," said Montgomerie. "Everybody has said that to me, that I have competed better in the U.S. PGA and the U.S. Open than I have in this particular championship. It has been disappointing in the past. It is just nice today, that I set off well and held onto it."
After passing early leader Brad Faxon by making a 10-foot eagle chip on the par-5 sixth hole and three straight birdies starting on the par-4 eighth, Montgomerie avoided one of his characteristic stumbles. A three-putt on the par-5 14th was followed by three straight saving putts for par and the birdie.
Faxon was three shots behind at 3-under 68, tied with fellow American Chris DiMarco and Mikko Ilonen of Finland. A cast of thousands - actually 16 - were at 2-under 69, including two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, David Duval and perennial British Open contender Jesper Parnevik of Sweden.
There was another large group at 1-under 70. Among the 13 players who finished there were former British Open and Masters champion Mark O'Meara, former Masters and PGA champion Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia of Spain and Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland.
But it was a player who had struggled to shoot even par that Montgomerie - and everyone else - will be watching today: Tiger Woods. That Woods has already slain the monster once, and is working on his second career Grand Slam, might have something to do with it.
Despite hitting into five bunkers - five more than he hit into last year in winning the Open by eight shots at St. Andrews - and hitting from deep rough on at least a half-dozen shots, Woods finished with a round of 71 and a sigh of relief.
"I feel satisfied the way I played today. I did not put myself out of the tournament," said Woods, who found himself in a throng of players that included two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer of Germany and former Masters champion Fred Couples. "It is what you need to do. Sometimes you don't really hit the ball the way you want to. Sometimes you need to gut it out and get around. I was able to do that today and persevere."
Woods, whose 12th-place finish at last month's U.S. Open marked the first of three straight tournaments in which he failed to place in the top 10, continued to have trouble with his swing. Because of that, Woods didn't birdie any of the four par-5s, an almost-unheard-of stat for him.
Yet he stayed in contention with some remarkable bunker shots, including a 60-footer that stopped within 18 inches of the cup on the par-4 18th hole. (Conversely, Couples took four shots to get out of a bunker on the 17th hole, including one that he took left-handed, that led to a triple-bogey 7.)
Asked whether he took the approach that it was better not to lose ground than to make birdies, Woods said: "You play one shot at a time. You can't get into that kind of [negative] thinking. That is kind of a pessimistic way of looking at things."
That is the very approach Montgomerie has often taken. No player has been more self-conscious about his shortcomings, whether it was talking about his doughy physique or his fragile psyche. He acknowledged yesterday that he has been haunted by his failures in majors, one in particular.