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Monty emerges the TV personality

This may be the season of goodwill, but a half-hour amnesty in the pleasantries had to be called on Christmas evening with the BBC's sporting quiz, They Think It's All Over. The title comes from the famous commentry of the 1966 World Cup final, when Geoff Hurst scores the winning goal. "Some of the crowd is on the pitch, they think its all over, well it is now...." which is played as the introduction to the show.

For those outside the UK who have no idea what the program is about, the aim can be simply stated: to poke fun at, extract the Michael from and generally ridicule sport and sports stars.

To best accomplish this, the show actually features more comedians than sports personalities. In a peculiar, but typically British way, the ridicule represents the highest form of honouring its heroes.

Two of the most celebrated -- former England captains at cricket and football, David Gower and Gary Lineker -- are the resident team captains and the pair at whom most of the insults are hurled. They delight of course in extracting revenge upon the presenter and comedians, Gary Lineker runs a well known series of adverts in the UK for Walkers crisps (chips to American readers), every episode this series at an opportune moment he will produce a packet in riposte to some jibe or gag.

Usually one other sports star appears, and it was mildly surprising that he should emanate from golf than more high-profile sports. Instead of, say, the BBC's own Sports Personality of the Year for 1998 -- English football's World Cup Boy Wonder, Michael Owen -- it opted for someone who actually has a personality, Colin Montgomerie.

Good old Monty. You either love him or loathe him, and those of the latter persuasion -- particularly a large number of the U.S. Open gallery at Olympic -- probably quite like the idea of the Scot being subjected to more verbal bashings.

Indeed, the sharp-tongued compere was quickly on the scent with his introductions. "Unfortunately, Colin has recently been burglarised," he reported, "but all the thief got away with was 20 runner-up medals."

Later came an unfavourable comparison with Lee Westwood. "Westwood is known as a British golfer who wins all around the world," the compere said, "while Montgomerie is known as a British golfer who can't win playoffs against Americans."

Both statements highlight familiar sentiments about the Scot but are, of course, outrageously wrong. Factuality is often placed second place if it gets a laugh, non-cricket followers would be surprised to know that David Gower was Englands highest run scorer and actually didn't get out every single innings to a slashed drive to third slip

Montgomerie in fact has won 20 titles in his professional career, and although he has only won one of seven playoffs, he has never lost one to an American. To an Englishman, a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Spaniard, a South African and an Australian (the last two in major championships) certainly, but never to an American.

Naturally, both lines produced uproarious laughter, but no one laughed more than Montgomerie. Think whatever you like about this complex Scot, but don't think he can't laugh at himself. It is something he learned in the school of the European Tour, where he grew up with such humorists as Mark James, Sam Torrance, Richard Boxall and David Feherty.

Throughout the program, Monty showed he was ready to receive and dish it back as well.

There was only one moment I was concerned the powerful stare of his was going to break the television screen. It came after a question involving footage of Westwood, Nick Faldo and Montgomerie missing short putts.

This was a cue that one of the panellists refused to miss. "You, know," he said, "I don't play golf, but if you can't hole that, you must be crap. You should try playing crazy golf where you have to knock it through windmills and things." The silence spoke volumes.

Montgomerie is an endlessly fascinating character.

At a festive party, a female journalist in the BBC newsroom and whose interest in golf -- at first she thought I was an expert on The Gulf -- is comparable to Monty's combined U.S. PGA Tour and major championship titles -- nil -- wanted to know "what's he really like."

If Monty's management team agrees with Tom Lehman's assessment that the Scot had public relations problem, it has done well in recent weeks.

Just before Christmas, Montgomerie appeared as a guest studio analyst for a big Premiership soccer match between Arsenal, the reigning champions, and Leeds United, Monty's team from his days growing up in Yorkshire. Leeds, unfortunately, lost.

He came across well, and displayed a wide knowledge of a game that is an interest rather than his profession.

Typically, in looking back on 1998, Monty dominates two highlights as far removed from the golf course than you can get. The first was the birth of his son Cameron in May and the other came in November when he went with his family to Buckingham Palace to receive his Member of the British Empire medal.

"Of all the awards I have received, that was the greatest honour," Montgomerie said. "It was a great day for the whole family."

Montgomerie started 1998 with the four major championships holding the first four positions in his list of priorities.

"Winning the order of merit was much further down, but once I bypassed all the others, yes, the order of merit became a priority," he said. "And when other players started going for it, I decided to put my oar in."

Having decided that, Montgomerie gained added confidence from winning the money list for a sixth time, despite the majors still remaining elusive.

"It was nice to know I was on top for another year. I wouldn't change anything. I am very proud of the six order of merits. I would like to win a major, but I wouldn't like to win one and then have gone into oblivion as a few players have. This is a game of consistency and I've proved I've been at the top for six years. That means a lot."

There is, though, he realises, a 'but.' "There will always be a 'but' if I don't win a major. It will be 'Colin Montgomerie was a good player but...'

"I have let myself down mentally on some occasions but no one is perfect. It takes some players a long time to come through. It took Mark O'Meara until he was 41. I'm only 35 and I'm as ambitious as I have ever been.

"I just haven't had that bit of luck. You've got to be up there and be lucky. At least I've been up there, and that's what I want to keep doing over the next few years. I believe I've improved this year, as I have done every year as a pro, and hopefully I'm at a level now where if I improve again I could win a major."

Perhaps surprisingly, but understandably, it is not his near-misses which grate but his woeful British Open performances. He has missed the cut in five of his last seven appearances. "That's what annoys me the most," he admitted.

"My record is poor and I've got to do something about it. Maybe I have to take the week before off and go and practice links golf. At least that is something I need to think about. But Carnoustie is a course I like and I've played well there -- I hold the course record -- so possibly that's my best chance of not necessarily winning but hopefully doing well."

A Scot -- and there is no prouder Scot than Montgomerie -- has not won the Open in Scotland since Tommy Armour in 1931. He was a naturalised American, but he did win at Carnoustie.

Tis the season for goodwill to all men -- even Monty.

Golfweb columnist Andy Farrell offers the European perspective every Tuesday on Golfweb.

TW 31/12/98