MAMARONECK, New York – There was a time when Colin Montgomerie simply wanted the big win too badly. Those days, he insists, are finally behind him.
Unburdened by the pressures of trying to win that elusive major, Monty was swinging well in the first round of the U.S. Open on Thursday — well enough, in fact, to fuel hope that "some day" might finally come this week.
"Delighted, obviously," he said after a 1-under-par 69 in blustery conditions left him in the lead, the only player in the morning to finish in the red. "A 69 is a great score under any circumstances. Let's not shy away from that."
The 42-year-old Scot, long considered one of the best to never win a major, cut through the clouds and wind on a devilish day at Winged Foot to position himself, once again, for the long-awaited breakthrough.
A shot behind Monty on an impressive leaderboard — at least for names, if not numbers — were 2003 champion Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson, who is trying to win his third straight major championship.
Vijay Singh was another shot back, along with John Cook, Mike Weir, Graeme McDowell and Kenneth Ferrie.
Tiger Woods, playing for the first time since the Masters and the death of his father, teed off in the afternoon and had a front nine to forget. He hit one of seven fairways en route to a 5-over 40, and was fortunate to get that. He hit his tee shot on No. 9 near the hospitality tent in the right rough. From there, he had to shape a crazy shot into the grandstand behind the green. After a free drop, he pitched through the green, then chipped on short and needed a 6-footer to save bogey.
The morning, however, belonged to Monty, who finished second at last year's British Open, the first time he had been in contention in a major this decade.
"It was nice to contend with Tiger on a course that was built for him 200 years before he was born," Monty said of that one.
Playing in blustery weather that Monty seemed suited for, he put together a steady round — three bogeys, three birdies — then grabbed the lead with a twisting, 25-foot birdie putt on No. 17. He could have opened it up to two strokes on 18, but a 6-footer for birdie broke off to the right.
Over his illustrious career, Monty has never seriously contended at the Masters. And while he had two seconds and one third-place finish in the U.S. Open in the 1990s, he has fallen off the map in the biggest tournaments of late, save that second-place at St. Andrews last year.
That one built his confidence a bit, and he has reason to believe he can contend at a place like Winged Foot.
"This course is set up more for driving and iron play than putting, and that's in my favor," Montgomerie said. "Some weeks, it's a putting contest, and I'm not going to win that."
Maybe, however, the demon he really needed to overcome was himself.
He conceded he put too much pressure on himself last decade, when he was contending in lots of majors but never figuring out a way to win. Back then, his trips to America were the worst. U.S. fans ridiculed him, delighting in his close calls and the snits that followed.
The fans have mellowed and Monty insists he's not that guy anymore.
"I figure I've got four or five years left at this thing," he said. "I think I put too much pressure on myself from 1995 through 2000 to win one of these things. It wasn't working. I didn't win because of that, possibly. Now I just have to be patient, relax. I decided to try a new method and this is it."
There were, however, many players on the morning leaderboard with experience winning in the toughest situations.
Fuyrk, going for his second U.S. Open title in four years, was alone in the lead until he drove into the rough on the 18th hole. His stance for his second shot was on a drainage grate, but he didn't want to take the free drop for fear the ball might fall deeper into the five-inch grass. He made bogey.
"I think even par is very good," Fuyrk said. "It all depends on the rest of the scores. It appears it's going to be tough out there. It doesn't look like there are going to be a lot of scores under par."
Mickelson, who won last year's U.S. PGA Championship and this year's Masters, scrambled all day — saving par after missing the green five straight times over his first nine. He made a pair of 30-foot birdie putts to offset his two bogeys and was happy to get out of there with par.
It was Lefty who said, in the leadup to the tournament, that if the wind kicked up, all the players were in trouble. That happened, and the scores showed that he was right.
"Not really," Mickelson said when asked if he could describe how tough things were. "You'd have to go play it to grasp it. It's the toughest test we have all year."
Singh putted from the fringe from 60 feet on No. 15 for a birdie that put him at 1-under, briefly alone in the lead. He bogeyed the next two holes, however, to fall a stroke behind.