TO SUGGEST that the man poised to become Europe's No 1 golfer for a seventh successive season has only just reached the threshold of stardom seems faintly odd. But Colin Montgomerie, known to millions as Monty, is no conventional British hero.
At the age of 36, he could never be typecast as a rebel or pin- up boy. Yet at a barren time for the national football, rugby and cricket teams, this burly Scot with a golf swing like silk and the touch of an angel has become a beacon, if not quite an icon, for the sporting public.
Forget his six tournament victories this season, the latest a fortnight ago in the World Match Play Championship - such successes have become routine. But his bulldog defiance under the most extreme provocation during last month's Ryder Cup in Boston has led people to see him in a new light.
More significantly, perhaps, it has also prompted Monty to revise his own view of himself. "The Ryder Cup was a learning curve for me. Definitely," he said, reflecting on the crowd abuse which was sytematically directed at him throughout the three days at the Country Club at Brookline. "I think I'm learning to block out the barracking now. Every time somebody said something or tried to heckle, it actually threw it the other way even though they didn't realise it at the time. They thought it was putting me off but in fact it was making me more determined to succeed.
"If it had been a strokeplay event at Brookline I think I'd have done quite well. The more they heckled the more determined I became and the more determined I get the more successful I become. It worked to the reverse of their intentions.
"I've encountered problems with galleries before, but not to that extent. At the Ryder Cup, I was perceived as more of a threat to the American team than any other European player, which I suppose is a compliment of sorts, but we all suffered. The whole team got it, especially on the Sunday. They needed the crowd behind them and the crowd did their job.
"Looking at it five weeks later, though, one must say that we outplayed the Americans over the first two days. Before the match we were the underdogs and did extremely well to get 131/2 points considering we had seven rookies on our team.
"But golf's profile is rising and the word `money' springs to mind. Is it getting out of hand? Is it too much? In America, they want to make it up to the level of the top three sports - baseball, basketball and American football - using Tiger Woods to get the TV exposure.
"But golf's not football or basketball, and it's attracting a different type of spectator. I sometimes wonder, is it selling its soul? What happened at the Ryder Cup is a problem and the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have to get together to find ways of retaining the excitement of the occasion without losing sight of the fact that it's a golf competition."
This interview, conducted courtesy of his sponsors Lexus at La Manga in southern Spain last weekend, preceded the tragic death of Payne Stewart. But Monty specifically excluded the US Open champion from any blame for the Ryder Cup debacle. "Payne was my singles opponent on the final day and was very good with me. He behaved like a complete gentleman throughout. He was apologising as we went round and pointing out hecklers to the marshals. I'm sure it affected him as much as it did me."
The test now for Montgomerie is to harness those positive feelings to silence one of golf's recurring mantras - that the man dubbed crudely by the United States media as "Mrs Doubtfire" will never win one of the four so-called major championships.
Three times the US Open has been snatched from his grasp and Steve Elkington's outrageous tramliner putt deprived him in a play- off for the 1995 US PGA title. More surprisingly, especially for one who learned the game as a child at Troon on the Ayrshire coast, he has never been a factor in the Open - due partly to the high flight of his iron shots and his anxiousness to shine in front of home galleries. …