-- The matchmakers of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club occasionally have a sense of humor in determining the pairings for the British Open. On Tuesday morning, Scotland's Colin Montgomerie could only smile when asked about his threesome for the opening two rounds of the 133rd Open here at Royal Troon.
Montgomerie, known to throw a tantrum or three over his stormy but successful career, will set off Thursday with fiery Frank Lickliter and Thomas Bjorn, more than occasionally described as a brooding Dane.
That was certainly the case when Bjorn left two shots in a bunker to blow a three-shot lead last year in the Open at Royal St. George's. And two weeks ago at the Smurfit European Open in Ireland, Bjorn withdrew after six holes, telling reporters, "I am fighting demons at the moment."
Lickliter, the son of an Ohio ironworker, drives a Hummer, likes to hunt bear in Alaska and once was involved in a knife fight in a bar. Three years ago during a team event, he took exception to opponent Brad Faxon examining his lie in the rough, and essentially gave him the same advice that Vice President Cheney recently offered Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on the Senate floor, remarks that were broadcast live on CBS's golf coverage.
Nonetheless, Montgomerie -- who grew up playing this course while his father served as club secretary -- is in as chipper a mood as one could expect from a man who has never won a major, was winless in 2003, hasn't had a top 10 finish in his last nine events and whose long marriage to Eimear, a Troon girl herself, ended in divorce this year.
Montgomerie is fortunate to be playing here at all, having survived a playoff in qualifying two weeks ago in England. He thought he had a five-year exemption after winning the 2000 European PGA Championship, until the rules were recently changed.
"I think I actually voted for it, so that was okay," Montgomerie said Tuesday morning. "But if I do have to qualify again for this tournament, I'll do it."
Playing with Bjorn, he said, would pose no problems, despite a messy little "dust-up" in January during the Johnnie Walker Classic . Bjorn had to back off a chip when he was distracted by the sight of Montgomerie walking on a nearby bridge, and later, after missing a par putt, angrily yelled and pointed his putter toward the Scotsman. The two former Ryder Cup teammates didn't speak again during the round, though both insisted Tuesday that they have long since made peace.
"Thomas and I had dinner last night for the nth time since we had a dispute in Bangkok," Montgomerie said. "We had a laugh and a joke. If you were to speak with Thomas, I'd say there's been no contradiction at all. That story is for you to write about and for us to get on with the golf."
Said Bjorn: "We did dine last night and it was quite entertaining. These are things that happen on a golf course. Players have a difference of opinion. Some will stay silent and some will voice them. I'm one to voice them. We've always had a good relationship. It's over and done with."
What is not over and done with is the frustration both men have felt in the oldest major championship in golf. Montgomerie has never finished better than eighth in his 14 previous Opens, including a tie for 24th in 1997 at Troon, of which he is a member. Montgomerie admitted he has probably put too much pressure on himself to perform well in the Open, especially in Scotland, but because he is no longer considered among the favorites, he does not feel the same burden of expectations this year.
"I'm very relaxed really," he said. "This year, I'm not one of the favorites to win, so who knows. I'm 80 to 1 this week. So were Greece [the recent European soccer champion], so it's interesting. For the American cousins, that's a soccer team, and the underdogs won, so we'll see how it gets."
Last week during the Scottish Open in Loch Lomond, Montgomerie twice took evening drives to Troon, going around the course in fading light with his father and carrying only a putter to test the speed and degree of difficulty of the greens. He also wanted to walk by the nearby Marine Hotel, where he and his ex-wife had their wedding reception, the better to ruminate on those thoughts and avoid doing the same when the championship begins on Thursday.
"Things are going to come out of the blue and I want to be ready for them," he told the Daily Telegraph.
Bjorn has his own deep thoughts to deal with. He has twice tied for second and tied for eighth in the Open, and has likely never been more disappointed than when he left Royal St. George's last year following his collapse in playing the final three holes in 4 over and losing by a shot to unknown Ben Curtis.
"You can't run away from what happened last year," said Bjorn, who also said he was buoyed by some decent play in Loch Lomond, where he had three rounds in the 60s and tied for 16th a week after his meltdown in Ireland. Last year's collapse "will always be there. Now it's just a question of me going out and playing in a major championship and these things will slowly disappear. I can't live in 2003 if I want to win a major championship. I know I can play British Open golf. I know I can play when it gets really, really tough."