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Predictions of Doom Found to Be All Wet : Golf: Rain takes the bite out of Royal St. George's. Norman, Zoeller, Calcavecchia and Senior tied for lead at 66.

July 16, 1993|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANDWICH, England — The world's greatest golfers had braced for an unforgiving British Open, rolling marbles on car hoods to get a feel for the greens, only to awaken Thursday to showers that would tame the bedrock course at Royal St. George's.

The rain fell mainly on the plain, beginning late Wednesday, alleviating fears that the 122nd British Open would dispense more broken clubs than pars.

The soil softening produced four scores of 66, four under par, in a truly fair-fight first round against a course of some repute.

Locked in a four-way tie for first are Mark Calcavecchia, Fuzzy Zoeller and Australians Greg Norman and Peter Senior, none among the betting favorites.

The leaders took advantage of tee times that skirted periodic drenchings to blister a course on which par or worse has been good enough to win 10 of the 11 previous Opens staged here.

Calcavecchia, Senior and Norman went off in the morning, Zoeller in the afternoon.

"We certainly got the best of the day," said Senior, a veteran who seemed shocked to be up at the press-room podium.

Of the 156 in the field, 47 players shot under par.

Ten players shot 67, including American Larry Mize and Masters champion Bernhard Langer.

Three-time British Open champion Seve Ballesteros, who had been in a terrible slump, shot a 68, despite bogeys on the last two holes.

There were also rumblings from Jack Nicklaus, who shot a 69 and was only three back.

So, the field tried to make hay while the sun wasn't shining.

"Tuesday, my spikes wouldn't even go into the ground," Nicklaus said of the turf. "(Thursday) the grass even turned green. I'm not being facetious. It's turned from brown to green."

Nick Price and Nick Faldo, the co-favorites, remained within striking distance, Price at 68 and Faldo at 69.

Faldo, the defending Open champion, might have preferred even nastier course conditions, betting that his tenacity and experience would separate him from a bloated leader board.

"If it's firm, it's very difficult," Faldo said of the course. "You've got half a chance now."

They have half a chance now, Faldo might have been saying.

"Obviously, it made it easy," Faldo said. "When it's hard, you'd almost like to tear your hair out."

Golfers lined up to take advantage.

There was an American, Calcavecchia, the hot-tempered winner of the 1989 British Open, who since that triumph has struggled with his shots and his wits.

This is the Calcavecchia who lately had struggled to make three-foot putts, the one who broke a club at the 1992 L.A. Open and almost beaned a spectator, the guy who blew a four-hole lead with four holes to go against Colin Montgomerie at the '91 Ryder Cup at Kiawah, S.C., after which he considered hurling himself into the ocean.

"If I wasn't crying so hard, I might have," he said.

After the Ryder choke, Calcavecchia was so shaken that he started hyperventilating. Paramedics had to be called. Some figured they would have doctors on call for him here at Royal St. George's.

Thursday, Calcavecchia did not bogey once. He made four birdies and did not lose a ball or--more important--a club.

This from a guy whose season began so poorly, he said, that he prayed for a rainout at the Infiniti Tournament of Champions. Then he missed the next five cuts.

His putting went south in 1991, and Calcavecchia might have hitched a freight train 1,000 miles north to find the right club.

"I got about 75 in the closet you can have," he told reporters.

In April, at the Greater Greensboro Open, he found a putter he could live with, buying it from a guy who was selling them out of the back of a school bus.

"I needed something like this to get a little bit of confidence," Calcavecchia said of his 66.

Norman also took Route 66, rallying from a double-bogey six on the first hole to post a 31 on the back nine, which included a string of five consecutive birdies beginning on No. 13.

Norman, 38, won the British Open in 1986 and some thought it might be the start of something big. In an otherwise successful career, though, that remains Norman's only major title.

Like the others, Norman couldn't believe how much the course had changed.

"If we'd have had the course we had Monday or Tuesday, it would have been one of the toughest British Opens ever played," he said."

Senior isn't much of a name outside Australia. The 33-year-old splits his time between the Australian and European tours, taking a wife and two small children through the airports and time zones on the weary journey through his life's dream.

"It's tough on the kids, and it's tough on the parents," Senior said.

But three more rounds of 66 would make it worth the effort.

Senior has won 11 tournaments, worldwide, since 1989. Few expect this will be No. 12.

Ballesteros, who didn't make the cut at last year's U.S. Open, hopes his game will be reborn. Despite his struggles, Thursday's gallery sent him off with a warm cheer on the first tee.

"I still have a lot of loyal fans, even though I'm not playing well," he said.

Fans can turn. So can the weather.

Price and Faldo aren't sweating bullets.

"I don't worry where I end up, as long as I end up where I want on Sunday night," Faldo said. "It's not a bike race."

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