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SPORTS WEEKEND | GOLF

This Open Sarazen's Cup of Tee

July 10, 1998|THOMAS BONK

In 1932, 30-year-old Gene Sarazen took a boat to England, where he played the British Open at Prince's and won it by five shots over Macdonald Smith.

The defending champion at this year's British Open is Justin Leonard, who wasn't born until 40 years after Sarazen's victory. Sarazen is 96 now, lives in Marco Island, Fla., and he's light-years away from that Open title he took some 66 years ago . . . not that he's counting, of course.

"Oh, my God, that was such a long time ago," Sarazen said. "And it was such a different tournament than it is now.

"Here's why. I wanted to win that so badly, because at that time, winning the British Open was so important. Any major was. Now, it's all big money in all the other tournaments. Well, I'll tell you, when a fellow gets $300,000 and loses by a stroke, he doesn't feel so bad."

There weren't that many U.S. players who made the trip across the Atlantic in Sarazen's day, although those who went were fairly successful. Walter Hagen won in 1922, 1924, 1928 and 1929 and Bobby Jones won in 1926, 1927 and 1930.

A total of 27 U.S. players made the cut last year at Royal Troon. Mark Brooks, who has two top-five finishes at the British Open, said U.S. players seem more interested in playing the event these days.

"That the prize money is official money [counted on the PGA Tour money list] is a factor," Brooks said. "I won't say it's the primary factor, but it's a big one. Plus, it's the most important golf championship in the world. Absolutely."

Sarazen remains keenly interested in and refreshingly opinionated about the Open championship, which has been held since 1860, except for 11 years during World War I and World War II.

He doesn't think Leonard has much of a chance, terming his victory "accidental" because Jesper Parnevik missed easy putts coming in. But Sarazen said U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen is looking good.

"He's very steady, very controlled," Sarazen said. "I haven't forgotten that's what it takes over there."

TV GENE

If you want to lump Sarazen in with the group of viewers that will watch any golf event on television, well, just count him out.

Said Sarazen: "Yes, I love to watch majors, so I'll be watching the British Open. I don't watch the other tournaments. There's too many of them."

NO FOUR-PEAT?

You could look it up. The last three British Open champions are from the U.S. In 1995, it was John Daly at St. Andrews. In 1996, it was Tom Lehman at Royal Lytham. And in 1997, it was Leonard.

Does anyone hear four in a row?

"I don't think it'll happen," said Sarazen, who detects a slight shift in the axis of power away from the U.S. at the British Open.

"I think Ernie Els and Monty [Colin Montgomerie] are the two greatest players out there," said Sarazen, who also identified Australian Stuart Appleby as a rising young star on the world stage, although not necessarily at this British Open.

As for Tiger Woods, Sarazen isn't sold on his chances at Royal Birkdale.

"I don't know if he can adjust to that kind of golf," Sarazen said.

CAN YOU BOOK IT?

At 62, trim Gary Player remains a fitness fanatic whose quest for dietary fiber means he's always looking for the perfect brown bread.

Anyway, the perpetually peppy Player figures it's the rest of the world that has finally caught up to him, as far as interest in fitness goes. And so in the name of good health, Player would like to write a book, targeted for a U.S. audience, to help people push away from the table.

Right, Gary?

"Exactly. One of my greatest desires over 40 years of being in the public eye, is to deliver a message: America is a land of obesity. And so I would like to put out a book to get rid of that obesity. That would be one of my greatest achievements ever in golf.

"I have the answer to keep fit and to keep lean and mean."

BEN THERE, DONE THAT

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw is writing a letter inviting any U.S. players who are potential members of the 1999 team to play a practice round this September at Brookline Country Club in Massachusetts.

So far, Jim Furyk and Leonard have told Crenshaw they are interested in playing, sometime around the time of the Bell Canadian Open, Sept. 10-13, or the B.C. Open, Sept. 17-20.

As for Crenshaw, he is involved in almost everything more than his golf, which he described as "terrible."

HELLO, LARRY

Turning 50 isn't always a reason to celebrate, unless you're headed to the Senior PGA Tour.

Larry Nelson won the PGA Championship in 1981 and '87 and the U.S. Open in 1983, but once he started becoming a factor on the senior tour--he has won twice this year--he was startled by the reaction.

Said Nelson: "I got more attention for turning 50 than for any of my major championships."

BIRDIES, BOGEYS, PARS

Want to buy a ticket for next year's U.S. Open at Pinehurst? Too late. They sold out a couple of hours after they went on sale last week. It's the 13th consecutive year the U.S. Open has sold out, beginning with the 1987 Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

For what it's worth, Woods now has one victory in his last 20 tournaments. He won six times in his first 21 events after turning pro.

Jay Hyon and Mouse Bruner of Los Angeles, Ray Swedo of Whittier, Jeff Van Wagenen of Pasadena, Ray Carrasco of Irvine, Randy Clark of Encinitas, Matthew Slavin of La Quinta, Bob Risch of Fullerton and Bill Brooks of Simi Valley qualified for the U.S. Senior Open.

Now that Se Ri Pak has won the U.S. Open, her second major title of the year, she is leading the points race for player of the year.

The USGA will present a $45,000 grant today to help fund the Long Beach Little Linksters junior golf program at Heartwell Golf Course.

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