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FOCUS ON GOLF: U.S. Senior Open | JIM MURRAY

Open Invitation

There's No Card Coming in the Mail, so Don't Wait. Palmer and Nicklaus Are in Los Angeles, and This May Be Your Last Chance to Go See Them in a Major Competition Together in the Southland

With golf's foremost legend and a King roaming the grounds, it's unlikely there'll be an identity crisis at Riviera this week.

July 23, 1998|JIM MURRAY

Listen! Tired of Lee Janzen winning U.S. Opens? Had it up to here with mystery guests popping up as champions on the tour?

Want a break from the parade of anonymous nobodies taking home trophies? I mean, like, you ever hear of Joe Durant before he won the Western Open? How about Olin Browne, who won the Greater Hartford Open the next week? Know there was an "e" at the end of his name before? Even know his name before?

Stuart Appleby, not exactly a household name, either, even after he won the Kemper. Have any clear idea of what Trevor Dodds looks like? He won the Greensboro Chrysler Classic, thank you.

Were you scared that 17-year-old kid, Justin Rose, was going to win the British Open before Mark O'Meara did? Or maybe you thought Brian Watts, whoever he is, was going to take it?

It's getting to be anarchy out there. Not Who's Who but Who Dat? These guys could play in a mask. On second thought they don't need it.

Remember the days when you could identify a player four fairways over by his swing, his walk, his silhouette generally?

Well, I've got the solution for you. Get out to Riviera this afternoon and this weekend for the U.S. Senior Open. You'll have no trouble recognizing these guys. These guys have clubs named for them, courses. They would be recognized walking down the streets of Sri Lanka. They're larger than life.

They even have nicknames. The Golden Bear. The King. Murph.

These guys have won Masters, Opens, British Opens. These are not guys who had to go through Q school twice to make it on tour. These are Stars.

In the movie, "Sunset Boulevard," there's a scene in which Gloria Swanson stares into the camera and says grandly "We had faces in my day!" Well, they had names in these guys' days. And games.

Those days would have been the Golden Age of Golf. In their day, an opening-round headline of a major might read "Unknown Leads Open." But by the fourth round, it would read "Nicklaus Wins Open. Again."

In those days a Masters winners' checklist would show on successive years "Snead-Demaret-Hogan-Snead-Hogan." Or, later "Palmer-Player-Palmer-Nicklaus-Palmer-Nicklaus-Nicklaus." Not an "unknown" in the lot.

But now, it's almost the millennium. Is this just nostalgia? An old-timers' game?

Nope. Golf is like no other sport. A player doesn't even reach his full potential till he's in his 40s. So much of the game is cerebral, you can play it well into your dotage. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters when he was 46. He almost won it again when he was 58.

You think you can hit a baseball at age 58? Make a jump shot?

It's strange, but what leaves a player getting older is his ability to hit the least physical shot in the game--the putt. It must be a matter of eyesight, the inability to gauge the indentations of a green correctly.

Because, I dare say, Nicklaus can still hit a tee shot within a very few yards of the best in the game. Sure, the ball sprays a bit, the dreaded right-to-right shot emerges now and then. But let me ask you something: Did Nicklaus get any shots from Tiger Woods in the Masters? Or did they play level?

This is the senior Open and it will be as hotly contested as the regular U.S. Open. For one thing, a quarter of a million is at stake for the winner.

Riviera itself comes from the golden age of the sport. This is the only course in Southern California that has ever hosted a U.S. Open. It hosted three "majors" in all, the '48 U.S. Open (Hogan won it) and the 1983 and 1995 PGA championships.

The story-within-a-story at this historic site--and one that galls its (and their) fans--is that neither Jack Nicklaus nor Arnold Palmer ever won at this course.

I say galling because--between "majors" and regular L.A. Opens--some of the all-time greats have won at Riv. Hogan, of course, won here (three times). So did Byron Nelson (1946), Sam Snead, Lloyd Mangrum, Tommy Bolt, MacDonald Smith and, in later years, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller.

It has a proud tradition. Once dubbed "Hogan's Alley," it would like to round it out with Nicklaus' Nook or Palmer's Plot.

Jack has attacked the course in earnest. He was second in 1978 and second (by one shot) in the PGA in 1983. Once a stick rested behind his ball and could not be moved without incurring a penalty and cost him the tournament. But basically, Jack's problem has been the 18th hole, Riviera's rampart. A couple of times, Jack only had to par it to win or get in a playoff. His game died on its slopes.

Palmer won three L.A. Opens, but none of them were at Riviera.

It's a gap in their resumes. But it's also a gap in Riviera's.

If Jack comes up to 18 this Sunday needing a par to win or tie, close your eyes and pray.

And while you're at it, pray the guy he's trying to tie is Arnold Palmer. Riviera has had some great playoffs--Hogan-Snead in '50, Bolt-Jack Burke-Dutch Harrison in '52, Watson-Miller in '82, Ben Crenshaw-T.C. Chen in '87, Fred Couples-Davis Love III in '92. Even Nick Faldo won here.

But even if it's not Palmer-Nicklaus, bet it'll be someone you heard of. Not some amateur from Dundee or a Nike Tour refugee.

Riviera puts up with the odd Pat Fitzsimons, or Doug Tewell, T.C. Chen or Ted Schulz winning. But no one ever called it Fitz's Furlong, or Tewell's Turf, Chen's Corner or Schulz's Schuss.

It could be Hale's Hall. Hale Irwin won 20 tournaments, including the 1976 L.A. at Riviera and three U.S. Opens. You'll have no trouble picking him out of the crowd.

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