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FOCUS ON GOLF: U.S. Senior Open

It's an Altogether Foreign Concept

Field: Australia's Marsh says international contingent is strong, and likely to get even better in a few years.

July 23, 1998|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So what is it that they call Graham Marsh . . . besides U.S. Senior Open champion, of course?

Yes, he's Swampy. And if you think about it, that's a fairly predictable nickname, brought to us by the same guys who refer to Terry Dill as "Pickle" and who probably secretly refer to Don January as "Month," Miller Barber as "Pole" and Don Bies as "Wax."

But what Marsh really should be known as this week is the leader of the pack, the talented bunch of international players who might make a name for themselves among those in the over-50 generation competing at the U.S. Senior Open that begins today at Riviera Country Club.

Marsh, the most famous golfer from Kalgoorlie, Australia, won his title last year at Olympia Fields Country Club in Illinois, where he won by one shot over John Bland, of Knysna, South Africa, in the first 1-2 international finish in U.S. Senior Open history.

Could it happen again? Does a koala like eucalyptus leaves?

There are 14 international players at Riviera, and they make a strong group, led by Marsh, Isao Aoki of Japan, Hugh Baiocchi of South Africa, David Graham of Australia, Jose Maria Canizares of Spain and Vicente Fernandez of Argentina.

It's not only a good group, it's going to be even better, Marsh said.

"The international players have been so successful, in an elite field of 78 on the senior tour, we probably make up 15% of the field," he said. "I think we're always going to be a force to be threatened with."

Not to mention reckoned with. Marsh pointed out that there's a rather large supply of international players who will turn 50 in the next decade or so. And with no other senior tour for them to play except the richest and best-run in the world--the Senior PGA Tour--you can expect players dropping in such as Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer.

"So there's going to be many more quality senior players," Marsh said. "That's going to mean the quality of non-American players will remain high for a very long time."

Roberto De Vicenzo won the first U.S. Senior Open in 1980 at Winged Foot, and three other international players have won the senior major title: Gary Player of South Africa in 1986-87, Simon Hobday of South Africa in 1994 and Marsh last year.

The U.S. Golf Assn. usually sets up its U.S. Senior Open courses in sort of scaled-down versions of the U.S Open. At the senior Open, the rough is high, but not as high as the other Open. The fairways are narrowed, but not as much as at the Open. The greens are fast, only not as fast as the other Open.

Marsh said the setup of a U.S. Open course requires a great deal of patience and at Olympia Fields, that may have aided the international players.

"It was really defensive golf in the true sense of the word," Marsh said. "And I believe that we international players have probably played a little bit more defensive golf than the American players.

"But I would not say that would be the case here. In fact, I would say this week the American players have a huge advantage because they have played Riviera over the years and they know the golf course."

The other international players who will tee it up at Riviera are Bob Charles of New Zealand, Bruce Crampton and Bruce Devlin of Australia, Hobday and Bobby Cole of South Africa and Tony Jacklin, Peter Oosterhuis and Brian Barnes of England.

In the field of non-American players, Marsh believes that Graham may have the best shot because he's playing well now, he's long off the tee and he can putt.

"I would suggest that he's a real threat around here," Marsh said.

Baiocchi could prove to be an equal threat, according to Marsh, who isn't nearly as sold on his own chances. In 17 tournaments, Marsh has five top 10s and has made $422,551, which is No. 21 on the Senior PGA Tour money list. But he has had only one top 10 since June and hasn't won since the U.S. Senior Open last year.

That's not to say Marsh has no chance.

"My confidence is gaining, but it's not at the same peak that it was at this time last year," he said. "However, every week is a new week and I believe that my ball-striking is starting to come back and my putting hasn't been all that far away. It's hard to get a true reflection on my putting because I've been hitting my iron shots so far from the hole. If I can [change] that, then I feel like I've got some kind of chance."

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