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All the World Loves a Tour Golfer

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Mike Weir at 2007 Presidents Cup
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Canada's Mike Weir is among the international golfers attracting more attention than ever. (Jeff White/WorldGolf.com )

When I dropped in on my friend Biff he was in his usual soft chair in front of the tube, watching golf. He seldom moved from there during idle hours, and he surrounded himself with everything he needed to make the viewing totally enjoyable. At one elbow were the PGA Tour guide, various tournament schedules, and even a rulebook. On the other side, he had a couple of pads and pencils on which he kept notes of the play and some of the tips TV talk men, Ken Venturi, Johnny Miller and the others, passed along to liven up the dull passages.

But there was something different about this cozy scene last week. Also near his chair was an attractive globe of the world, poised on its axis in a polished mahogany fixture.

"You planning a trip?" I kidded, pointing to the globe.

"Oh, that. I moved that in here so I could keep track of things," he explained. "If you're going to follow golf at this time of the year, that's the only way you can keep up with it. They're playing everywhere."

To illustrate his point, he gave the globe a slight spin and began to spot the various places where television cameras were aimed last week. The PGA Seniors were in Puebla, Mexico; the Canadian Tour was opening the season in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina of all places; the ladies were in Wellington, New Zealand, and the European Tour had its sixth straight foreign stop in Singapore. The U.S. PGA Tour was in Los Angeles, at Riviera.

"With different seasons, different time zones," he went on. "This is the best way to keep your head on straight."

If he really wanted to capture the right mood, I suggested, he should have some imported beer and exotic nibbling items at his elbow instead of the usual Budweiser and chips. He ignored it as he reached for another chip.

But Biff's point was well taken. Tournament golf is covering the face of the earth like that famous paint whose name I can think of right now. Indeed, in the last five years or so, it has become the most international of the spectator sports, largely due to the various tours reaching out for so many foreign venues.

The big promotional push for the World Golf Championship program undoubtedly started the wheels turning in many areas. The idea of bringing big-time tournament golf to places where it is seldom seen was immediately attractive to the tour planners who are always looking for ways of expanding schedules and pumping up purses. It has had less effect on the American tours, which already have full schedules and huge purses, but some of the others have pounced on the opportunity with considerable vigor.

The European Tour has cranked up its circuit in the mild climate of South Africa for many years, but this year it has expanded to new continents, with tournaments in Australia (two), Malaysia and Singapore. Still coming up are stops in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar before the caravan finally reaches European soil in mid-March and starts looking like the European Tour again.

Perhaps the most radical change has been put in place by the Canadian Tour. The long, hard Canadian winters always have meant a late start for this tour, but now that everyone else is doing it, it is cranking up four weeks earlier on foreign soil, South Carolina. They're playing four events at Myrtle Beach, with a financial assist from the Golf Channel which will present them on cable and by the time they head north for home the grass will be greening up and the flowers will be ready to blossom.

Aside from its unique schedule launch, Canadian golf could be attracting more attention than ever this year. Two of its players, Lorie Kane and Mike Weir, already are in the front line of this year's hot performers and are threatening to cut themselves an even-bigger slice of the pie before the year is out. The pint-sized Weir left Tiger Woods in the dust when he won the WGC American Express stroke play title last fall, worth a quick million, and he's been in the top ten in most of his starts this year. Similarly, Kane has been the standout in the early going of the LPGA, beating out Annia Sorenstam in the Takefuji Classic with a final round, course-record 66.

For those who thought all the spectacular action of last year might set up a ho-hum letdown in 2001, the first eight events of the PGA Tour have shot that down. There has been a different winner every week - the Tiger wasn't among them - and on two successive weeks there were all-time record-breaking performances. At this pace, the fans could be gasping for breath by the time the Ryder Cup rolls around in September.

On the heels of Mark Calcavecchia's best-ever score of 256 for 72 holes in the Phoenix Open, an all the more remarkable feat when it is done at age 40, the relatively unknown Joe Durant followed with a record-breaking spree of his own. Oddly enough, his heroics wound up being overshadowed by another aging golfer.

Durant had won only once before on the PGA Tour and has spent most of his career well down on the money list. At the Bob Hope Classic, he hit a lot of new highs, including the light-headed thrill of finally going into the last round with the lead.

Playing his best golf ever, including a second-round 61, Durant made his first assault on the record book with a score of 29 under for 72 holes in the 90-hole event that is played n four courses in California's Palm Desert. Durant's modest gallery gave him enthusiastic cheers, and his playing partners pounded his back, but the real excitement was elsewhere.

Most of the fans at the PGA West complex had gathered around a superstar of some 40 years standing and had decided to follow him in as he finished his round. He wasn't anywhere near challenging Durant. Indeed, he wasn't even going to make the cut. But this was Arnold Palmer, their all-time hero, everybody's hero, and at age 71, he was about to do something that hadn't been achieved in a PGA event in 22 years. He was going to shoot his age.

Arnie had won the Hope five times, including the very first event in 1960. And he had missed it only once since, when he was successfully battling health problems. But now, with his adoring fans urging him on, Palmer moved over the final holes like he was enroute to the triumph of his life.

He stubbed his toe on the 15th with a double bogey that dropped him back to even par, but he got that back with a birdie on the par-3 17th. All he needed now was a par on the final hole and he'd have his 1-under 71. With the silence that enveloped the final putt, it seemed like the deciding shot for the U.S. Open was pending. And when he safely canned it, the gallery exploded with joy. Palmer grinned and stood silently for a moment. Undoubtedly, scenes of a thousand yesterdays raced through his head. Now he had one more, and it was kind of special.

He was the first to shoot his age since Sam Snead, another favorite who never seemed to grow old, pulled it off in 1979 with a 66.

The roars for Durant came the next day, when he shot an almost-flawless final-round 65 to finish 36 under par the lowest score ever in a 90-tour event. Yes, he had to share part of his glory march with the King, but judging by the way Durant's playing, there'll be other marches, other glory.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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