The Senior tour is golf's ultimate mulligan. Sure, most of the
attention goes to the immortals whose reputations were made long
before they turned 50, but what makes the tour compelling are
the second-tier players given one last chance to write a
revisionist history of their careers. The Senior tour is a place
for journeymen to prove they are winners and, as we saw last
week at the 18th U.S. Senior Open, for winners to show they can
At Olympia Fields Country Club, outside Chicago, Graham Marsh of
Australia added the final, elusive line to his remarkable resume
when he held off his good friend John Bland to win by a stroke,
shooting an even-par 280 (72-67-67-74). For most of his career
Marsh has been the best player nobody ever heard of, the winner
of 61 tournaments on five tours. Now, with the first major
championship of his 28-year career, Marsh is finally fulfilled.
"This is the ultimate," he said on Sunday evening. "I came to
the U.S. because I wanted to--I needed to--win a major
championship. This may only be a mini-major, but it is certainly
the most prestigious Senior title in golf."
Marsh can savor the victory because of the way he won it. He was
the last man standing on one of the toughest tracks the Seniors
have ever played, and he had faced down a tough competitor.
Marsh began the final round at four under par and two shots
clear of his playing partner, Bland, a puffy-cheeked South
African who is now a contender for the dread title of the best
over-50 player never to have won a major (or a mini-major).
On the 1st hole Marsh bogeyed, Bland birdied and the game was
on. They would flip-flop atop the leader board twice on the
front nine and never be separated by more than one shot on the
back. It was all square as they stood on the 72nd tee, a motley
crew of challengers having tried unsuccessfully to squeeze into
the picture. With the honors Bland found the intermediary rough
on the right side. Marsh proceeded to hit what he later called
his best drive of the week, a 295-yard bomb that split the
fairway. Forty yards in arrears, Bland was forced to fire at the
flag but instead found the right bunker. When he failed to get
up and down, Marsh had two putts from 15 feet for the
July 6, 1997
The second of these traveled only four inches, but its journey
was nearly three decades in the making. To give you some idea of
how (and where) Marsh spent most of the 1970s, here is a partial
list of the tournaments he won in his first five pro seasons:
the Swiss Open, the Indian Open, the German Open, the Thailand
Open, the Malaysian Open and the Tokyo Open. Despite this
success, Marsh was hesitant to export his game to America. "When
I started out, the U.S. was mecca for golfers," he says. "I
certainly think that we [international players] had a mental
thing about playing against Americans. We thought they were
better, and the results reflected that."
In 1977 Marsh finally took the plunge, playing in 17 events on
the PGA Tour. He was an unqualified success, finishing in the
top 25 on the money list and nipping Tom Watson by a stroke to
win the Heritage Classic. "He proved to himself that he could
win here--not to us, because we already knew," says Hale Irwin,
who remembers the Marsh of those days for his wild hair and
controlled swing. "Those of us who played the game had always
known about Graham's ability. It was the rest of you who had no
idea. He came over and put his stamp on this continent just like
he had on all the others."
Then he was gone. In 1977 Marsh's son was 13 and his daughter
eight. He was unwilling to uproot his family from Perth.
Commuting to the U.S. for 20 or so tournaments a year was not an
option, so Marsh settled in on the four more easily accessible
tours where he had earned exemptions--the European, Japanese,
South African and Australasian. His path often converged with
Bland's, and a friendship was built on keen wit, easy laughter
and a shared passion for rugby and cricket. (Marsh's brother,
Rod, remains the biggest sports hero in the family. He was a
champion wicket keeper and is a coach at the Australian Cricket
Bland, who led the South African money list four times and has
about 30 international victories, also shared with Marsh an
immunity to the lure of the States. "What you have to understand
is that international golf in those days was very exciting,"
says Bland. "The game was growing, the tours were expanding, and
a new generation of champions was blossoming. You know, there
are 18 holes to a golf course all over the world, and not just
in the U.S."
True, but America has a monopoly on high-quality Senior golf,
and both Marsh and Bland have played the Senior tour full time
since becoming eligible (though neither has bought a house in
the U.S.). In less than two years Bland has five victories, the
same number as Marsh in his 3 1/2 seasons. With games built
around control and consistency, both were popular picks heading
into the Open, particularly Marsh. He had shot down Irwin, the
tour's big gun, the week before to win the Nationwide
Championship and had tied for second, tied for eighth and
finished fourth in his three previous U.S. Senior Opens.
Marsh, however, looked a little shaky during an opening 72 that
included a pair of three-putts. He was not the only one to have
trouble on the greens, which were the talk of the tournament.
Chi Chi Rodriguez, who has been around for 12 of the 18 Senior
Opens, called Olympia Fields "the toughest [course] we've ever
played an Open on." The par-70 layout was more than 6,800 yards
long--robust considering that two par-5s were converted into
par-4s--and the rough was penal, but, said Jack Nicklaus, who
was four over for the championship, tying for fifth, "The greens
are where the spice is on this course."
Olympia Fields was opened in 1923 and is typical of old Ice Belt
courses: The putting surfaces are pitched severely from back to
front so water will drain during the long winters. The already
devilish greens were slicked up for the Open, and the USGA
didn't help matters with a series of pin placements that Dave
Eichelberger, who also tied for fifth, called goofy. Bob Murphy
said the USGA went overboard. "You want to be entertained? Go
watch guys try to putt on number 3," Murphy said last Friday.
"You know what, I'll bet you 100 bucks you'll see a four-putt on
Murphy could have gone one better: David Graham five-putted the
final hole from 18 feet. "Quite frankly, I don't know what the
hell happened out there," said Graham. Defending champ Dave
Stockton did. "These greens are so severe, if you get above the
hole you'll take a beating," said Stockton, who in an unrelated
incident hurt his back on the eve of the tournament, struggled
to a 77-75 and missed the cut.
By the weekend both Marsh and Bland had found their touch on the
greens. (Eichelberger was the only other player in the red after
three rounds, and that didn't last long come Sunday.) On
Saturday evening Marsh looked ahead by looking back. "Tomorrow
is probably the most important day of my golfing life," he said
before drifting into a reverie about missed opportunities. "I
certainly have regrets. I was basically limiting myself to one
major a year," he said, referring to the British Open, in which
he was often a factor. Marsh's closest call came in 1983, at
Royal Birkdale. He went off early on the final day and played
what he considers the finest round of his career, a 64 despite
the fact that it was "blowing a gale." Marsh was still the
leader in the clubhouse when the other contenders made the turn
in the afternoon. Then, he said, "the flags atop the clubhouse
simply died. The wind vanished." Watson wound up winning his
fifth British Open, with Marsh falling two shots short.
It was obvious from the very beginning of the final round of the
Senior Open that Marsh didn't have another 64 in him. He
three-putted the 1st green for bogey and then hit weak iron
shots on 2 and 3 and failed both times to get up and down. The
three straight bogeys put Marsh one shot behind Bland. At the
short and tricky par-4 5th, Marsh finally found himself. He
stuck a wedge shot eight feet from the hole and made birdie,
while Bland failed to salvage par after driving into the rough.
Marsh was again up by one stroke, and he never lost the lead. He
sank two huge putts on the back nine, a 12-footer for par at the
14th to remain tied, and an eight-footer to match Bland's birdie
on the 17th and set up the climactic 18th. "That wasn't very
friendly of him, was it, holing that putt right on top of mine?"
Marsh showed little compassion between the ropes but plenty once
things had been decided, embracing Bland on the 18th green. Said
Marsh, "I would dearly love for John to win this title and
experience the elation that I'm experiencing now." Not to
mention the validation.
You'll have to excuse Bland if he seems a little impatient for
his day to come. On the eve of the final round he was
remembering a duel from the old days, at the 1976 Benson &
Hedges International, one of the European tour's most
prestigious tournaments. He and Marsh were tied for the lead
heading into the 72nd hole, a short par-4. From the fairway
Bland, hitting first, put his approach to within 12 feet of the
cup. Marsh proceeded to hole his wedge shot and win the
tournament. "I've been annoyed about that ever since," Bland says.
Imagine how he feels now.