AUSSIES RULE

Their numbers growing as fast as their rate of success, Australian golfers are taking a backseat to no one
August 29, 2004

Australia should no longer be called the Land Down Under, though rest assured, its women still glow and its men still plunder, as the '80s song goes. Oh, do they ever plunder. A more fitting designation for the country might be the Land Down Under Par because Australia is turning out more world-class tour pros per capita than any other nation on earth. Australians have been enjoying a stunning number of g'days, mate. Surely you've noticed. ¶ If Steve Allan had simply bogeyed the final hole of last week's Reno-Tahoe Open, an Australian would have won for the seventh time on the PGA Tour this year. Among the victories was Adam Scott's at the prestigious Players Championship. Five Aussies rank among the top 11 money-winners on the Nationwide tour and are likely to earn PGA Tour cards for next year, although it was a less successful countryman, David Mckenzie, who finished a shot out of first last week at the Alberta Classic.

In all, 19 Australians play on the PGA Tour, and eight are among the top 60 money-winners, while at least a dozen are regulars on the European tour. Nick Flanagan, the 20-year-old 2003 U.S. Amateur champion, plays on both; he made his U.S. pro debut last week in Reno, finishing 66th. At last week's NEC Invitational 10 of the 75 starters were Australians, as are 11 of the top 100 players in the World Ranking.

It's too late to sound the alarm that the Australians are coming. They're here, and, says Craig Parry, who holed a six-iron shot from the 18th fairway to win this year's Ford Championship at Doral, "There are another 10 or 12 guys behind us who're ready to come out."

The rise of Australia, a country of only 20 million, as a golf power can be traced almost directly to Greg Norman. Not only was he the best player in the world in the late 1980s and early '90s, but he also was the most exciting and charismatic, a man whose celebrity transcended the game, and whose nickname, the Great White Shark, was as distinctly Australian as his go-for-broke style of play. Norman inspired more than one generation of players. "Greg had a great influence," says Stuart Appleby, 33, who kicked off this year's Aussie surge by winning the season-opening Mercedes Championships. "It was very, very important for kids to see someone like him playing on the world stage. He certainly drove up the numbers of those who got into golf."

Allan, 30, a baby-faced native of Melbourne who earned exempt status on the PGA Tour for the first time last year, took up the game only after watching Norman lose a playoff to Fuzzy Zoeller in the '84 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. It's been nine years since an Australian won a major title--Steve Elkington was the last, at the 1995 PGA Championship--but that streak seems destined to end soon. Many observers feel that the player to do it will be Scott, who is Australia's top-ranked player at only 24. His ties to Norman are even more direct. He went through a junior program in Queensland started by the Greg Norman Foundation. He has even hired Norman's longtime caddie, Tony Navarro, and has closely followed the Shark's example while plotting his career.

But Australia's golf legacy is not confined to Norman. Through the years Elkington, Ian Baker-Finch, Bruce Devlin, Wayne Grady, David Graham, Kel Nagle, Norman von Nida and the legendary Peter Thomson, who won four of his five British Opens in the '50s and was runner-up three other times, have all distinguished themselves as top-flight players. What's different now is the sheer quantity of quality players Australia is producing. Today there are more than 100 Aussies playing professionally on one tour or another worldwide.

The Aussies' six PGA Tour wins this year, the most for the Australians since 1997, have underscored their depth of talent. Rod Pampling, 14th at the NEC after contending for three rounds, was largely known for leading the '99 British Open after the first round only to shoot 86 and miss the cut. So when he sank a clutch putt for eagle on the 71st hole to win the International earlier this month, he seemed something of a Cinderella story. In fact, Pampling, 34, has been playing in the U.S. for 10 years, the last five splitting time between the Nationwide and PGA tours. He was already an established veteran with a solid all-around game, and in the last two years he has won more than $2 million. "Pamps has always been a good player," says Peter Senior, a 45-year-old Australian who plays primarily in Europe. "This is simply the start for him."

Mark Hensby, 33, is another Australian who caught casual fans by surprise when he won the John Deere Classic in July. At 5'8" and 150 pounds, Hensby doesn't appear to be a powerful player, but he's sneaky long and straight off the tee and is an excellent putter. Before breaking through at the Deere, he had nearly won in Atlanta in April and finished third at the Western Open in July.

Peter Lonard was 15 when he told his father, Ted, an insurance agent, that he was going to become a pro golfer. His father's reply: "Over my dead body." But Peter stuck to his guns, even though an energy-sapping illness forced him to take a job as a club pro and put his playing career on hold. He decided to resume his quest when he was invited to play in a tournament in Japan a few years later, but when he went looking for his passport, he couldn't find it. "I chucked it out," his father told him. "Now that you have a decent job, why would you want to leave?" Since then Lonard has won five times worldwide, but not in the U.S., where he nonetheless has earned almost $2 million in the last two seasons. He has also had top 20 finishes in three of the four majors during his career. "My dad's starting to come around now," Lonard says. "It's only taken him 20 years."

Among the Australians who are about to graduate from the Nationwide to the PGA Tour, Gavin Coles, Paul Gow, 1994 Presidents Cupper Bradley Hughes and Euan Walters are players to watch, but Brendan Jones is considered the cream of the crop. "Brendan is the one," says Senior. "He hits it miles. We have so many good players. I'm on the board of our PGA, and when I walk on the practice ground, I don't know half the guys."

What's really behind the Australian phenomenon is the accessibility of the country's 1,700 courses (including even Royal Melbourne, one of the world's finest), a climate that allows for year-round play, a sports-loving culture, government-funded junior programs and quality instruction. And unlike many places in the U.S., money is not an issue. Lonard remembers paying $20 Australian as a kid to play all summer at a private club in Sydney.

The most important piece of the puzzle is the opportunity players have to develop at the sport institutes that are scattered throughout the country. Every Australian state has one, and successful golfers such as Appleby, Norman, Graham March and Jack Newton have privately funded ones as well. The state institutes offer athletes instruction, a place to train and competition in many sports besides golf.

"The VIS [Victorian Institute of Sport, in Melbourne] stands out," says Steve Bann, Appleby's coach. "There's no set recipe for our program. We adjust the swing to the player's needs and body type."

Unlike the college system in America, sports and academics are kept separate, and the competition is not so cutthroat. "In our program, coaches share information," Bann says. "We ask ourselves every day, 'What's best for the athlete?' In America the college system is 'Catch and kill your own.' All coaches care about is how the players are going to play for two or three years' time, so they take shortcuts. That's good for us because if they trained 'em the way we train 'em, it would be a lot tougher for our guys."

The system works. "I fear the Australians," says Tom Patri, a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher who has worked with several touring pros. "All of the young golfers I've seen from there are talented. I wouldn't label any of them a miss. Someone over there is doing a hell of a job developing golfers."

The men from the Land Down Under, if they keep up this plunder, may one day end up on top.

COLOR PHOTOKEITH SRAKOCIC/AP (FLANAGAN)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)