Golfers take on the 'World'; Strong foreign field
Akron, Ohio — Could this be the year they put the "world" in the World Series of Golf? Only American players have won since the format was expanded to 72 holes and a larger field in 1976.
But the foreign contingent this week includes several bona fide contenders who have shown that they can hold their own on United States soil, not to speak of a lot of distant soil.
Japanese Isao Aoki, his country's leading player for the past decade, will be making his fifth appearance in the World Series. Aoki finished 14th last year as Tom Watson shot 65 three times en route to a dazzling winning total of 270.
Aoki is remembered for his bristling head- to-head duel with Jack Nicklaus in the 1980 US Open at Baltusrol, where both smashed the tournament record.
He is the one with the distinctive putting style -- the toe of his putter sticking up in the air. It is a method he developed when he was a youngster playing with a putter too long for him.
Greg Norman, the blond Australian who hunts sharks, performed notably well in two major championships -- the Masters and the PGA -- this year.
Says Johnny Miller of Norman, "He could be the top player in the world very soon. I've been calling him Godzilla since I saw him drive the green on a 317 -yard hole in the Swiss Open last year. He may be the longest and straightest hitter in the game today."
Peter Oosterhuis of England is playing confidently after coming from behind in the last round to beat strong field in the Canadian Open.
The most interesting newcomer among the visitors is Bernhard Langer (pronounced Longer), the 24-year-old West German who was runner-up in the British Open in July.
Langer, say people in the continent, would be winning just about everything if he could putt. He has been a professional since the age of 15 and unsure of himself on the greens almost all of that time.
He has been known to slam a four-foot putt 10 feet past the hole, or to five-putt, or to double hit a putt. Of late, his putting has settled down, however.
"I've been practicing my stroke four hours a day, trying to be more relaxed in the arms," he says. "The problem is mental, though. It stems from fear of missing the putt."
About the only foreign star of consequence missing from the World Series lineup is Severiano Ballesteros of Spain, who has not been a force all year. Arguments over appearance money with European tournament sponsors may have distracted him.
On the American side, the World Series could determine Player of the Year honors and the money title.
It has been a year in which many experienced players have had their moments, but no one person has dominated.
The four major championships went to four different players, and the last two -- the British Open and the PGA -- were undramatic contests, Bill Rogers waltzing away with the British and Larry Nelson the PGA.
For Nelson, it was a warm victory at the Atlantic Athletic Club in front of friends and relatives in his native Georgia, and another milestone in a career that amazingly didn't begin until he took up the game at 21.
Tom Watson won the Masters and still leads the money chart with $341,110. But Ray Floyd and Bruce Lietzke, both over $320,000, could overtake Watson by capturing the $100,000 first prize here. Watson is bidding to become Player of the Year and leading money winner for the fifth consecutive year, in spite of a mid-year slump.
David Graham, the US Open victor, has to be given a good chance on the rugged Firestone South Course. So do Tom Kite, the most consistent player in golf this year, and Hale Irwin, who won the Buick Open over the weekend.
For Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the finest player in history, the World Series represents a last chance to save a mediocre season. He has not won a tournament , let alone the 20th major championship that is his goal, and he qualified here only by dint of being among the top 15 money winners. Jerry Pate and Curtis Strange, two strong players who could win, got in the same way.
All of which makes this the most appealing World Series yet. The tournament is not quite the grand finale to the season that commissioner Deane Beman has envisioned, but it's getting there.
"The tournament probably has had a greater impact overseas," says Beman. "It's truly a global event."