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6 Under and in Shock : An Unlikely Stephens Leads in British Open

From Associated Press

Wayne Stephens shocked the field and the fans with a course record-tying 6-under-par 66 today for a two-shot lead after the first round of the British Open.

Stephens, who hasn’t even come close to winning a tournament in 11 seasons on and off the European Tour, did not make a bogey in his assault on the sand hills of Royal Troon.

The 28-year-old Englishman, one of the most unlikely leaders this ancient event has ever seen, has made seven tries at the European Tour qualifying school, hasn’t finished higher than 22nd in any event this year and last season was a distant 169th among the European money-winners.

But Stephens produced the round of his life to break an eight-way tie for the lead with a 12-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole and went two in front of 155 of the world’s finest players with an 18-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole.

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Only a handful of the swarming gallery of 20,000 golf-mad Scots remained on the beaches of the Ayrshire Coast to see Stephens’ par-saving putt on the final hole in the early evening haze.

“A marvelous feeling,” said Stephens, who was chain-smoking in something approaching shock after his career-best effort.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” he said.

His heroics, which tied the course record set by Sandy Lyle, Tom Purtzer and Bobby Clampett in 1982, left old pro Lee Trevino and six others in a tie for second at 68.

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Also at 4-under was a group made up of Spaniards Jose-Maria Olazabal and Miguel Martin, Eduardo Romero of Argentina, Wayne Grady of Australia and Americans Paul Azinger and Fred Couples.

Stephens’ late rush put him at the top of the standings but failed to overshadow the long-absent American influence in the oldest of all the world’s golf tournaments.

American players--some of them more than a little miffed by pre-tournament predictions of doom--dominated opening play in the tournament that has provided them with nothing but frustration and embarrassment for five years. They held five of the first 15 places.

Tom Watson, seeking a record sixth British Open title, scored an eagle-three and birdied the last hole for a 69 that left him in a large group three strokes off the pace.

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U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange and Tom Kite were tied with several others at 70. That’s very much in the title chase and prompted Kite to tweak some British reporters.

“I’m loving it. Isn’t it great. And aren’t you hating it?” Kite chided British reporters in a mass interview.

Earlier in the week, some of Britain’s legal bookies posted odds of 3-1 that an American--any American--would not win this title.

The British press pounced on it with glee and all but wrote off American chances.

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“You can write us off if you want,” Kite said. “But you’ll pay for it.

“We can still play. I’m not saying we’ll win. But we’ll have some strong scores. We had some strong scores today. Just as we’ll have every day we play,” Kite said.

“Short of saying you guys insulted us, nobody likes to be written off. We’re not ready to be written off,” Kite said.


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