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British Longshot Leads, but Yanks Have First Laugh

Times Staff Writer

The United States and Great Britain are long time allies, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some discord between the English speaking nations once in a while.

The latest flap, minor in the world scheme of things, is developing in the British Open golf tournament.

Irritated by the British press, which has said that the Americans are losing prestige in golf at the expense of the Europeans, a Yankee spokesman retaliated Thursday after the first round of the tournament at the Royal Troon course.

Tom Kite, who isn’t regarded as a controversial player on the American tour, said that his countrymen have been slighted and challenged and will not be written off.

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Even though Britain’s Wayne Stephens led after the opening round with a six-under-par 66, the Americans were very much in contention with 14 of them under par on another warm, virtually windless day.

Seven players including three Americans, Lee Trevino, Paul Azinger and Fred Couples, were grouped at 68, two strokes behind Stephens, a struggling English pro, who has tried seven times for his European PGA tour card, losing it three times and regaining it twice.

In response to an observation by a British writer that the Americans are making a good showing in Scotland, Kite smiled and said: “Isn’t that great? Aren’t we having fun? Aren’t you enjoying it, eating those words?”

Kite, who shot a 70, was responding to taunts by the British press that an American (Tom Watson) hasn’t won the British Open since 1983 and that the United States has lost the last two Ryder Cup matches to the European team.

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Kite was asked if the Americans’ showing was significant. “I think it’s very significant. There’s a strong American contingent over here. I think most of the players (41 in all), who are exempt from the U.S. tour, are here with very few exceptions.

“We’re showing if you want to write us off, go ahead, but you’re going to pay for it. We’re not ready to be written off. I’m not predicting an American victory, but there will be very strong scores shot by the Americans this week as there will be every other week that Americans are in any other golf tournament.

“We’re not dead folks, I promise you.”

Kite acknowledged that the Americans are motivated by pride.

“Short of saying you guys (British press) insulted us, there is definitely a pride factor. Nobody likes to be written off, especially when they don’t think they are that bad of players. “I think the bookies are smart. They’re in the business to make money and they know the Europeans, especially the Brits, want to bet on the Brits. They’re going to get 3 to 1 odds on a bet against the Americans (winning) and they’re going to make a killing because the Americans are going to play well.”

Kite added that 37 Americans are ranked among the top 50 in the Sony rankings, emphasizing the strength of the American contingent.

Watson, who shot a 69 and is trying to win the British Open for a record equaling sixth time, snapped at a British reporter when questioned about the burgeoning rivalry between the Americans and Europeans.

“I think you’re making way too much out of this European-American contest,” he said. “I’m tired of hearing it. It’s an international game. Why haven’t the Americans won? Well, why didn’t the Europeans win for so many years?

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“You (British press) jumped all over the the Europeans, writing they didn’t have heart and stuff like that. It was unfair. And all of these questions about the Americans are unfair, too, and I wish you’d stop asking them.

“Let’s talk about the players rather than their nationalities. Let’s talk about the nationalities when we play the Ryder Cup. That’s fine. This whole contest is getting rather boring to me.”

It isn’t surprising that a British player is leading on a familiar links course after one round. However, one would figure that it would be Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, or Ian Woosnam.

Stephens, 29, a blond-haired pro with mustache to match, is virtually unknown in his own country.

“It’s a dream come ture,” he said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. Hard work does pay off.”

Stephens, who lives in Jersey, an island off the coast of England, recapped his struggling pro career.

“I got my card in 1984, then failed dismally to keep it,” he said. “I then played regional golf and regained my card in 1987, only to lose it again.

“I regained it last year, my seventh visit to the PGA qualifying school. It has been an uphill struggle and things have finally started to go.”

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Stephens had a bogey-free round, while making six birdies. He finished strongly, with birdies on the 15th and 17th holes.

He said he had an exceptionally small gallery when he started his round, only his father and a friend.

“After the fifth and seven holes (both birdies) there were a few more following me,” Stephens said. “Then, after another birdie at seven there were a few more. Coming down eleven there was a gathering and I was just trying to wear blinkers and not think about it.”

It was anticipated that there would be some low scores on the sun-baked course with hard fairways and minimal rough because of the lack of rain--and there were. Forty one players were under the par of 72.

Lee Trevino, Azinger and Couples were all in contention with their 68s and so is Watson and former UCLA star Steve Pate at 69.

The favored players didn’t falter to any extent, either. Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champion, had a 70; Australia’s Greg Norman checked in with a 69, Faldo had a 71 and defending champion Seve Ballesteros of Spain shot a 72.

However, the Scottish-born Lyle, who has been in a slump in recent months, shot a one-over-par 73, while Woosnam, from Wales, had a 74.

Kite was on the verge of a super round after a 31 on the front nine, five under par.

However, he shot 39 on the more demanding back nine, self destructing when he made a triple bogey at the par-five 15th hole after he hit his tee shot out of bounds.

Kite can ruefully recall a triple bogey at the fifth hole on the final day of the recent U.S. Open, leading to his demise after enjoying a six-stroke lead over the field after the third hole. He wound up with a 78, forfeiting the championship to Strange.

He wasn’t upset with his 70 Thursday, though, saying, “It’s a good position. You can’t win the tournament today, only lose it, and I haven’t done that.”

However, if he and the other Americans don’t stay in contention the final three rounds, surely the British press will take notice.

Golf Notes

Category of making the most of an opportunity: Spain’s Miguel-Angel Martin learned Tuesday that as a first alternate he could play in the British Open because of the withdrawal of American Jay Haas. He then proceeded to shoot a 68 to join the three Americans, fellow countryman Jose-Maria Olazabal, Argentine Eduardo Romero and Australian Wayne Grady two strokes behind leader Wayne Stephens.

Although is was a good day for the Americans, it was one Arnold Palmer, who won here in 1962, would like to forget. Palmer, 59, struggled in with an embarrassing 82, highest in the field, in what could be his final British Open appearance. U.S. Amateur champion Eric Meeks of Walnut also struggled, shooting an 81.


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