South African leads Open's foreign legion


OAKMONT, Pa. -- When the folks in charge of invitations to this year's U.S. Open decided to expand their guest list of special exemptions to include the top 15 players from the European PGA Tour, little did they know what havoc they would wreak.

How could they have predicted that the foreigners would take over Oakmont Country Club as if it were St. Andrews or Turnberry or, perhaps, Augusta National? Maybe ABC should turn its telecast of today's final round over to the BBC.

The 94th Open is becoming a medal-play preview of the President's Cup, with Their Guys beating Our Guys right now. At 7-under-par 206 after a 5-under 66 in yesterday's third round, South African Wunderkind Ernie Els leads by two shots over New Zealand's Frank Nobilo.

Four others -- three of ours and one of theirs, for those who are counting -- are three shots behind: former three-time Open champion Hale Irwin and 1982 champion Tom Watson, as well as journeyman Loren Roberts, are tied with second-round leader Colin Montgomerie of Scotland.

So what's the big deal about a foreign player winning the Open? Only three have won it since 1927. One of them, David Graham of Australia at Merion in 1981, took the trophy all the way back to his home in Dallas. The last Euro-tour star to win was Great Britain's Tony Jacklin, at Hazeltine in 1970.

"Every professional golfer in the world wants to win a major championship," said Els, who at a mere 24 is considered the game's next rising international star. "I'd like to start here."

Only a momentary brain lapse prevented Els from already turning this tournament into his private coronation. After four birdies and an eagle helped Els charge to a three-shot lead at 8-under par -- he played the front side in an Open record-tying 30, 6-under par -- Els backed up with a double-bogey 6 at the 458-yard, par-4 10th.

It briefly cost Els the lead. But Montgomerie, who took it back by going to 7-under with an eagle on the 474-yard par-4 ninth hole, quickly coughed it up with bogeys at 11, 14 and 16. The 30-year-old Scot stopped the slide with a birdie at 17, then bogeyed again to finish with a round of 2-over 73.

"The pressure's off, nobody's expecting me to win now, which is great," said Montgomerie, who finished third in the 1992 Open at Pebble Beach.

Truth is, nearly everyone with a chance to win can make a similar claim. While Els has been predicted for greatness, he's still a bit too raw to be called the favorite. Nobilo, 34, is playing in his first Open. Watson, 44, hasn't won a tournament in seven years. Irwin, 49, is supposed to be gearing up for the Senior Tour. And Roberts won for the first time in 13 years back in March.

How about those at 3-under: journeyman Steve Lowery and Curtis Strange, whose back-to-back Open victories in 1988 and 1989 seem so long ago considering his slide the past four years. Or those at 2-under: wannabe stars Steve Pate and John Cook as well as the star-crossed Greg Norman. Or at 1-under: former Masters champion Fred Couples, still recovering from back problems, as well as Japan's Jumbo Ozaki and two relative unknowns, Clark Dennis and Kirk Triplett.

"I'd say that anybody within even-par will have a chance to win this golf tournament," said Watson, who climbed back into contention with a 3-under-par 68.

Said Irwin, who finished at even-par 71 after a double-bogey at 18, "I've got to really play well tomorrow. It's not that I'm that far behind, it's that I've got that many more players to go through to get there."

Unlike other years, a bunch of them are foreigners. Ironically, the most dominant foreign player over the past few years -- Nick Faldo -- missed his first cut at a major championship since the 1986 PGA. But those remaining have made the best of the USGA's decision, and turned the Open into a more international event than normal.

"It's a credit to the tournament that the guys are performing well," said Nobilo, who has put on respectable performances at his only other majors in this country, the two previous PGA Championships. "If you don't want that to happen, you don't invite them."

Said Irwin: "They may have a different way of expressing themselves than I do, but at the same time, Ernie and Frank have been well accepted here. I would think it's somewhat of an advantage for a foreign player to come here and, particularly if he's not well-known like a Ballesteros or a Faldo, then they can free-wheel it."

If anything, the question today will be whether Els can fulfill the great expectations others have had for him since he finished tied for fifth in the 1992 British Open and tied for seventh in last year's U.S. Open. He recently lost a pair of showdowns to reigning Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal in the European PGA Championship and last week to defending Open champion Lee Janzen at the Buick Classic.

"One of the big advantages going with Ernie right now is that's he's in an ideal frame of mind," said Nobilo, who shot a 68 yesterday.

Said Irwin: "I remember a long time ago there was a young player by the name of Hale Irwin who hadn't won an Open championship. So who's to say that none of these young guys won't break through and do it? They're quality players."

And who's to say it won't be a foreigner? Oakmont certainly had a different feel to it yesterday. Sort of like St. Andrews. Or Turnberry. Or Augusta National. By the way, has anyone heard from the BBC?

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