Foreigners occupy PGA's top spot


TULSA, Okla. -- Here we go again. There they go again. First it was Augusta for the Masters, then Oakmont for the U.S. Open and, most recently, the British Open at Turnberry.

Next flop, Southern Hills?

For at least the opening round of this year's PGA Championship, foreign-born players continued to dominate. Take your pick, but just make sure he's not carrying a U.S. passport.

The story line in golf this year eventually became the story here yesterday, as the contingent of foreign-born players took a rather large swing in completing their first-ever sweep of the sport's grand slam.

Colin Montgomerie of Scotland, who has come close to winning two of the last three U.S. Opens, shot a nearly spotless early round of 3-under-par 67. That was matched later in the day by the game's hottest player, reigning British Open champion and former PGA champion Nick Price of Zimbabwe.

Montgomerie and Price lead by one-shot over four players: U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, the 24-year-old South African Wunderkind, former Masters champions Fred Couples and Ian Woosnam of Wales, as well as American phenom Phil Mickelson, also 24. That's four for them and two for U.S.

But who's counting?

"The bottom line is the better players these days are the foreigners," said Mickelson, the first player since Jack Nicklaus to have won four PGA Tour events before he turned 24. "At the same time, I'd like to step up and do something about it."

Defending champion Paul Azinger, the last American to win a major, will probably not do anything here. Azinger, whose return to the tour after an eight-month battle with cancer has been the biggest story lately, opened with a 5-over-par 75.

Not that the Americans are without hope. Aside from Couples and Mickelson, both of whom have come back from injuries this year, those in contention include Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Fuzzy Zoeller and former champion and course record-holder Raymond Floyd, all of whom shot 1-under-par 69. Among 11 players at even-par 70 are Ben Crenshaw, Corey Pavin and Jeff Sluman, whose only tour victory came down the road in the 1991 PGA at Oak Tree.

But if his back holds up, Couples will be the guy that American fans -- not to mention CBS -- will be banking on.

"I couldn't be in better shape with a morning round tomorrow," said Couples, coming off his first victory in 17 months at last week's Buick Open. "The guy who wins will have to play three rounds in the afternoon, and he's going to be a nervous wreck putting on these greens."

Sort of the way Couples was playing after three holes and two bogeys yesterday. But a 25-foot birdie from behind the 614-yard, par-5 fifth hole revived him. Uncomfortable with trying to chip from short grass, Couples turned his putter sideways and hit the ball with the toe of the club. It went in.

"It's not that difficult a thing if you try it a lot," said Couples.

If the unconventional putt by Couples was the shot of the day, then one by Montgomerie was the near shot. It came on the 164-yard, par-3 11th, when Montgomerie's 8-iron tee shot hit the front edge of the cup on a fly, damaging the hole and grazing the stick, before spinning out. He made an 8-footer for birdie coming back.

"It didn't stay in, but it went in," said Montgomerie, who came in third in the 1992 Open at Pebble Beach and lost in a playoff to Els this year. "It was dead on line in the hole, and I had to get the PGA official to repair my pitch mark because I'm not allowed to touch the side of the hole before I putted. So it was right in the middle of the hole."

Price, on the other hand, knows exactly what it takes. Since winning his first major at the 1992 PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis, Price has been the most dominant player in the world. He won four PGA events last season and was named the tour's player of the year. He has won four times this year, with three victories in the past three months. "I'm still riding the crest of the wave I've been on for a while," said Price.

So are the rest of the foreigners.

NOTES: The 14 players under par were the fewest in the opening round of the PGA since 13 did it in 1981. . . . A 9-over 79 was the fifth worst round in a more ever by Jack Nicklaus, his worst score in a major since an 81 in the third round of the 1987 British Open. It was the same score shot by Arnold Palmer.

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