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Golf

Foreigners put some swing into Champions Tour

They like the food, the courses and, of course, the big prize money.

By BOB HARIG
Published February 19, 2004

LUTZ - The temperature was brisk, the breeze a bit cool. Perfect, Sam Torrance thought. Just like summer in Scotland ... but a long way from Britain in February.

In fact, it's difficult to find anything not to like about coming to America to play the Champions Tour, save for a few personal preferences.

"The smoke areas," Torrance said. "It would be nice to sit in a bar and have a cigarette."

Torrance, captain of the winning European Ryder Cup team in 2002, wasn't complaining, however. Certainly not on a sun-splashed Wednesday at the TPC of Tampa Bay, site of this week's Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am.

And what's not to like about tournaments with no cuts, $1.6-million in prize money and all the excesses the United States has to offer?

"The tour itself is just fantastic," said Torrance, a newcomer to the Champions Tour who played just 32 PGA Tour events in his career - his best finish was second - but made his mark by winning 21 times on the PGA European Tour and playing on eight European Ryder Cup teams. "You want for nothing out here. The golf courses are great, especially this one. I love the food, great restaurants. Everything."

Torrance, 50, who is from Largs, Scotland, is among a growing number of foreign players finding their way to the Champions Tour after limited exposure to the PGA Tour.

Others already on the tour and playing here are Spain's Jose Maria Canizares, Ireland's Eamonn Darcy and Ireland's Des Smyth. Then there are those who made it through the tour's grueling qualifying event in December, led by Zimbabwe's Mark McNulty, the medalist. England's Mark James finished second, Japan's Hajime Meshiai was third and Torrance was sixth. (James and Meshiai are not playing this week.)

Only the top seven were guaranteed full exemptions this year, so the tournament was about as pressure-filled as any they had faced.

"I was lucky in that I played well, so I made it a lot easier on myself," said McNulty, 50, who has 55 worldwide wins. "I was always ahead of the bad situations. But there was no thought to how difficult it was. You had to do it. If you didn't do it, I wouldn't be here today."

McNulty won 16 times on the PGA European Tour, where he is the 19th all-time leading money winner with more than 5.3-million pounds and was twice second to Ian Woosnam on the money list. His best finish in a major championship was a tie for second at the 1990 British Open.

In addition to his success in Europe, McNulty also led the South African Tour's money list eight times.

But in the United States, like Torrance, there was not much success. McNulty earned his PGA Tour card in the early 1980s and played in 112 events from 1981 to 2001, with his best finish a tie for fourth.

Big things are expected, however. "As a so-called rookie, I still have to learn a lot," said McNulty, who is making his Champions Tour debut after a two-week bout with shingles. "I have to learn the golf courses. I'm going to have to earn my stripes. Hopefully I'll have some luck. But there are too many uncertainties in this game."

McNulty, like Torrance, lives in a suburb of London for easier travel. Both are considering another residence in the United States, although Torrance is sensing some apprehension from home.

"I did tell me wife (Suzanne) as I hung up the phone today, "I think we should move over here. Bye.' It's okay for me," Torrance said. "I've been a nomad all my life. But for the kids. ... I've got an 8-, 11- and 15-year-old. It might be difficult for them."

In the few tournaments he has played on the Champions Tour, Torrance said he has heard plenty of Ryder Cup references. He usually gives a sheepish apology for being on the winning side.

"They love it," he said. "It's such a great event. I think they associate with anyone, no matter what side you're on. You're part of the Ryder Cup, you've been there. And they like that."

Reinforcing just how important the event is to Europeans, Torrance joked about how long it took for the victory to sink in. "I'll let you know," he said.

"Nothing will ever come close to that. I thought in '85 when I was actually fortunate enough to hole the winning putt for Europe (ending a 28-year victory drought for Europe in the competition) ... I thought nothing would ever surpass that unless I won a major. But the captaincy turned out to be the highlight of my career."

In fact, Torrance has blond streaks in his hair because of a pledge he made true to his son, Daniel, for winning the Ryder Cup. The family was in Dubai just before Christmas when, after more than a year, "I got enough alcohol inside me to do it," Torrance said.

Torrance is slowly finding his way after a couple of lackluster finishes in Key Biscayne and Naples. He couldn't practice at home because "it was too cold. Miserable. Horrible."

Just one more reason to enjoy life on the Champions Tour.

[Last modified February 19, 2004, 02:00:25]


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