The Senior tour is golf's ultimate mulligan. Sure, most of the attention goes to the immortals whose reputations were made long before they turned 50, but what makes the tour compelling are the second-tier players given one last chance to write a revisionist history of their careers. The Senior tour is a place for journeymen to prove they are winners and, as we saw last week at the 18th U.S. Senior Open, for winners to show they can become champions.
At Olympia Fields Country Club, outside Chicago, Graham Marsh of Australia added the final, elusive line to his remarkable résumé when he held off his good friend John Bland to win by a stroke, shooting an even-par 280 (72-67-67-74). For most of his career Marsh has been the best player nobody ever heard of, the winner of 61 tournaments on five tours. Now, with the first major championship of his 28-year career, Marsh is finally fulfilled. "This is the ultimate," he said on Sunday evening. "I came to the U.S. because I wanted to—I needed to—win a major championship. This may only be a mini-major, but it is certainly the most prestigious Senior title in golf."
Marsh can savor the victory because of the way he won it. He was the last man standing on one of the toughest tracks the Seniors have ever played, and he had faced down a tough competitor. Marsh began the final round at four under par and two shots clear of his playing partner, Bland, a puffy-cheeked South African who is now a contender for the dread title of the best over-50 player never to have won a major (or a mini-major).
On the 1st hole Marsh bogeyed, Bland birdied and the game was on. They would flip-flop atop the leader board twice on the front nine and never be separated by more than one shot on the back. It was all square as they stood on the 72nd tee, a motley crew of challengers having tried unsuccessfully to squeeze into the picture. With the honors Bland found the intermediary rough on the right side. Marsh proceeded to hit what he later called his best drive of the week, a 295-yard bomb that split the fairway. Forty yards in arrears, Bland was forced to fire at the flag but instead found the right bunker. When he failed to get up and down, Marsh had two putts from 15 feet for the championship.
The second of these traveled only four inches, but its journey was nearly three decades in the making. To give you some idea of how (and where) Marsh spent most of the 1970s, here is a partial list of the tournaments he won in his first five pro seasons: the Swiss Open, the Indian Open, the German Open, the Thailand Open, the Malaysian Open and the Tokyo Open. Despite this success, Marsh was hesitant to export his game to America. "When I started out, the U.S. was mecca for golfers," he says. "I certainly think that we [international players] had a mental thing about playing against Americans. We thought they were better, and the results reflected that."
In 1977 Marsh finally took the plunge, playing in 17 events on the PGA Tour. He was an unqualified success, finishing in the top 25 on the money list and nipping Tom Watson by a stroke to win the Heritage Classic. "He proved to himself that he could win here—not to us, because we already knew," says Hale Irwin, who remembers the Marsh of those days for his wild hair and controlled swing. "Those of us who played the game had always known about Graham's ability. It was the rest of you who had no idea. He came over and put his stamp on this continent just like he had on all the others."
Then he was gone. In 1977 Marsh's son was 13 and his daughter eight. He was unwilling to uproot his family from Perth. Commuting to the U.S. for 20 or so tournaments a year was not an option, so Marsh settled in on the four more easily accessible tours where he had earned exemptions—the European, Japanese, South African and Australasian. His path often converged with Bland's, and a friendship was built on keen wit, easy laughter and a shared passion for rugby and cricket. (Marsh's brother, Rod, remains the biggest sports hero in the family. He was a champion wicket keeper and is a coach at the Australian Cricket Academy.)
Bland, who led the South African money list four times and has about 30 international victories, also shared with Marsh an immunity to the lure of the States. "What you have to understand is that international golf in those days was very exciting," says Bland. "The game was growing, the tours were expanding, and a new generation of champions was blossoming. You know, there are 18 holes to a golf course all over the world, and not just in the U.S."
True, but America has a monopoly on high-quality Senior golf, and both Marsh and Bland have played the Senior tour full time since becoming eligible (though neither has bought a house in the U.S.). In less than two years Bland has five victories, the same number as Marsh in his 3½ seasons. With games built around control and consistency, both were popular picks heading into the Open, particularly Marsh. He had shot down Irwin, the tour's big gun, the week before to win the Nationwide Championship and had tied for second, tied for eighth and finished fourth in his three previous U.S. Senior Opens.
Marsh, however, looked a little shaky during an opening 72 that included a pair of three-putts. He was not the only one to have trouble on the greens, which were the talk of the tournament. Chi Chi Rodriguez, who has been around for 12 of the 18 Senior Opens, called Olympia Fields "the toughest [course] we've ever played an Open on." The par-70 layout was more than 6,800 yards long—robust considering that two par-5s were converted into par-4s—and the rough was penal, but, said Jack Nicklaus, who was four over for the championship, tying for fifth, "The greens are where the spice is on this course."