"Serious money at stake" in Sarazen

 

PHILIP WALTON put the challenge neatly into perspective. "There's serious money at stake out here," he said of the $1.9 million Sarazen World Open, which gets under way at Chateau Elan, north of Atlanta, on Thursday. Walton, who travelled here from Dublin on Sunday, is joined in the field by compatriots Padraig Harrington, Paul McGiniey and Raymond Burns.

Had the Malahide man held his position of one under par for the tournament over the closing four holes last year, he would have collected $20,000 for a share of 19th place. Instead, he took a wretched eight at the treacherous, short 15th, which is modelled on the infamous 12th at Augusta National. A share of 42nd brought the relatively modest reward of $6,935.

From Spanish Open champion Harrington to Slovenia Open winner Jo ban Andersson, 40 European challengers are here for the third staging of the tournament. And the enthusiasm of the invaders is entirely understandable, given a top prize of $350,000 which was captured by Frank Nobilo last year. Indeed Ernie Els was also a European campaigner when he won the inaugural event in 1994.

The New Zealander, who is defending the title, has had a particularly fruitful season in the major championships. As it happens, his average of 12th place in the US Masters, US Open, British Open and USPGA Championship, was bettered by only two players - Tom Lehman (eighth) and Greg Norman (ninth).

Ireland's first qualifiers in 1994 were Darren Clarke (Belgian Open) and Ronan Rafferty (Austrian Open); Rafferty returned last year when Walton (English Open) and Burns (Norwegian Open) also competed. And the fact that the Irish contingent now numbers four is a reflection of a prosperous season on the European Tour.

Against that background, a marked improvement will be expected on their best performance so far - a share of 32nd place by Burns 12 months ago, when he collected $9,310.

"It's a nice course which should suit us and I certainly hope to learn from my mistakes of last year," added Walton.

On current form, the challenge from the European Tour is headed by Mark McNulty, runaway winner of the Volvo Masters at Valderrama last Sunday. And apart from Nobilo and the Irish quartet, the tour should be ably represented by recent Smurfit European Open winner Per Ulrik Johansson, Andersen Consulting World champion Barry Lane, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sam Torrance.

The week's activities were conceived by Donald Panoz, owner of the Elan Corporation in Athlone, to honour the grand old man of golf: Gene Sarazen was 94 last February. And as if professionals didn't have enough loot in their coffers by this time of the year, they are being offered all sorts of incentives, including a particularly interesting par three competition this afternoon.

Prizes of $1 million are on offer to each player who becomes the first to card a hole in one at either the fourth, seventh or ninth on the Chateau Elan par three course. From a total purse of $50,000, three other holes will deliver $5,000 each to the golfers who finish closest to the pin. A Volvo car will be awarded for a hole in one at the fourth and a Panoz Roadster sports car is also on offer.

"Those prizes may seem a little like pie in the sky but, believe me, the guys are thinking that they can be won," said Walton. In fact Harrington could be forgiven for regretting he hadn't waited a little longer than last at Valderrama's third, to have his first hole in one in professional golf.

Meanwhile, the strongest field so far sees the inclusion of leading Americans Fred Couples, Davis Love, Ben Crenshaw, Payne Stewart, John Cook and Mark Calcavecchia. Jack Nicklaus is also making an appearance along with Nick Price and John Daly.

Chateau Elan winery and resort is a 3,100 acre development 30 minutes' drive north of Atlanta and at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With the opening of the new, Woodlands course last summer, its golfing facilities were extended to 63 holes of championship standard.