Allenby poised to fulfil his potential

new faces for '95: Australian matchstick man can become giant force in the world of golf
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Robert Allenby does not look anything like Greg Norman. He is more a stickleback than a great white shark, but that has not stopped comparisons being made between the two Australians.

It has taken Allenby a little longer than he thought to make an impression in the professional game but a couple of significant victories last year affirmed his status as a player with major potential. Three years ago South Africa was talking about ErnieEls, and the Americans about Phil Mickelson. Allenby, whose father Don was an assistant professional in Leeds before emigrating, was offered up as the great prodigy from Melbourne.

He had a spectacular amateur career and after winning the Victorian Open in 1991 by six strokes he seemed certain to win the Australian Open a few weeks later in front of his home crowd at Royal Melbourne. That was until Wayne Riley birdied the last three holes, holing out from 40 feet at the 72nd to win by a stroke.

Allenby, who had to forgo the second-place prize money, said: "No matter. I've got plenty of time." He turned professional within days and went on to win the Australasian Order of Merit in his rookie year, a unique achievement. He secured his Tour card in Europe by finishing joint runner-up to Nick Faldo in the Scandinavian Masters in 1992 and when he won the Australian TPC in January 1993 the year seemed set fair. Instead he missed the half-way cut in his first seven tournaments in Europe.

It was an expensive learning process but, as Allenby said, he has time on his side. Before his 23rd birthday last summer Allenby, 6ft 2in and almost as slender as a flagstick, gained his maiden victory on the Volvo European Tour, winning the Honda Open at Gut Kaden in Germany. He had a level par 72 in the first round followed by a 67 and a 68 which left him a shot off the lead on the final day.

Rodger Davis, Bernhard Langer and Barry Lane made headway in the last round but they could not catch Allenby or the Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez. Allenby had set the target with a 69 for a total of 276, 12 under par and although Jimenez matched the aggregate, the Australian defeated him in a play-off at the third extra hole to take the £83,330 first prize.

Given that he had almost no room for error, it was Allenby's finish in regulation play that was impressive. He had a bogey at the 16th after duffing a chip so badly it seemed to be a betrayal of nerve but at the par five 17th he responded with a pitch to12 inches for a birdie.

His ability to withstand pressure faced a sterner examination in the Australian Open at the Royal Sydney club last November. This, of course, was the championship that three years earlier Allenby appeared to have in his pocket until Riley's deadly finish. This time the climax within sight of the Opera House proved that it ain't over 'til the thin man sings.

Actually, it came down to two matchstick men, Allenby and Brett Ogle. Ogle, another Australian beanpole who has had some success on the US Tour, led the field by two strokes going into the final round but Allenby took over, going to the turn in a five-under-par 31. Of those on the leaderboard, including Greg Norman and Peter Baker, nobody could break 70.

Allenby, on the other hand, was heading for a 65 . . . and then the nightmare began. Over the last four holes he scored bogey, double-bogey, bogey, bogey and among all the damage was an old-fashioned, blood-curdling shank, a shot that had loser written all over it.

Had Allenby lost, his neck could well have made acquaintance with an albatross (the ancient mariner variety rather than the golf term) but Royal Sydney's defences kept the rest at bay. Allenby's three-shot lead evaporated and Ogle had the championship athis mercy. However, the quality of his mercy was strained. Ogle finished bogey, par, bogey, bogey and he lost by a single stroke to Allenby.

"Three bogeys in the last four holes doesn't deserve to win an Australian Open," Ogle said. Where, then, did that leave the winner? "I can't explain it," Allenby said. "Just don't say I choked." If he did not it was a pretty good impersonation but what was of immense value to him was getting his name on the cup, alongside Nicklaus, Norman, Player, Palmer and Thomson. "It is the dream I had as a young amateur," Allenby said.

In Europe in the last three seasons he has improved from 86th to 70th to 17th in the Order of Merit, winning £240,000 in 1994 and another £100,000 in Australia. In the Sony world rankings he has moved from 81st to 48th. There will be more dreams, more bittersweet memories and more competition from fresh faces, notably the synchronised Swedes and the young Scots led by Andrew Coltart and Gary Orr. But Allenby's CV now contains some invaluable references from work experience at the deep end.