Golf: Bardha the barber crosses the border

Tim Glover at Wentworth watches an Albanian refugee put golf into focus
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WHEN Agim Bardha walked off the 18th green at Wentworth yesterday his body language could only be interpreted in a string of asterisks. After missing yet another short putt, he slumped to a 76 to slip down the leader board in the Schroder Senior Masters.

"I played like a blind dog," Bardha said. "I can't make a two-footer." Everything is comparative. Whenever he recalls his background he perks up. You don't see too many 61-year-old Albanian refugees on tour.

The son of a farmer, Agim, then 16, his mother and three brothers fled from the communist regime in Albania back in 1953. "We escaped on foot over the mountains to Greece," he recalled yesterday. "We had to stay in a concentration camp for 14 months before being allowed to move to Germany." In 1956 Bardha emigrated to America where he established a hairdressing business in Michigan.

Compared to, say, Justin Rose who picked up his first club at the age of 11 months, Bardha is not so much a late starter as posthumous. He started playing the game at 29 and began his career with four air shots. "A friend of mine was playing and I asked him if I could have a go. I had four swipes and the ball never moved," he said.

Bardha joined the US Seniors Tour in 1987 when he turned 50 but has been plagued by that dreaded putting sickness, the yips, for the last 10 years. He is now trying his hand on the European Seniors Tour but has not yet met with conspicuous success. In his first two tournaments, the El Bosque Seniors Open in Spain and the Beko Classic in Turkey, he was barred from playing on the grounds that he had forgotten to enter. Then last week, at the Credit Suisse Private Banking Seniors Open in Switzerland, he was disqualified after the first round for submitting an incorrect score.

Thus the Schroder Seniors here was only his second event in Europe, and after the first round on Friday he was in second place, behind Barry Sandry from Swindon, following an opening 68. Bardha's 76 yesterday leaves him on level par for the championship and with few players under par, he enters the final round today only a handful of strokes off the lead.

"I'm competing against people who are steeped in the game," Bardha said. "While they were being taught golf I was with the sheeps and the cows. I have a lot of faults. I am self-taught and when the pressure is on I tighten up. I shouldn't complain. I'm lucky to be here, but human nature is a funny thing. You always want to do better."

The tournament is being played over Wentworth's Edinburgh course, which Gary Player had a hand in designing, and the quality of the field, allied to the location, has helped in bringing in daily crowds of around 6,000, double last year.

The 63-year-old South African, who won the corresponding event 12 months ago, is very much in contention at two under par following a 73 yesterday. "I played just terrible," Player, one of only four men to win the grand slam, said. "It was a miracle I shot 73."

Also at two under is Player's brother-in-law, Bobby Verwey, who improved six strokes on his first round of 74. Verwey is on a roll. Following victories in Yorkshire and Switzerland he is on a hat-trick and if he wins the first prize of pounds 25,000 today he will overtake the perennial leader Tommy Horton at the top of the Seniors' money list.

Verwey, who has had only six bogeys in his last five rounds, puts his run of success down to his wife, Isobel. "She is taking a course in sports psychology and has got me relaxed. She has taught me to enjoy making a perfectly balanced swing and to visualise hitting a good shot." Verwey was sufficiently relaxed to go into cabaret mode. "They're introducing an over- 80s tour in America," he said. "It is not the guy with the lowest score who wins but the guy who can remember."

Like Verwey, Eddie Polland and Neil Coles shot 68 in the second round. Polland, the former Ryder Cup player from Northern Ireland, moved to the top of the leaderboard at five under and is two in front of Sandry and the 63-year-old Coles, who holds the record as the oldest winner on both the regular and senior tours and who is looking for the 43rd victory of a career spanning five decades.