Golf: Battling Wargo puts past behind him

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TWO legends, a near-legend, a solid old professional and two unknowns were in serious contention for the Senior British Open yesterday. It was, naturally, no contest. One of the unknowns won almost at a canter.

The crowd, who had come to idolise the old heroes Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, sensed first that either Bob Charles (near-legend) or Tommy Horton (solid old pro) could outlast them but in the end they were left to cheer Tom Wargo, a 51- year-old from Illinois whose career earnings on the PGA tour were dollars 9,000.

Wargo had been two shots ahead of Charles overnight and despite the occasional stumble yesterday he was a stylish winner. Most importantly of all he kept his composure in tricky positions, as though he had been doing it all his life. Maybe it was because he hasn't -and still has the hunger for success - that he was able to win by those same two shots.

There is no doubt that senior events are watched as much for the glimpse they offer into the past as for what is on view now. The crowd are happy to settle for a stroke or two of the old genius and usually they are not disappointed. They are not ashamed either to demonstrate positive thinking above and beyond the call of hero worship.

'Corking shot, Arnie,' said a man of venerable looks and deportment as the great one hit an approach shot early in his round. The assessment was born of desire rather than objectivity however: Palmer's shot found sand.

Player was in typically sparkling mood. He had strode on to the first tee full of the joys of a summer's day. 'Good morning all,' he enthused, though it was by then more than an hour into the afternoon. If he was unaware of the time of day he did not, at first, let it affect his work. But the odd mistake crept in, from which he did not recover too well and he and Palmer gradually drifted down the leader board, a fate one suspected that had not befallen them too often in the past 35 years on the last day of a championship.

Not that the South African felt any less inclined to swap badinage with the spectators. 'Great, great shot,' said one, perhaps the same, venerable spectator to Player at the 16th. 'Yes,' said Player, 'but it was my third and as this is a par five, I should have been there in two. I don't get a shot like you.' 'I get two,' said the old man.

So it continued throughout an afternoon when men over 50, many of them over 60, would have been well within their rights not to risk going out.

Reluctantly, perhaps, the attention switched from Palmer and Player to the trio behind. Charles, the near-legend, was in the company of Wargo and Doug Dalziel, men of minimal golfing achievement. Charles reduced Wargo's lead but could never quite overhaul it, the title-holder never looking as if he would give up easily. The 16th proved Charles's last chance.

Wargo and Dalziel both went through the green. Charles laid up short, managed to stop the ball and had a chance from three yards for a birdie three. The unknowns played the sweetest of recovery shots up the slope to within a foot, the near-legend missed by two inches. It must have disturbed him for, despite quiet but firm support from the crowd, he missed his putt for a par at the 17th.

Dalziel could not recover sufficiently well from a drive into the rough but Wargo played beautiful percentage golf. He held his nerve and got his par from 10 feet.

It gave him a two-stroke lead going to the last and the way he was received as he came down the fairway towards the green you wouldn't have known that he wasn't Arnold Palmer.