Golf: Internationals show united front

America take on golfers drawn from seven countries in an event that is gaining credence.
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FOR A team defined more by where they are not from - America and Europe - than where their origins actually are, the Internationals at the Presidents Cup present a united front. "The one thing we have in common," said Frank Nobilo, "is that we come from all over the place. We have a lot of empathy with each other."

Nobilo is one of two New Zealanders on the 12-man team that is playing the Americans in a Ryder Cup style match for the third time but the first outside the United States. Greg Turner, Nobilo's compatriot and partner for the opening foursomes, is a former winner at Royal Melbourne and the historic course is also familiar to the four Australians playing "host" to their team-mates.

The side, for whom the national anthems at the opening ceremony went on for almost half an hour, is completed by two Japanese players and one from each of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Fiji and Paraguay. The Fijian is Vijay Singh, the USPGA champion, but the Paraguayan is Carlos Franco, a far less heralded player.

Franco is 33 and speaks English usually only through an interpreter. He is one of six brothers and the son of the greenkeeper at the Asuncion Golf Club, one of only three in the country. The young brothers all caddied at the club and Carlos showed aptitude for the game, eventually becoming the big fish in the small pool of the South American Tour.

He moved to Asia, won the Order of Merit and then got onto the Japanese Tour, where he has had six victories including two this year. Last month Franco won his card at the US Qualifying School and will play in the States next season. In the meantime he has risen to 39th in the world rankings, good enough for his debut in the Presidents Cup. Past international experience includes being a member of the Para-guay team that beat Scotland at St Andrews in 1994.

"I put a lot into making the team," Franco said, "and this is my reward." Singh and Nick Price are friends, but Singh has been urging Franco not to repeat his experiment of putting with his driver during the Australian Open last week. "The intention was to get people to know me," Franco joked.

If anyone is the inspirational leader of the team, and the reason the match was brought to Australia, it is Greg Norman. "One thing you have to respect about the International players," Norman said, "is that for us to achieve the success we've had, we've all had to travel away from our homes, set up our base in a foreign country and make a go of it there.

"What that has done is instil a bond between us. The one area where I honestly believe we have an advantage over the Americans is that we are closer as a team."

Norman missed the first Presidents Cup through illness and has only just come back from shoulder surgery. His doctor is concerned about him doing too much too quickly and has told the 43-year-old Australian to rest for six weeks after Sunday.

But even though he may not make 36 holes a day, Norman was never going to miss this week. The private jet has been grounded and Norman is travelling between the course and their downtown hotel on the team bus.

"We have a lot of fun," he said. "We probably have the top three joke- tellers in the world in Steve Elkington, Price and Nobilo. Get them going with a couple of beers and it is an edu-cation."

While the Europeans' team spirit has been a factor at the Ryder Cup, at least they are playing on behalf of a common tour. Most of the Internationals play on the USPGA Tour and, as Norman pointed out, "pay taxes there like everyone else".

The inaugural Presidents Cup had the feel of an "in-house" event, particularly with a 20-12 win for the Americans, but after a dramatic one-point defeat two years ago, the International players told US tour commissioner Tim Finchem the match had to go overseas.

Price, a Zimbabwean with British parents who was once asked to play in the Ryder Cup, and Ernie Els are hoping the event will go to South Africa in 2002. "When you see the excitement in Australasian golf because of this event here, we would like it to do the same for southern Africa," Price said.

The impact of satellite television around the world, Price believes, has sparked a boom in the game outside the traditional strongholds. "I remember having to wait for 16mm or 32mm film to be shown at the golf club before we could see any golf," he said.

"I didn't know there was such a thing as professional golf until I was 16. Now kids can see the see people winning major championships as it happens.

"As time goes, on the International team is going to get very strong. The pendulum is going to swing."