On 1st day, Canizares sets record at Classic

10-birdie performance has leader flying high

July 08, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

For years his friends back home in Spain told Jose Maria Canizares that he should try playing in America, that his game and personality were well-suited for the PGA Tour. Canizares remained, content with the life he was leading on the European Tour and the family he was helping raise in Malaga.

When he turned 50, and two of his three children were grown, Canizares decided he was ready.

"I said it's better later than never," Canizares recalled yesterday.

Despite a slow start to his Senior PGA Tour career in 1997, Canizares has carved out a handsome living the past three years. The only thing he hasn't done is win. The $1.35 million State Farm Senior Classic could provide his breakthrough.

After starting yesterday's opening round by three-putting for bogey from 30 feet, Canizares scorched the course at the Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia with 10 birdies and made only one other bogey. It produced a tournament record of 8-under-par 64.

Canizares leads defending champion Christy O'Connor of Ireland by two strokes and former PGA Tour journeyman Leonard Thompson by three. Jim Thorpe, a former Morgan State football player who grew up playing the course before his own PGA Tour career, and Jim Masserio, a club pro outside Philadelphia, were at 4-under par 68.

"Every week I have a feeling for winning," said Canizares, who lost in a playoff at the ACE Group Classic in February to Senior Tour rookie Lanny Wadkins and to John Mahaffey in a playoff at last year's Southwestern Bell Dominion. "This week I'm looking strong, with a lot more ambition."

That was always a problem with Canizares. Admittedly a shy person, Canizares never had the same kind of dreams - or natural talent - that led fellow Spaniards Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and, more recently, Sergio Garcia, to look beyond the country's borders to the golf world beyond.

As a result, Canizares enjoyed a career on the European Tour that resulted in nine victories in a 30-year career. "I like the good life," he said. "I like the easy life."

Canizares is so unpretentious that he lists the highlight of his career as his first win as a pro in 1969 - in a local tournament at San Sebastian, the club where Olazabal's father was the greenskeeper - rather than any of his four Ryder Cup appearances that included a pair of crucial singles victories.

In 1985, Canizares beat former U.S. Open and Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller in the match that clinched Europe's first victory in 28 years. Four years later, Canizares made a 4-foot putt on the 18th hole at The Belfry to beat Ken Green and help Europe keep the Cup.

Just don't tell Canizares that he might have contributed to the current frenzy surrounding the biennial event.

"Now it's fighting. I don't like it," said Canizares, who lives far from where the Europeans beat the Americans in the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama. "Before it was fun."

That's not the way Canizares would describe the 10 Monday qualifiers he tried to play through in 1997. While he wound up making it into seven tournaments that year, Canizares said it was one of the most difficult times in his career. Part of the problem was the language barrier.

"Before, I speak nothing," he said yesterday.

Even now, after making more than $1 million in each of the past two years and finishing 11th and 10th on the money list, Canizares still keeps mostly to himself. Thompson, who played two rounds in last week's U.S. Open with Canizares, said that he doesn't really know him.

"We speak a different language," said Thompson, who grew up in Laurinburg, N.C. "But he's a great player. He's won all over the world. Am I surprised by what he shot? I'd be surprised if he shot 54."

Had he hit the ball a little better, Canizares might have shot a lower score. His birdies included a 30-footer on the par-3 11th, a chip-in over a bunker on the par-4 14th and a 35-footer on the par-4 17th. It was an unusual round for Canizares, who is normally a better ball-striker than putter.

Canizares wouldn't mind experiencing what O'Connor, his former Ryder Cup teammate, did at Hobbit's Glen last year when he tied the previous tournament mark with a 7-under 65 en route to his first Senior Tour win. While Canizares realizes it won't change his life, it would make his life on tour a little easier.

"It's very important," he said. "I don't win in America. The first one is the most important. It's like a family. The first [child] you're more nervous. You love the others, but the first is special."

It would be special for Canizares in another way, since the youngest of three children, 17-year-old Jose Alejandro, is with him this week as his caddie. The younger Canizares is nearly a scratch golfer already, and the father hopes his son might earn a scholarship to an American university.

"He plays better golf than me," said the elder Canizares. "Better swing. Better temperament. More aggressive."

Just the kind of the game it might take to succeed someday on the PGA Tour. If that happens, Jose Alejandro Canizares would be following in a line of successful Spanish players that included Ballesteros, Olazabal and now Garcia. His father was a different story.

But that story could change a bit if he wins this week at Hobbit's Glen.

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