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G'days indeed for the Aussie Invasion

Some of them traveled from half a globe away directly to the United States, while others came here via Europe. A few attended college; most didn't. A number have Americans wives, several have married women from back home, and then there are still onesomes. They tend to settle in clusters -- Florida, Arizona, Texas. Each has a different story, albeit based on a similar dream, and each possesses a distinct personality, although there is definitely a group disposition -- high on pride, low on hubris -- that separates this bunch from others. One other thing -- these Australian golfers can play. "Nice of you to say," intones Peter Lonard. "But have you considered that maybe we have nothing else to do?" Like, nothing better than to take over the PGA Tour? There are now 23 Australians in golf's biggest league, by far the largest contingent from any country save this one, with more to come.

This season the men from Down Under have amassed seven victories, topped by Geoff Ogilvy's U.S. Open conquest in June -- the first major for an Aussie since Steve Elkington's 1995 PGA Championship. Ogilvy also won the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Stuart Appleby opened the year on cue, snagging his third consecutive Mercedes Championships. Rod Pampling triumphed at Bay Hill, Aaron Baddeley dislodged Lonard as Verizon Heritage champion, followed by Appleby at the Shell Houston Open. The John Deere went to John Senden. That's your basic trophy-per-month average, and Adam Scott, the highest-ranked mate of them all, a staple of the world's top 10, hasn't won, at least not yet.

"Am I surprised? Not in the least," says Peter Thomson. "Our nursery is producing well and will continue to." Thomson won five British Opens, cleaned up during the early stages of the senior tour and captained the Aussie-laden International team that thrashed the U.S. in the 1998 Presidents Cup. If he is the godfather of Australian golf, there are those who came before and after, including Norman Von Nida, Jim Ferrier, Bruce Devlin, Bruce Crampton, Kel Nagle, David Graham and Jack Newton. But when Wayne Grady won the 1990 PGA Championship and a year later, Ian Baker-Finch the British, twentysomethings such as Ogilvy and Scott were probably not glued to the tube.

To this generation of Aussies, The Man is The Shark. Ask any of these lads -- including Elkington, now 44 -- who convinced them to pack their gear in search of fairways, greens and more green in the States and one name surfaces: Greg Norman.

"Not only did I watch how he played, but how he conducted himself," says Scott. "If I had found, when I finally met him, that he was not what I thought he'd be, I would have been disappointed. It was anything but. He gave me his phone number, and when I got the courage to ring him up, he talked to me for an hour." Baddeley made his PGA Tour debut at the 2000 Honda Classic. "Greg had me and my caddie stay with him," he says. "One day he's your idol, next day you have the keys to his house. What he's done for us, what he's done for the sport, we'll never know completely because he does so much of his work behind the scenes."

Norman blushes when he hears all this. "If I had a small part in the success of these players, I'm happier for that than any trophies I have," says Norman. "It's difficult to go out on your own, to make a success of yourself, and I appreciate it if these younger guys choose to emulate some of the things I've accomplished, rather than be jealous of them."

But, as Appleby notes, it's one thing to identify a role model and another to follow his footsteps. In Australia all paths lead to the golf course. "Contrary to what some geographically challenged Americans think, there are more places to play in Australia than Royal Melbourne," says Elkington. "There's one on every corner. Plus, we're a sporting nation. We're participants, not spectators." The price to partake bears no resemblance to American fees. "I joined a private club back home for $20,000, which is outrageous by our standards," says Lonard. That's less than a third of the initiation fee for Medinah CC outside Chicago, site of next week's PGA Championship.

"Where I live in Florida," says Robert Allenby, "to get into Jack Nicklaus' Bears Club or the Medalist, where Greg belongs, it's a fortune. That doesn't happen back home. I know a place near my home, Yarra Yarra, where a corporate membership is $25,000, but with that, 10 players can play. And kids are everywhere. There are clubs that will pay for a junior membership, which isn't much, if the kid will stay in school, which is terrific."

Juniors are welcome most everywhere, for a few dollars or for free. When Norman toiled in a pro shop during his teens, he recalls having scant privileges, even on the practice range. "But kids are our future, so let's put a club in their hands," says Norman, who like several current players funds a junior golf foundation in Australia.

Elkington was scouted by the University of Houston, which he attended. But that is a rarity for Aussies. "There's sort of a black-hole period back home," he says, "between when you're too young to turn pro and not old enough to drink." But the truly gifted may attend what is tantamount in the U.S. to a vocational school, where you major in sports. "After our country didn't win a gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the government got involved," says Dale Lynch, Ogilvy's coach. "Even though golf isn't an Olympic sport, we were eventually included in what we have now." He refers to the Victorian Institute of Sport, where the exceptionally talented in more than two dozen forms of athletics develop their skills. When golf became part of the VIS in the early '90s, Steve Bann and Lynch were the original instructors. The VIS produced Appleby, Allenby, Baddeley, Ogilvy and Richard Green and has been so successful that other Australian states have established their own institutes.

"We don't have a university system [as in the U.S.], with big-time sports," says Bann, who like Lynch left the VIS at the behest of one of his longtime students, Appleby. "The VIS exists under government money and corporate involvement, including Titleist," says Bann. "Could something like that be done in the United States? If you could find people willing to work for next to nothing to be part of a great thing." Indeed, according to Lynch, the first budget for golf was about $130,000. "They gave us that, and said to Steve and myself, 'Here, start a program,'" says Lynch. "Our salaries came out of that too." Lynch estimates the VIS golf laboratory now operates on about $200,000 per annum.

The program doesn't subscribe to the "pressure of now" that pervades America's intercollegiate landscape, according to Lynch. Here, golf prodigies are recruited by colleges, provided uniforms and propelled into a fast-forward mode which demands they shoot scores for the team, or else. "We take more of a long-range approach," says Bann. "That starts with kids. We have junior competitions, but the emphasis is on getting them on the course, hitting the ball hard, enjoying the act of playing and then worry about technique. When [Appleby] was 18, his goal was to win on the PGA Tour at 25, which he did. But it's doubtful a college golfer could have a seven-year plan like that." Lynch explains that the last two years of high school in Australia, grades 11 and 12, are comparable to the first two in U.S. colleges. During those years, students turn their focus toward specialized areas of interest. VIS golfers, regardless of what grade they are in, study not only swing mechanics, but life skills, such as how to book their own travel, budget their finances, even prepare for the carnivorous media. "At the VIS, there is a lot of time devoted to nutrition, physical fitness and how it applies to an individual's game," says Lynch. "We don't dwell on how a guy looks at the beach. We want to see how he looks going through the ball." Lynch surmises that the perfect nurturing ground for a golfer would be a mix of both methods -- the American college system for higher education, and the Australian template for allowing golfers to develop without the onus of producing birdies for one's institution.

Thomson is not so circumspect, saying that with the emphasis and the money expended on American intercollegiate golf, the results are "pathetic." Hank Haney, Tiger Woods' guru, who served a brief stint as head coach of SMU in the 1990s, tends to agree. "Where are all our kids? There are none," he says. "I went over there [Australia] in May to speak and was blown away by questions from their PGA professionals. They're very knowledgeable and, unlike over here, they have to maintain a 2-handicap. They aren't stuck behind a desk in the shop, doing paperwork. Part of our problem is lack of continuity. Kids here have a teacher for years. They then go to college and have a coach, who may have different methods. That hurts a player's development. Steve Bann, meanwhile, has been with Stuart forever. Same with Dale Lynch and Ogilvy."

Vern McMillan once had a huge job with the VIS, overseeing physical preparation for all sports, or about 1,000 athletes. He, too, has has left VIS to work with Aussie golfers, along with two assistants, Dave Darbyshire and Steve Adams. They travel from stop to stop on the PGA Tour, training the Aussies, who pay their expenses and salaries. "We want our guys to be leading healthy lives when they're 65," says McMillan. "We want them to win out here, of course, but there are more important things. We like to have fun, too." Indeed, the Aussies are rather loose. Allenby finds modern paralysis-through-analysis instruction methods ridiculous. "I can't think of all the things some guys teach, not just over here," he says. "Just swing the club on plane and hit it."

Whatever the reason, the Aussies are technically sound and invariably fit. As Scott says, "I doubt any of us only played golf as a kid." The only one of them who has an unorthodox swing, and slightly rounder body, is Craig Parry. And his peers reverently refer to him as "old school." Despite their lack of "formal" education as we know it -- that almighty college diploma -- the Aussies are well-spoken and worldly. "Probably because we all had to travel young," says Pampling. "If you want to play golf, you gotta leave town. When you get on that Qantas flight as a kid, you're on your own."

Scott is a bachelor star who maintains addresses in London, Switzerland and Queensland. Yet, at age 26, he gets the big picture. "He told me, 'Vern, if I ever talk about buying a house on a golf course, stop me,'" says McMillan. "You need a sense of balance," says Scott, who attended UNLV for a year and a half but resisted the emphasis on structure. "If I wanted to hit balls and it was time for the team dinner, I went to dinner."

With the tour in Australia hurting, the heat is on its players to return for the limited summer schedule (November, December). When Scott opted to play the U.S.-based Skins Game over an Aussie event a couple years ago, he was crucified by the hometown press. "An absolute disgrace, what they wrote about Adam," says Norman. That's another Aussie trait, besides the wry humor Appleby labels "slightly more warped than yours." These guys stick together like glue. When Mark Hensby, who admits being the oddball/loner in the group, was quoted as chiding Norman for failure to help the tour back home -- "read the transcript, that's not what I said" implores Hensby -- he was roasted by Allenby for breaking the code: Be loyal to your mates. Scott was ready to fly to London when Ogilvy won at Winged Foot, but got off the plane to celebrate with his pal, Lynch, the trainers and others who joined him in a hotel lobby. The champ wore jeans. "I toasted Geoff with numerous drinks myself," says Lonard. "And I wasn't even there. I was home in Orlando."

It's a different culture, says Elkington. "We're tough to beat -- and last to leave the bar," he says. "We don't go to the course back home to see who's got the biggest car. I might play with a butcher. Australians like their athletes, but if we act like we're special, we'll hear about it. We aren't about wealth, and we don't have all your PC police. A rule at home in Wagga Wagga is no dogs in the bar after 8 at night. We don't get uptight." That might be the Aussie advantage. "Golf is best played when relaxed, right?" says Allenby. "Well, we know how to do both. Play and relax. We don't live to play golf. We play golf to live."

Bob Verdi is a senior writer for Golf World magazine