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100th Australian Open starts with star names

The Australian Open, once described by Jack Nicklaus as the game's fifth major, celebrates its centenary this week in low-key fashion.

A tournament that began in the days of hickory shafts and gutty golf balls and boasts an honour roll of golfing greats turns 100 this week but the birthday celebrations could not be any flatter.

There was a time when the Australian Open attracted the cream of the world's best players, but no longer.

Nicklaus won the title six times and Gary Player seven. Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Peter Thomson, Greg Norman and even Gene Sarazen have also had their names inscribed on the Stonehaven Cup which is presented to the winner.

This week, however, the list of Australia Open absentees has received more attention than the assembled field.

Vijay Singh is not playing, nor the man he has replaced two months ago as world number one, Tiger Woods. Ernie Els and U.S. Masters champion Phil Mickleson are also absent.

None of the world's top-17 players, and just one of the leading 33, will tee off on Thursday.

Norman, a five-times winner, is another absentee despite agreeing to enter the Australian PGA a week later.

All former winners were invited but few took up the offer to play this week. One of the rare exceptions, however, was 1966 champion Palmer who flew to Australia in his private jet.

At 75 and having just had a hernia operation, Palmer is not playing in the tournament itself but agreed to compete in a nine-hole pro-am as part of the celebrations.

Palmer won four U.S. Masters, a U.S. Open and two British Opens but includes the Australian Open among his proudest achievements.

"One of my ambitions early in life was to travel around the world and win national championships. I'd still be coming here if I hadn't won in '66," he told a news conference on Wednesday.

Part of the Australian Open's problem in luring the big names is money. Another is its timing, with the event scheduled in the northern hemisphere's end-of-season break.

This year's tournament offers prize money of A$1.5 million (US$1.2 million), considerably less than average purses on the U.S. PGA Tour.

Local promoters cannot afford to pay massive appearance fees but organisers are putting on a brave face, focussing on the field that has assembled rather than the no-shows.

"I have no problems with them (the absentees), it's just less players to beat," said Robert Allenby, the 1994 winner and one of this week's favourites.

Heavily fancied is Australia's Stuart Appleby, the tournament's highest-ranked player at 18 in the world and champion three years ago.

Last year's winner Peter Lonard again looms as a danger, after winning the New South Wales Open last week, while twice champion Aaron Baddeley is typically optimistic.

"I think if I drive it well I have a good chance," Baddeley said. "I still putt very good and my short game is still very good."

There are nine New Zealanders in the field but few players from the northern hemisphere with 1995 U.S. Open winner Corey Pavin one of the rare exceptions.

Pavin has not won a tournament since 1996 but likes the look of the par-71 Australian Golf Course in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

"I think this golf course is set up perfectly," he said. "It's a hard course to score on under the best of conditions but, with the wind blowing, it's very difficult."

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