Ericsson Australian Masters
Ericsson Australian Masters
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Spence counters shark attack

MELBOURNE -- Craig Spence won the $750,000 Ericsson Australian Masters today by a shot from his childhood hero, Greg Norman, and then turned on free beer at his home golf club in the small country town of Colac.

The 24-year-old recorded his first professional win with a nerveless display against one of the most intimidating players in the world and set up victory with one of the finest shots seen in the 21-year history of the title.

Tied at 15 under with Norman after 17 holes, Spence hit a 6-iron from 170 metres out and finished a metre from the hole. Norman, looking to win the title for the seventh time, could not match the shot and his birdie attempt from 10 metres did not drop.

He tapped in and watched as the boy from the bush calmly made the birdie with his broomstick putter for a bogey-free closing round of three-under-par 70 and a four round total of 276. Third place was shared by Kiwi Greg Turner (70), amateur Kim Felton (67) and three-times Masters winner Craig Parry (68).

After he mentioned on television that he would pay for the beer at Colac, about 160 kilometres west of Melbourne, he said a big crowd was expected. "I'll be up for a few grand," he said. "The club has about 500 members but half the town have jumped in their cars and gone up there. I think there are about 1,500 there now."

Spence, who played much of his amateur golf at Huntingdale after leaving Colac, opened with a round of 64, which was a record on a layout with five new holes, and was never headed. The fact that he had not been caught in the first three days gave him strength in the match-up with Norman, he said. "He was on my mind but my coach, Dale Lynch, and I came up with some keys that helped me settle down."

"I told myself, 'Everybody expects Greg to win because you've never won and you are playing against the Shark; you've led all week and you've got to be getting tired.' That took the pressure off. I knew I had held in there strong, had done all the hard work. I thought that even if I hit a bad shot, people were going to admire me for hanging in there. Greg Norman is not a bad person to lose to. That is how I kept my emotions down today."

Norman was impressive in recovering from a one-over-par 74 in the first round that left him 10 shots behind Spence and moved in on him with improving rounds of 68 and 66 to get within two shots at the start of the day. He drew level at 15 under after 11 holes and there was never more than a shot in it after that.

If he was disappointed, he did not let it show. "Craig was very impressive," he said. "I thought he played exceptionally well today. He was in control of his game. He never showed any signs of hesitation. Whatever club he hit, he picked it out and hit it with a lot of conviction. I think now he has to go on with it.

"He's got to use this as a stepping stone. I said to him at the presentation, 'Go back, think about this stuff for the next couple of days, the shots you played, the shots you didn't play well and use it.' Once you do it the way he did it for the first time, you know you can keep doing it. He did not show any sign of buckling out there."

Norman raised a few eyebrows after the third round when he said he was shocked at seeing someone so young using a long-handled putter, something he said usually indicated a case of the yips. "I would say that his putting is the weakest part of his game," he said. "But he hit the ball close enough today not to put a lot of pressure on his short game or putting."

After missing much of last year because of a shoulder injury requiring surgery and missing his first cut in Australia for 23 years at his own title in Sydney last week, he said he was happy with his progress. "I'm not disappointed by the result. I got beaten by a great golf shot. I tried to do all I could. I've come a long way in four days. I was in control of my game. I was shaping my shots. Once you give yourself a chance, it is like riding a bike. Memory kicks in."

Also impressive was Felton, 23, who won the individual honours at the Eisenhower Trophy in Chile late last year. Only Englishman Russell Claydon, who ran second to Norman in 1989, has a better record as an amateur at the Masters.

"I'm glad it's over," he said after a closing 67. "It was getting pretty tough out there, watching the leaderboard all the way through. I didn't really think I had a chance until mid-way through the back nine (when he got within three shots of the lead). Then they skipped away. But it was a great feeling."

Fijian pro Dinesh Chand thought his prayers had been answered when he hit his tee shot on the par-3 12th hole today. The prize for a hole-in-one was $1 million and the shot, which looked in all the way, finished 10 centimetres from the hole.

"I was reading my Bible in my room last night and I told Jesus I hoped to get the $1 million," he said. "That was my prayer. When I was on the tee, I thought of Him and hit right at the flag. It was truly a good shot. I thought it was in the hole."

His tap-in birdie helped him to a round of 65, one outside the course record established by Spence in the first round, and took him from outright 61st to a tie for 30th.

The 27-year-old from Nadi said he owed his start in golf to compatriot Vijay Singh. He was living with his family of 13 in a one-room hut with a dirt floor near the runway of Fiji's international airport when he started to caddie at Nadi GC. One of the first bags he carried belonged to Singh, who paid him $2 a round and sometimes gave him food for the family as well.

He turned pro at 19 and was befriended by a couple of Japanese businessmen who were opening a restaurant in Nadi. When they heard of his dream to play in Japan they sponsored him and after five years in Japan he finally earned his card. He had virtually no formal education when he arrived in Japan and now speaks Japanese, Korean, Hindi and English. His fourth event on the Japanese Tour was the Descante Classic last year, which he won.

He will play one more tournament in Australia, the Canon Challenge in Sydney next week, before returning to Japan with his brother, Mukesh, who is also a pro and his caddie.