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Foreign legion of golf stars primed to capture US Open title. Americans, however, have won virtually every time since 1970

While foreign golfers like Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros, and Sandy Lyle have seized the limelight in recent years, the US Open has remained pretty much an American preserve. Since 1970 only one foreigner - David Graham of Australia - has been able to capture what most observers consider the most prestigious golf championship in this country, if not the entire world. But the ``home team'' has its work cut out trying to keep that record intact as the 88th edition of the tournament unfolds this week at the historic course of The Country Club in this posh Boston suburb. Norman, the flamboyant and popular ``Great White Shark'' from Australia, is almost always in the hunt, and is hungry to add a second major championship to the British Open he won in 1986. Ballesteros, the dashing Spaniard who already holds four major titles (two British Opens and two Masters), arrives fresh from a victory in last week's Westchester Classic. Scotsman Lyle, this year's Masters champion and thus the only player with a chance at the Grand Slam, has been playing well all year, as evidenced by his position atop the money list with $608,479 in earnings already.

And that's just for openers. Also among the contenders are 1985 Masters champion Bernard Langer of West Germany, current British Open champion Nick Faldo of England, and South African David Frost, who tied with Norman, Ted Green, and Ballesteros for first place at Westchester last week before the latter won in a playoff.

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But the Americans still plan to show up for the four-day, 72-hole test which will be televised on ESPN today and tomorrow (1-3 p.m. and 5-7 p.m. each day) and on ABC for the full 18 holes both Saturday (1:30-6 p.m.) and Sunday (2-6:30 p.m.). And of course the US contingent also has plenty of entrants with impressive credentials.

Perhaps the main homegrown hope is Curtis Strange, who has set money records in two of the last three years (including a whopping $925,941 in 1987), has already won twice this year, and appears on the verge of greatness. Among others playing well lately and considered threats are Ben Crenshaw, Chip Beck, and Tom Kite. The usual array of big names is also on hand, including four-time winner Jack Nicklaus, two-timers Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin and Andy North, and a host of other ex-champions. And don't overlook defending champion Scott Simpson, who has played somewhat erratically this season, but who showed last year that he has both the all-around game and the ability to withstand pressure needed to win this tournament.

The historic course at The Country Club, site of previous Opens in 1913 and 1963, is a traditional-style layout that promises to offer the sort of exacting test expected for this tournament. The 7,010-yard, par 71 layout has narrow, tree-lined fairways, small, fast greens, and plenty of thick rough. And while some of those playing practice rounds indicated they didn't think it looked as tough as its reputation, the record book tells another story. When the Open was last contested here 25 years ago, the winning score was a 9-over-par 293!

``Overall, the course looks pretty tough to me - which is as it should be in the Open,'' Simpson said after a practice round. ``I was surprised at how small the greens are, and at the trouble all around them.

``On a lot of these holes you don't dare risk going over the green. So you have to think a little more defensively - `Where do I want to miss if I do miss? What are the things to avoid?' - instead of just going out aggressively and shooting for every pin.

``This is thinking man's golf,'' he continued. ``On the regular tour, if there's not too much rough and the greens are fairly soft, there's not too much thinking out there. It's just who hits the good shots. But a course like this tests you mentally. Sometimes you're going to hit a good shot that is just off, and then a lot depends on how you react - whether you say, `I'm gonna chip it up and do the best I can,' or `I just can't stand this place; here's another bogey!'''

Irwin, whose victories in this tournament came in 1974 and '79, agreed that mental toughness will play an important role.

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``The back nine begins with six straight holes of more than 433 yards, only one of which is a par 5,'' he pointed out. ``That sort of stretch builds impatience. Some guys are not willing to play conservative golf that long; they'll try for a birdie where there isn't really any birdie opportunity. But you have to be patient, play for par, and not get beaten by the course.''

That turned out to be quite a task for everybody in the previous two Opens played here. In the famous 1913 renewal when ex-caddie Francis Ouimet helped popularize the game in America via his stunning upset over British pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, all three finished with scores of 304 before Ouimet won the title in a playoff. Then 50 years later it was Julius Boros, Arnold Palmer, and Jacky Cupit tying at 9-over, necessitating another three-way playoff, which was won by Boros.

This, of course, is the idea in the Open, where difficult courses are supposed to separate the men from the boys, so to speak, and identify the truly outstanding players. Obviously, such conditions preclude the excitement of so-and-so shooting a 64, or so-and-so being 10-under-par, which some people worry may detract from fan appeal. Simpson, however, sees it the other way around.

``I think a lot of fans like to see us struggling out there,'' the defending titleholder said. ``The game is difficult for them; why not make it difficult for us, too?''

And if pre-tournament indications are correct, that is exactly what the groundskeepers at The Country Club have done!

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