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'Over his dead body'

Posted: Friday, August 16, 2002

It's hard to think of golfers as tough guys. They play in collared shirts the color of citrus fruits. Someone else handles the heavy lifting. The closest thing to occupational hazards are mosquito bites and sunburn.

''The first time my dad took me out to play,'' Peter Lonard recalled, ''he told me, 'It's an old man's sport and it's too expensive. So don't think you're going to be playing it every week.'''

The 35-year-old Australian pro remembered his start in golf with a laugh Thursday -- probably because he could finally afford to.

Behind Lonard are a rash of injuries, an 18-month battle with a dangerous, mosquito-borne viral infection and years of insecurity about whether his game would ever be good enough for the PGA Tour. Ahead of him is the chance to challenge for a major championship and put the cap on a rookie season like very few others.

''I'm probably the oldest rookie on Earth, so it's not like I never played before,'' Lonard said after his opening-round 69 left him a stroke shy of the lead at the PGA Championship.

''But as a former club pro, the greatest honor I could have would be winning the PGA in front of the best pros in the world. I never played amateur golf, and everything I've learned I learned through the PGA of Australia. So it would be a chance to maybe give something back.''

Lonard's story is different from your typical American pro in just about every way. He didn't pick up the game until he was 12 and even then, he only played once or twice a week until age 16.

Without much instruction, his handicap dropped so precipitously that a year later, he walked into the family home in Sydney's working-class western suburbs and announced he was going to be a golf pro.

''My dad's response?'' Lonard said. ''That it would happen over his dead body.''

Ted Lonard, who worked for the same insurance company for 45 years, is still reluctant to admit his son made the right career choice. Peter Lonard has wondered about it almost as often.

When Lonard was coming up in the game, golf wasn't big in Australia and most of the talented youngsters of his generation stayed close to home or went to the European PGA Tour to prove themselves before coming to the States. That was the way Greg Norman did it, so that was the way Lonard decided to try.

He was successful enough several times -- topping the Australasian Tour money list -- to attempt the jump, but something always got in his way. Two years ago, it was a broken wrist. But that was a small setback compared to Lonard's bout with Ross River fever.

It began with a mosquito bite the week before the 1992 Australian Masters. At first, the symptoms were more bothersome than scary: Lonard's joints ached and he fatigued easily, but doctors kept assuring him it was a cold. He wasn't properly diagnosed until an outbreak of the disease months later back in Australia.

Lonard tried playing with anti-inflammatory drugs, but wound up spending all of his time on the couch in his parents' home.

''I pretty much racked the clubs for a year and a half,'' he said.

Unsolicited remedies poured in by the dozens.

'''Hang upside down for a day. Drink a gallon of oil,' stuff like that,'' Lonard said. ''The only way to recover is to sit it out. I'm sure it was a nightmare for mom and dad. The great thing is, just as I was out of money, I improved to where I could play a couple holes at a time.''

His first lifeline back to golf came with the club pro's job at the Oatlands Golf and Country Club. Lonard sold shirts and gave lessons, then underwent laser surgery to repair his damaged vision. He promised himself he wouldn't trade the stability of that life for a pro's gypsy existence again until he was sure he could win.

His first real shot came at the 1997 Australian Masters, where Lonard had finished second five times.

''We go to a playoff and my dad decides he's tired of walking, so he goes to watch the rest on his giant video screen near the clubhouse. Somebody next to him turns and says, 'This guy has finished second five times,''' Lonard said. ''So my dad says, 'Yeah, and this will be his sixth.'''

Instead, Lonard won, and quickly reclaimed his spot on the European and Australasian tours. Soon after, he started thinking about playing in the States. Stewart Appleby and a handful of up-and-coming Australians who'd seen Lonard play couldn't believe he hadn't tried it before.

''I kept thinking, 'If I'm not good enough, all of a sudden it's back to square one at 34,''' he said. ''I guess I got a bit of my father in me for that sort of stuff.''

But the family resemblance stopped there. Lonard breezed through PGA Tour qualifying school and has made the cut in all 17 tournaments he entered this season. His best finish was third at Doral in March, but last month at the British Open he took a big step by proving he could contend for a major.

Only one step remains.

''If I win this week,'' Lonard said, ''even my dad might think, 'Not a bad career choice.'''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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