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It's the U.S. Open _ period

A favorite topic among Europeans who follow golf is the recent success their lads have had against the guys on this side of the pond. When it comes to international golf, Americans are taking a beating. They haven't won the Masters in five years, have failed to take the Ryder Cup in eight years and have won just two of the past seven British Opens.

But through all this talk of European domination, one thing has remained red, white and blue: the U.S. Open.

As the 91st U.S. Open begins this morning at Hazeltine National Golf Club, you have to go all the way back to the last time the tournament was played at this course to find a champion from Europe. Tony Jacklin won here in 1970.

Since then, the only foreigner to win the U.S. Open was Australia's David Graham in 1981. And that's stretching it a bit. Graham has lived in Dallas for years and is a U.S. citizen.

So why such trouble for the foreigners in our national championship?

"For many years, there were very few chances for Europeans to play in the U.S. Open," said Seve Ballesteros of Spain, whose best finish at the Open was a third in 1987. "It's the same reason why not one American has won the Spanish Open."

That's not exactly true, Seve. Jerry Heard won the Spanish Open in 1974 and Arnold Palmer won it in 1975. But that's not the point. Ballesteros is correct when he says the odds are against foreign players in the U.S. Open.

Unlike the British Open, which takes the top 20 players on the PGA Tour money list and then the top 50 on the Sony World Rankings _ which adds up to roughly 50 Americans in the field _ the U.S. Open grants no such favors to foreign players.

Ballesteros and Nick Faldo are exempt because of their recent British Open victories. Australia's Wayne Grady is exempt for winning last year's PGA Championship. Sandy Lyle is exempt for winning the Masters in 1988. Jose Maria Olazabal is exempt for having finished in the top 15 at last year's U.S. Open.

After the various exemptions, the United States Golf Association reserves the right to issue a maximum of seven exemptions to foreign players. Those who received them this year are Australia's Rodger Davis, Australia's Mike Harwood, Germany's Bernhard Langer, South Africa's Mark McNulty, Japan's Jumbo Ozaki, Ireland's Ronan Rafferty and Wales' Ian Woosnam, who would have received an exemption for his Masters victory in April.

Everybody else must go through qualifying.

"In the past we have only had a handful of our guys playing in the U.S. Open and even now only a handful of European players," said Faldo, who lost a playoff to Curtis Strange in 1988 and missed last year's Hale Irwin-Mike Donald playoff by one shot. "It's always been tough to get in, and possibly that is why we have not won.

"Sure, British players should be given more exemptions. We have good players. We have Ryder Cup players who have been winning, and some don't get into the U.S. Open. I do not see why 20 guys from Europe would be unfair to be here."

The USGA says it is studying the matter. "A variety of ways of expanding the international field are being discussed," said Grant Spaeth, USGA president. "We have to balance that with the dreams of young people coming along who want to play in the event (by qualifying). We're a long way from a decision."

The players from Europe with the greatest chance of winning are England's Faldo, Spain's Ballesteros, Scotland's Lyle, Wales' Woosnam, Germany's Langer and Spain's Olazabal. They have won the past four Masters and six of the past nine. They've won five of the past seven British Opens and have been the key members on European Ryder Cup teams that have kept the Cup from the United States since 1985, winning that year and in 1987 and tying in 1989.

But here in the U.S. Open, they have been shut out.

When Jacklin won the tournament in 1970, after having won the British Open in 1969, it gave golf in Europe a big boost. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Gary Player were in their prime. None of them challenged Jacklin, who ran away to a seven-shot victory over Dave Hill, the largest margin of victory in an Open since Jim Barnes won by nine shots in 1921.

Perhaps Jacklin's play was a peek at the future. Coming from Europe, he was used to the blustery conditions at Hazeltine. Many scores during the first round were in the 80s _ including Nicklaus' highest score ever in the Open, an 81 in the first round.

As a new generation of European golfers have come along, that is the reason we hear for their success. Nicklaus, for one, has been a critic of the American system, which nurtures young players on beautifully manicured courses and in mostly ideal conditions. Therefore, when the going gets tough

The Europeans play in tough conditions that prepare them to hit all kinds of shots. The top players are also in contention more often, which gets them used to winning.

It has worked in the Masters and British Open and the Ryder Cup. It may be only a matter of time before it works in the U.S. Open.

"I think we have a better chance now than a few years ago," Ballesteros said. "Better players are coming out of Europe."

U.S. Open

When: Today through Sunday.

Today on TV: ESPN, 11 a.m.-3

p.m. (live), 5-7 p.m. (live),

7:30-9:30 p.m. (taped)

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