Sports Watch

By Bill Kwon

Thursday, January 16, 1997

Nothing bland about
this senior golfer

HE wins his first tournament as a Monday qualifier three weeks before the 1995 tour season ends. That gives him an immediate exemption for 1996 and he promptly wins the Tournament of Champions starting the year. He winds up winning three more times to finish third on the money list with $1.35 million. He's named the tour's rookie of the year.

Tiger Woods? Wrong.

Bland. John Bland. Hardly bland John Bland.

Sorry, Tiger. You're not the only one who took the golf world by storm last year.

So did Bland, a 51-year-old South African, who'll be teeing it up with 23 other Senior PGA Tour champions in the $1 million MasterCard Championship tomorrow at the Hualalai PGA Tour Resort golf course on the Big Island's Kona Coast.

Bland's defending his title in the 54-hole event, which will be televised live nationally on ESPN. And, yes, Bland's favorite foil, Jim Colbert, is also entered.

Bland is to Colbert what Michigan is to Ohio State in Big Ten football and Air Force is to Hawaii in a WAC basketball game at Colorado Springs.

Colbert finished second in four tournament victories by Bland, including three last year.

"This is the fourth time he's won when I've finished second," says Colbert. "We've got to find a way to deport him back to South Africa."

"Don't let him kid you," Bland says with a hearty laugh. "He still won five tournaments and he still banked the most money."

THAT Colbert did, winning the Senior Tour money title and player-of-the-year award for the second year in a row. But imagine if Bland weren't around.

But he hopes to be around, says Bland, who's visiting Hawaii for the first time. He and his wife, Helen, flew in to Kailua-Kona Sunday after leaving Johannesburg, South Africa, on Sunday.

They were in the air for more than 25 hours in their longest Sunday with stops in Miami, Atlanta and Honolulu.

"It's beautiful here and the golf course is in excellent condition," said Bland, who lists gardening and watching rugby and cricket as his favorite pastimes.

A prolific winner in South Africa, Bland played on the PGA European Tour from 1977 through 1994.

"I was fortunate in that I had a full exemption in Europe until I was 50," Bland said. "When you turn 48, you start thinking about the Senior Tour. The one in the states. That's the only Senior Tour."

So when he turned 50 on Sept. 22, 1995, Bland decided to come to America to qualify for the tour.

What a country!

BLAND plays in his first senior event, The Transamerica, as a Monday qualifier and ties for for fifth. There's no time to go to the next Monday qualifying since he's playing on Sunday. But he gains one of the four qualifying spots in the next event, the Ralphs Senior Classic, which he wins by a stroke over . . . you know who.

Not having to go to Qualifying School, Bland skips the Kaanapali Classic and finishes tied for sixth in the Senior Tour's final full-field stop, the Emerald Coast Classic.

Exempt for 1996, he starts the year off with a bang, winning the Senior Tournament of Champions in Puerto Rico, beating Colbert again by one stroke. A victory in the Bruno's Memorial came after a three-way playoff but not including Colbert.

Bland caps his sensational year with victories in the Long Island Classic and The Transamerica with Colbert finishing second again.

"He's a wonderful competitor," Bland says. "You know you've played well when you beat Colbert."

Which should also say something about Bland's game.

Bill Kwon has been writing
about sports for the Star-Bulletin since 1959.

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