By Marino Parascenzo, Special to PGA.com
LIGONIER, Pa. -- A golfer changing his swing on the eve of any tournament, much less a major, is the functional equivalent of a highwire artist deciding to change the way he walks just before he takes that first step. In golf, the result will be far more sanitary, but could be just as fatal.
But not in the case of Graham Marsh, 61, the veteran Aussie. He tinkered with this and that in his swing, and came out with a 4-under-par 68 and a one-stroke lead Thursday in the first round lead of the Senior PGA Championship. It's not only his best start ever in his 12 Senior PGAs, it's his first round in the 60s. Marsh has won six times on the Champions Tour, but not since 1999. This was something of a rebirth, and it should stamp him as a challenger if not one of the favorites among the comparative kids.
But he's got Hale Irwin -- defending champ, four-time winner, and reigning Champions Tour king -- right on his heels. Irwin snapped back from two early bogeys to streak to three birdies over the last four holes for a 69, a shot off the lead.
"The score indicates a much better round that what I played," said Irwin, leading a cluster of four that included R.W. Eaks, Dave Barr and Tom McKnight at 69. "I really didn't hit the ball that well."
Marsh is two ahead of the awakening Curtis Strange, Champions Tour rookie and two-time U.S. Open champ, who eagled the vampish across-water 18th with a 2-iron and a prayer for his 70. Raymond Floyd, seeking his second Senior PGA -- the first was in 1995 -- came within a whisker of tying for second but bogeyed his final hole (No. 9) to make it seven tied at 70.
Arnold Palmer, 75, a two-time winner of this event, titular host pro and sentimental favorite playing his final home tournament, shot 82 with a trophy birdie at No. 6 -- a bad drive, a 5-wood out of the rough, and an 8-iron to a foot.
"I feel terrible about my round," a tired Palmer said. "But I get tired saying that."
His thumbnail diagnosis: "I hit the fairways, but I don't hit it long enough. And on a course like this [7,078 yards], that makes it difficult. I wore my fairway woods out."
Marsh, meanwhile, was talking about the restlessness of the golfer.
"I think no matter how old you are," Marsh said, "you're always looking for some kind of key to try and get better. And I've been fiddling with my swing, trying to get my hands in a slightly different position. So even though we might shoot 68 one day and 74 or 75 the next, it is less than five percent of your overall performance. "
As they say in Australia -- right.
Whatever he did it, it worked immediately. Marsh birdied No. 11, his second hole, on an 8-iron to 10 feet. He missed the green at both the 15th and 16th and bogeyed both, then bounced back with two quick birdies, including the 18th, which he reached in two for an eagle try and two-putted from 40 feet. He had a clean ride home, with three birdies from 14, 6 and 18 feet.
Irwin was at even par going to the par-4 15th, where he hit the iron shot that triggered his burst.
"That was probably the best iron I hit all day," Irwin said of his 8-iron from 138 yards to 5 feet. Notch the birdie. Then the 16th, a 6-iron to 25 feet. Mark that one.
The 18th, however, didn't look promising. It's a par-5 of 515 yards, with an abrupt dogleg right over a big pond at the finish. It was playing a tad shorter this day, with the tees moved up to tempt golfers to cut the dogleg and try to carry a stand of trees on the way to the green.
Irwin, though, caught the right rough off the tee and had to abandon any thoughts of going for the green. He laid up and crossed the pond with a sand wedge to about 12 feet. Chalk that one up for the 69.
Strange, on the other hand, played the 18th like a riverboat gambler.
Strange is only 50, but he hasn't been playing much competitive golf the last four years or so, having spent most of his time in the TV booth. When that gig dried up, he was starting all over as a tour golfer.
"It takes a while to find it again," he said. He found some of it at the 18th.
Strange had 201 yards, all carry across the water, from a slight downhill lie that effectively takes some loft off a club. "Which is what makes it difficult with a 2-iron," he said, the 2-iron already having little loft.
Which is why Strange stepped right up and took that slash at the ball, and then prayed, "Carry… carry…"
The shot was perfect. It hit a bit to the left and rolled toward the pin, leaving him a 15-foot putt. He holed it for the eagle-3 that put him 2 under. It was the kind of guts that won him two U.S. Opens.
"So I feel better," Strange said, "now that it's over with."