Mr Lu inspires new generation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 July, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 July, 1997, 12:00am

Taiwan's Lu Liang-huan, better known to golf fans the world over as Mr Lu, is the only Asian to have come close to winning the British Open, and he will act as a talisman for players from the region bidding to qualify for this year's tournament.

Mr Lu, now 60, failed by a single stroke to lift the 1971 title at Royal Birkdale, losing out on the 100th Open to 'Supermex' Lee Trevino.

His greatest disappointment is that failing to take the title blunted the ambition of hundreds of Asian golfers during the last 25 years.

'That is one of my big regrets. I feel that if I had won the British Open that year more Asian golfers would have been tempted to play in major events in Europe and America,' said Mr Lu, an enduring and likable golfing personality.

'Their golf is good enough but not many of them go and play in the British Open or US Open. Perhaps if I had won, it would have been different.' But with more than 30 Asian PGA Omega Tour regulars poised to take part in final qualifying for the British Open on July 13 and 14, Mr Lu's wish has eventually come true.

While the majority of Asian golfers have shied away from competing overseas because of prohibitive expense, strange food, stranger customs and the language barrier, Mr Lu truly revelled in the experience.

The Oriental Tourist with the pork pie hat was a hit with the galleries for his jaunty manner, infectious smile, impeccable etiquette and an ability, which bordered on the uncanny, to move a golf ball from point A to B with effortless elan.

Most golf fans over the age of 30 can close their eyes and vividly recall Mr Lu, with delicate steps, walking the Birkdale fairways.

As Trevino faltered on the back nine it seemed that Mr Lu was destined to win the 100th Open and take possession of the biggest pay cheque of his career.

But luck favoured Trevino on the closing holes, and his four-round score of 278 clinched him his third title in a month, an achievement which followed victories in the US and Canadian Opens.

'I still remember that last round as if it was yesterday,' said Mr Lu. 'Not winning made me very sad - yes, so sad.' He added, with typical good grace: 'But Lee Trevino played good golf.' Mr Lu's bid for greatness has been well-documented, but there is a happy postscript to his day of regret, which has remained something of a secret.

The following week, with thoughts of how close he had come to winning the most coveted title in golf still nagging him, Mr Lu had a terrible first round in the French Open at Biarritz.

His pick-me-up came in the form of a telex from England.

'Mr Lu. I was OK. Get many birdies,' was the message from the lady whom he had hit with his ball during the final round of the Open.

Suitably reassured, he went on to win the tournament.

He stormed back to fire a final round of 63 for an aggregate score of 262, which remains on the record books today as one of the lowest in Open championships in Europe.

Mr Lu did play in the British Open again - 'I was seventh in 1974,' he recalled, hazily - but for most he will remain as the 'nearly man' of Birkdale, 1971.

The hero may have faded away from worldwide view, but in Asia he maintained his profile.

During the late 1970s and 1980s he played in his home country - notably winning the PGA championship in 1978 when, as president, he had to present the trophy to himself - and in Japan.

In all, he won 17 events after 1971 as opposed to six before that year.

He has also coached the Taiwanese amateur team, helped to reintroduce golf to China and built up successful business ventures, among them a golf-course design company.

He has also dabbled in the world of senior golf, playing against Ray Floyd and Gary Player and reviving memories of his glory days.

The dapper Taiwanese may not have been the catalyst for Asian golfers to seek fame and fortune overseas, but his efforts in the 1971 British Open will surely inspire those seeking a place in the elite lineup at Royal Troon from July 17-20.