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Jim Thorpe's fortunes on the PGA Tour this year once again probably will ride with his putter.

Thorpe cannot just enter any event he wants this year because he finished out of the top 125 (198th) on the money list last year. Still, he expects to get into 22 to 27 tournaments this year, thanks to sponsor exemptions and his status as a past champion on tour, which is one criterion used to fill the fields.

That should provide enough opportunity to crack the top 125 -- if he can get a handful of top-20 finishes.

The key to that will be putting, perhaps the one real weakness in Thorpe's game.

At Monday's U.S. Open qualifier at Crag Burn, Thorpe was fairly dazzling with his approaches, frequently throwing heavy-backspin pitches within 15 feet of the cup. He qualified to advance, but when his afternoon round was over, he had made 16 pars, one bogey and one birdie.

Asked how he felt after the round, he replied, "I'm putting so bad I'm scared to say. I missed a lot of short birdie putts. It's kind of the way the whole year has been. I'm just not getting the putts in the hole."

Thorpe, 44, has made three cuts in eight tournaments entered this year and ranks 196th on the money list with $12,850. He tied for 16th in Tennessee and finished nine shots off the lead at Greensboro. He had 11 three-putt greens at Greensboro.

"As far as striking the ball, I feel like I'm probably hitting it as well as I've ever hit it. I'm fighting myself a lot on the green."

Thorpe, a master at hitting punch irons, has a kind of fast, punchy putting stroke at times, a little like that of Chi Chi Rodriguez.

"I have a pop stroke," Thorpe said. "It's hard to change because I've been doing it my whole life."

Thorpe plans to go back to his old putter, "an old Bulls Eye," which he used in his big years in the mid-1980s.

"I've been changing putters too much," he said.

Thorpe's all-around game is strong enough that he doesn't have to putt exceptionally well to make a lot of money. In 1990, for instance, he ranked 95th on Tour in putting. But he was 33rd in hitting greens in regulation. He finished 70th on the money list and made $210,000.

Although he should get in a fair number of events this year, Thorpe has been frustrated by an inability to get exemptions into some tournaments. He is unhappy with what he sees as an unjustified favoritism toward foreign players.

"A lot of sponsors seem to cater to the overseas player," he said. "As an example, at the Westchester Classic (last year), I did three junior golf clinics with 150 kids each time. I sent them a letter asking for a sponsor's exemption and they said we'd like to have you but we're giving the spots to overseas players.

"It's kind of a smack in the face because they come over here and play wherever they want to play."

Ian Woosnam, Seve (Ballesteros), (Sandy) Lyle, you've got four or five who can play anyway (without exemptions). But now you've got another four or five who we've never heard of and they seem to get into the tournaments."

"We don't mind those guys getting a few spots, but they come and play (in prime events) a couple weeks before the majors. I don't feel that's fair."

Thorpe continues to make a strong commitment to junior golf. He said he does between 30 and 50 junior golf clinics a year around the country.

In fact, he flew out of town Tuesday to do a junior clinic in Fort Worth this week before the Southwestern Bell tournament.

Not a game for whiners

Joey Sindelar, the gregarious and articulate PGA star from Horseheads, offered some words to live by on the course in an interview with the Washington Post at the Kemper Open last week.

"Nicklaus, Watson, Floyd -- you wonder what they have in common," he said. "When Watson walks down the fairway, you can't tell if he's hit it 50 yards off line or down the middle. They're all like that. They aren't club pounders. They aren't into, 'Man, do I stink.' They're not whiners -- that's it. There are a very small number of whiners who are successful golfers.

"You can see it on Watson's face. All he's thinking about is, 'How do I get it from here to where I need to go?' "

Nielsen loses mentor

Crag Burn pro Lonnie Nielsen is without one of his best friends and his personal teacher this year. Bob Fry, who taught Nielsen for 17 years and spent the past four summers as a teaching pro at Crag Burn, died at age 70 in January after a bout with cancer.

"It's been real hard for me," Nielsen said. "It's so strange to go to the range and he's not there. He was always on the range. It's a big loss for me personally and for our club, too. He's going to be missed by a lot of people here."

Scholarship news

Spots still are available in the Buffalo District Golf Association's Junior Golf Scholarship Classic, to be held June 7 at Wanakah CC. Spots also are available in the BDGA Senior Gross tournament June 21 at Niagara Frontier CC. Entries must be in by June 4. For either BDGA event, call 632-1936.

The E.A. Keith Scholarship Fund, which awards grants to young women interested in golf, still is looking for applicants for this year's award. The grants can go to any junior player or college student interested in golf or to a woman interested in pursuing a career in the golf industry. Last year, two college students were given $750 awards. Call Audrey Wicks at 358-6076 or 358-3713.

Andrews has good year

Grand Island's Dave Andrews, who plays out of River Oaks, had a good season with the Binghamton golf team. He placed 12th at the NCAA Division III championships last week at Torrey Pines, Calif., to earn second-team All-America honors. Andrews, a junior, shot 77-76-74-77 to finish 10 shots off the pace and help Binghamton place fourth.

Around the greens

The first hole-in-one in the history of the Fox Valley Club in Lancaster was scored this week by Jeanne Naples. She used a 60-degree wedge on the 83-yard 15th hole on the opening day for the club's ladies association. . . . Pennsylvania pro Steve Carney shot 69 to win the WNY PGA Wellsville Pro-Am and earn $800. Lancaster pro Jack Widger was second at 70. . . . Tom Walton shot 71 to win the pro division of the Empire State Tour event at Elma Meadows. He earned $850. Ted Brodzik was second at 72. Scott Johnson and Allen Baldwin tied at 73 in the amateur division.

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