Over the past several years, the Men's State Amateur Golf Tournament has gradually turned itself into a top-notch event. It's interesting to note some of the changes just in the nine years since it was last at Oakridge Country Club.

Back in 1979, the tournament was open only to golfers with a 5 handicap or better and only to the first 120 of those golfers to sign up. That year, a young amateur by the name of Jay Don Blake could be seen hanging around with nothing to do but watch. You see, Blake didn't get his entry in soon enough to be one of the 120 in the field.A couple of years later, qualifyings around the state were instituted to give more golfers a chance to make it. It meant a guy with a 12 handicap could make the State Am with a good day at the qualifying, but it also meant some of the top golfers weren't making it because of a bad day.

So a couple of years later, exemptions were given to certain players, including ex-champions, quarterfinalists from the previous year, etc.

Streamlining continued last year by allowing more players into the main event, but with a first-day cut.

The players enjoy it because they are treated so well. The first two days they are given nice meals (it was steak, no less, one day this year). On Friday the 32 match-play finalists are invited to a breakfast before match play starts, and they can bring a guest. This year, Lou North, who won the event three times in the 1950s, was brought over from Denver as the speaker. Later that day, players could be overheard raving about North and the breakfast.

The media is also treated well, with everyone on the State Amateur committee more than accommodating to writers and bradcasters.

The Utah Golf Association has made its premier event into a first-class tourney and deserves plenty of accolades.

NO ARNIE - AGAIN: There hasn't been any big announcement, of course, but don't expect to see Arnold Palmer at this year's Showdown Classic . . . for the third year in a row.

According to Bill Blair of Showdown Charities, Arnie, who played this weekend in the Senior tourney in Seattle and in last week's tourney in Sacramento, can't make it because the Showdown's new July dates conflict with his busy schedule. Apparently, he'll be in California making some television commercials.

That's all fine and well. Arnie needs that extra $8 million or so he gets from commercial endorsements. But it's kind of strange that for three years running, he's passed up the Showdown at the course he helped build eight years ago, while he's still able to play at a couple of other western tournaments the same month.

HOW DO YOU SAY `FORE' IN JAPANESE?: It seems that the Japanese, who are known to be fanatical about golf, are beginning to take over the golf courses in our country.

In the last two months, four California courses have been sold, and virtually all of the state's courses have been approached to sell. Also, an estimated 20-30 courses are for sale in Arizona, looking to attract Japanese buyers.

"It's unbelievable," Kirk Candland, manager of Silverado Country Club in Napa, Calif., told the San Francisco Examiner. "I've heard they're after every one that's available. I bet we get four or five calls a week."

While Silverado is not for sale, several other posh golf clubs have been sold to Japanese investors, including La Costa Country Club, ultra-private Riviera Country Club, Chardonnay Golf Club and Sonoma National.

La Costa reportedly went for $220 million, Riviera for $180 million, Chardonnay for $16.5 million and Sonoma National for $7.5 million.

"The exchange rate is so good, it's a good buy for them," Ron Taborski, manager and developer of Half Moon Bay told the Examiner. "In the last couple months they've gone crazy. It's an ego thing. They're trying to outbid each other."

Being the small country that it is, Japan has few courses, and those it has are expensive and exclusive. Members pay as much as $160,000 for memberships.

What does all this mean for golfers in this country? Probably that prices will go up and it will be harder to get starting times - for golfers in California, anyway. Utah golfers can rest assured for now. The Japanese invasion hasn't hit here - yet.

STRAY SHOTS: Todd Barker leads the amateur Browning Challenge Cup race with some 3,400 points (points are given for top 10 finishes). Kurt Bosen is second, followed by Rafael Ponce, Chris Jones and Matt Johnson . . . Jeff Green, who won last month's Sizzler Open in a playoff over Roy Christensen, won last weekened's Black Diamond Open in Price in a playoff over Terry Outzen . . . Entry applications for the U.S. Amateur golf tournament are due at the USGA in New Jersey by July 13. The local qualifying will be Aug. 8 at Alpine Country Club. . . . The District Long Drive Championship will be held Saturday at Jeremy Ranch . . . Entries are being taken for the Swiss Days Amateur at Wasatch Mountain Aug. 5. The tourney was inadvertantly left off some tournament schedules.