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Golf

Haas to act his age

Still a threat on the PGA Tour, he makes a reluctant debut on the senior tour this week.

By BOB HARIG
Published May 27, 2004

Jay Haas has resisted embracing this day. It has been as scary to him as out of bounds stakes lining both fairways. It has been dreaded like a trip to the dentist. Sort of.

There is nothing wrong with the Champions Tour, Haas said. Quite the contrary. Most aging golfers welcome the life of the 50-and-older tour. They can't wait to start beating up on easier competition, cashing checks every week in no-cut events. This is the reason they endure some meager times in their late 40s.

But for Haas, things have been different. He is still a contender on the regular tour, an ageless wonder who is ranked 21st in the world (ahead of such players as Chris DiMarco, Charles Howell and Justin Leonard). He is exempt for all of the major championships on the regular PGA Tour, and believes he can win them. Haas turned 50 last December and barely blinked. The Champions Tour has yet to see him.

Until today.

Haas makes his long-awaited debut on the 50-and-older tour at the Senior PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville. Don't expect the stay to be long.

"I guess I'm almost afraid to go (to the senior tour), to feel like I won't come back," Haas said. "I still want to do this. I've been proving that to myself over the last 18 months. It's so much fun for me. This has probably been one of the more gratifying stretches of my career, the way I've played. I won't say I'm playing as well as I've ever played. I'm playing very consistently."

A nine-time PGA Tour winner, Haas is coming off his best financial season, surpassing $2-million in earnings for the first time. He didn't win, but came close, overtaken by Mike Weir a year ago at the Bob Hope Classic, despite shooting 28 under par.

He had eight top-10s, including a tie for fifth at the PGA Championship, and a tie for second at the Players Championship.

Haas started this year with a wait-and-see attitude toward the Champions Tour and has waited until now to see what it's all about. He has played in 11 tournaments on the PGA Tour and made the cut in all of them. He has four top-10s and has earned $1,082,375.

And he is 12th in the U.S. Ryder Cup team standings. If he is among the top 10 through the PGA Championship in August, Haas would become the oldest player to ever qualify for the event, although simply making the team is his motivation.

"I just want to qualify for the Ryder Cup. I'm not really thinking I'm 50 and that would be really something," Haas said. "At 30 I think it's really something to qualify. And I don't really want to dwell on that so much, but when I'm getting tired or I don't want to go to the range or spend an hour on the putting green ... that will be my incentive to go out and do that. And there seems to be a correlation between practicing hard and playing good."

In 2000, Haas went through a lull that often hits players in their mid- to late-40s. For the first time dating to his rookie year in 1977, he failed to crack the top 100 money winners. He made just 13 cuts in 26 tournaments and earned $265,755 to rank 144th.

A lot of Haas' problems stemmed from poor putting. He sought out Stan Utley, who is playing on the Nationwide Tour and has become a successful putting guru, offering help to other pros. Utley helped change Haas' style, getting him to open and close his putter blade through the stroke.

"It kind of revitalized my game," he said. "I won't say I didn't putt well before, but I was in a kind of funk with my putting. What made me want to change ... I was watching the Champions Tour on TV and I noticed that the guys who were winning those tournaments, they weren't all hitting close or chipping it stiff, they were still making the putts. The hole is the same size on the Champions Tour as it is on the regular tour, you still have to make the putts. It's kind of changed my outlook on putting."

Haas might not have predicted this kind of success for himself, but he was determined not to let his late 40s deteriorate into biding his time until he turned 50. He worked on his game, and found that competing against players who were not even born when he started gives him quite a charge.

"To contend and to have a chance to win out here is the ultimate to me," Haas said. "To be able to compete with the best players in the world is something that I want to try to hang on to as long as I can."

And that, ultimately, might have been for the best. Trying to play both tours is difficult. Haas decided he didn't want to pass up one of the major championships, which is why he is making his debut at the Senior PGA. But had he committed to any kind of senior schedule, it would have all but buried his chances for continued success on the regular tour.

If he were looking for advice, Haas might turn to Tom Watson, who last year competed in all nine major championships on both tours. Watson had a nice way of saying that winning at senior golf does not provide the same thrill.

"Satisfying is not the right term," said Watson, an eight-time major winner. "I know we're playing different competition. If I were to go out and play against the juniors as Craig Stadler did (winning the B.C. Open), I'd get more satisfaction out of beating the kids."

For Haas, the seniors can wait ... even if that's where he'll be this week.

"It can all go away quickly, but I'm enjoying the ride while it lasts," he said.

[Last modified May 27, 2004, 01:00:38]


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