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Stiff test fits Irwin to a tee

The seniors wanted tougher course setups, and they found one at the TPC of Tampa Bay.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


LUTZ -- For years, the Senior PGA Tour has been all about camaraderie and comfort, about Cadillacs and cash.

No more. Well, at least not the comfort part. In order to enjoy the perks, players have to sweat a little.

That suits Hale Irwin just fine. The three-time U.S. Open winner built his gritty reputation on conquering the most challenging courses, and he loves a tough test. With Lee Trevino, he shares the senior tour record of 29 wins, on all variety of layouts, but Irwin will take the stern ones every time.

That's what he and the rest of the field have at the TPC of Tampa Bay, where Irwin's 6-under-par 66 on Saturday gave him a two-shot lead over six players, including Jack Nicklaus, after two rounds of the Verizon Classic.

Course setup is all the rage a month into the season. Players asked for strenuous conditions, and got them. "I think it's good for the game. I think it's good for our image," said Irwin, 55, who can become the senior tour's first 30-time winner with a victory today. "I think it's good for golf itself. Considering the issues we're dealing with in technology, the golf ball, the club's agronomy ... we've just seen scores go so low.

"My goodness, look at what they've done at the (Bob) Hope (Classic). Where does it stop? How do you get some of that integrity back in the game, where some of the courses can have a chance?"

If the course won Saturday, so did the tournament, which is set for a potentially wild final round.

On an overcast, windy day, only a few players made a move. Irwin bolted into the lead with four birdies on the back nine and finished at 136, 6 under par, then watched other pursuers stumble or fail to mount a charge.

Nicklaus, 61, who tied for the first-round lead, shot par 71 to put himself at 138 and in contention for the first time since he tied for sixth at the 1998 Masters. Defending champion Bruce Fleisher got in the hunt with 69, as did last weekend's winner in Naples, Fla., Gil Morgan (67). Jose Maria Canizares and senior rookies Bob Gilder (68) and Bobby Walzel (68) also were in contention.

Six more players were at 139 and within three of the lead, including first-round co-leader Doug Tewell (72) and Dana Quigley, whose 65 was the low round of the tournament. "They tried to give the guys what they want," Quigley said of the tough conditions. "But is this really what they want? It'll be interesting to see as the season goes on."

"The pins are extremely difficult," Fleisher said. "Unless you are playing extremely well, I don't think you have too many guys firing at it."

The senior tour is golf's greatest mulligan. No cuts and courtesy cars make for a nice lifestyle. So do big purses. This weekend's is $1.4-million, with $210,000 going to the winner.

There is kinship among the players, but also a competitive spirit.

"It's not quite as businesslike, but I still feel the intensity," said Gilder, who is playing his third senior event. "These guys are pretty good, very good. The caliber of guys at the top is as good as anywhere. I had no illusions. These guys are good and some of them have gotten better since they've been out here."

Nicklaus is among those who applaud the tougher courses. He hasn't played more than seven senior events in his previous 11 years on the tour, mostly because he didn't approve of the courses. "Until now, the senior tour has been a case where the best play is not always rewarded," he said. "It shouldn't be a putting contest. It's fun to play golf when you are challenged. There's a big enjoyment in that."

Nicklaus was steady, if not spectacular, during the second round, making two birdies and two bogeys after an opening 67. He made his first bogey of the tournament at the ninth hole, where he missed a short par putt, then did it again at the 11th before getting back to par with birdie at the 14th. Five years have passed since Nicklaus' last victory, the 1996 Tradition.

"I haven't been in position to win a golf tournament in a long time," he said. "I was kind of disappointed I couldn't get another birdie. I'd like to play in the last group with Hale. But at least I've got a chance to win a golf tournament. I haven't done that in a while. I'm looking forward to it. It should be a lot of fun."

Verizon classic leaders

Hale Irwin 70-66-136

Gil Morgan 71-67-138

Bob Gilder 70-68-138

J.M. Canizares 70-68-138

Bobby Walzel 70-68-138

Bruce Fleisher 69-69-138

Jack Nicklaus 67-71-138

Dana Quigley 74-65-139

Hugh Baiocchi 72-67-139

Doug Johnson 72-67-139

L. Thompson 70-69-139

M. McCullough 70-69-139

Doug Tewell 67-72-139

* * *

Others

Ray Floyd 68-73-141

Gary Player 72-70-142

Tom Watson 73-70-143

* * *

TV: 6 p.m., CNBC (taped).

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