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SPORTS WEEKEND

Once-Reluctant Irwin a Model Senior Citizen

Golf: He comes into Newport Beach event enjoying the riches his post-50 years have brought.

March 14, 1997|MARTIN BECK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many professional golfers spend their 40s counting down the days until they become 50, considering that many a flagging career has been rejuvenated on the Senior PGA Tour.

That wasn't the case for Hale Irwin. He had won his third U.S. Open in 1990, when he was 45, and remains the oldest to have won that title. And at 48, he won his 20th tournament on the PGA Tour.

So as he neared his 50th birthday in 1995, Irwin talked about splitting time between the regular and senior tours. Nearly two years later, he has changed his outlook. Now he's happy to call himself a senior.

It's not hard to figure. Irwin has had spectacular success. He won two senior tournaments in 1995 after joining the tour in June, and two more, one the PGA Seniors' Championship, in 1996. Financially, 1996 was the best year of his career. He won $1.6 million and was the second-leading money winner by $12,121 to Jim Colbert.

This year has been more of the same. Irwin has won two of the three official events in which he played. He also won the Senior Slam last month, beating Ray Floyd, Dave Stockton and Jack Nicklaus, and is on a roll going into the Toshiba Senior Classic, which runs today through Sunday at Newport Beach Country Club.

And the PGA Tour is looking less alluring to Irwin these days.

"The fact is, I am not 25 years old anymore," he said. "And do I want to go do that rat race? My priorities are different. I am a senior player, I'm quite happy here. I know this is where I belong.

"That's not to say that I can't dream and sometimes actually go back and get my you-know-what whipped on and then come back where I belong."

Another reason for Irwin to ease off on his PGA Tour ambitions--he played in three events last year--is that he is spending more time working on his course-design business.

"I'm having great fun with that," he said. "I'm doing well with that but it doesn't prepare you for playing."

Irwin is considering whether to play in the PGA Tour's Players Championship late this month, but is concentrating most on preparing for the senior tour's first major, the Tradition the first week in April.

This week he is hoping to continue his recent strong play.

"It may be difficult to re-create the kind of momentum that I had the first part of the year," Irwin said. "Having said that, I'm still hitting the ball nicely."

The tight 6,598-yard layout at Newport Beach puts a premium on accuracy. Irwin, who finished third here last year, four strokes behind the winner, Colbert, said the greens are bumpy.

"The ball spends more time in the air than it does on the ground," he said. "And it's hard to read air."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Facts

* WHAT: Toshiba Senior Classic.

* WHEN: Begins 8 a.m. today, Saturday. Final round begins 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

* WHERE: Newport Beach Country Club, 1600 East Pacific Coast Highway.

* TV: ESPN, noon-2 p.m. Friday; 2:30-4 p.m. Saturday; 2:30-4 p.m. Sunday.

* DEFENDING CHAMPION: Jim Colbert.

* TEE TIMES: C13

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