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FOCUS ON GOLF: U.S. Senior Open

They Will Weed Out a Champion

Golf: Conditions are expected to be rough and tough at Riviera for Senior Open.

July 23, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hale Irwin was watching Charles Coody standing in the rough at Riviera, hitting a shot during a practice round Wednesday morning.

Irwin saw the swing . . . and saw the ball pop up in the air . . . and saw it fall back to earth . . . and saw marshals on hands and knees, parting the rough, searching.

That tells you much of what you need to know about the U.S. Senior Open, which begins today.

"If you don't have a big bag of patience this week, you're not going to do well," said Irwin, who has done better than any other senior over the past two years, winning 17 tournaments on the tour, among them the last three PGA Seniors' Championships, a major.

He has finished no lower than fifth in any of the 13 tournaments in which he has played this year, and nobody in senior golf is playing better.

So what?

"We're all going to encounter some kikuyu, we're all going to encounter some fast greens," Irwin said of a trip around Riviera, with soft fairways that aren't producing any roll, making the course play to its full 6,906 yards; and with rough cut at 3 1/2 inches, but with kikuyu--"it's actually a noxious weed, isn't it?" said Irwin--that grows in any pattern it wants. It also thrives in the summer, after a slumbering winter. That makes conditions a bit different this week from those the players generally find in the Nissan Open.

And if you find the kikuyu rough, it's going to be a while before you find the fast greens.

Assuming you can find your ball at all.

There has been some bad will hunting within 10 yards of the greens during practice rounds, and if the ball was found, some full swings to try to get it on the putting surface.

"So much of Riviera depends on the kikuyu grass, how it bounces, what kind of lie you get around the greens," Irwin said. "You can get a lie where it could be six inches off the ground, and you can get a lie [in which the ball] somehow drops down in a nest and you are going to need a stick of dynamite to get it out."

And then there are the greens themselves, juiced to about a 12 on the Stimpmeter, or about something Michelle Kwan might skate on.

"You have to hit the ball in the fairway, and you have to hit the greens, but I think it is going to be even more difficult to hit these greens," Irwin said.

And stay on them.

He spoke of watching a practice shot on No. 3, "a nice, high five-iron that landed about eight feet short of the hole, which was maybe 10 feet on the green, and it didn't hesitate in going over the green."

Irwin's advantage is experience, having won a Los Angeles Open in 1976 over the layout and having won the U.S. Open three times. A win this week will enable him to join Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Gary Player, Orville Moody, Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to have won the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open.

"The fact that I have been playing well gives me some confidence coming into this event, but even if I wasn't playing well, I'd like to think that my Open experience would raise my level of play some," he said.

He might not have to raise it much.

Irwin and Gil Morgan have managed to dominate the senior tour since their 50th birthdays, and they have been joined by suddenly-50 Larry Nelson on the '98 millionaires' list, with half of the year to go. Irwin's $1,735,250 tops all golfers on any tour, as did the $2,343,364 he earned last year.

Defending champion Graham Marsh called Irwin and Morgan the tournament favorites, leaning toward Morgan, who can't see any particular advantage over his rival.

"I think our games are very similar, so if it suits one of us, it is going to suit the other one to some degree," Morgan said. "I think Hale keeps the ball in play very well. He's a very accomplished player, and he probably putts better than I do."

Irwin putts better than anybody on the senior tour, and hits more greens in regulation and averages a stroke a round less, 68.58 to Morgan's 69.80. He also leads the senior tour in birdies, which, he said, will be hard to come by this week.

For that matter, par looks pretty good.

"There will be an awful lot of three-, four-, five-, six-foot par putts this week, even if you hit the greens. . . ." Irwin said. "I don't know that it will be a winning score, but shooting four 71s or four 70s is going to be a very good week."

Roughly speaking.

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