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Irwin can't get out of jam

After a loose back nine and a 71, he leads by one shot, with many others close at Valencia.

March 18, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Hale Irwin, the all-time Champions Tour winner, leads going into today's final round of the AT&T Champions Classic.

But this time he has given the field a fighting chance.

After posting a sizzling 64 in the opening round, Irwin shot a pedestrian one-under-par 71 at Valencia Country Club on Saturday, leaving him nine under for the tournament and only one shot ahead of Andy Bean and Bobby Wadkins.

Five players were another shot back at seven under: former tournament winner Gil Morgan, Tim Simpson, Morris Hatalsky, Jim Thorpe and Loren Roberts.

Overall, 13 golfers were within three shots of Irwin.

Seeking his 46th victory on the 50-and-over Champions Tour, Irwin's round included three birdies and two bogeys.

After shooting one under on the front nine, "I just didn't play particularly well" on the final nine holes, said Irwin, 61. "I didn't birdie any par-five. I lost my rhythm, I lost my timing.

"There's so many guys in the mix now," he said. "That loose back nine let in a lot of guys."

Wadkins shot a five-under 67 and Morgan -- who won in 1996, '97 and '04 -- fired a four-under 68.

Bean jumped into contention with a six-under 66 that included birdies on three of the final four holes. His hot round came after he shot 70 on Friday and then gave away his driver to a spectator because the club "was not cooperating," he said.

But even with Irwin's lackluster round, catching him won't be easy, Bean said.

"Trying to make up shots on Hale is not the easiest thing in the world," Bean said. "He doesn't make many mistakes. I'll have to play as well as I did today to do it."

Indeed, on the 47 occasions when Irwin had or shared the lead going into the final round of a Champions Tour event, he has won 33 times.

Simpson also shot 66.

"I just played solid and made several birdies early on," said Simpson, a 50-year-old Georgia native.

"I've got to shoot probably 65 tomorrow to have a chance [to win]," he said. "I think somebody will come out of the pack and light it up."

Many players said the thick, unwieldy rough around Valencia's greens provided a stiff penalty for any approach shot that wasn't accurate. Thorpe was one of several players who flubbed chip shots near the greens.

"If you're just into the long rough back there, you're dead," Bean said. "You have to hit it harder than you think you do to get it out."

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Sam Snead occasionally played golf barefoot to improve his balance. Wayne Levi hasn't gone that far, but he does play in sneakers with apparently little disadvantage.

Levi, 55, has an arthritic right big toe that hurt when he played with golf shoes. So he switched to white sneakers a few months ago and, with back-to-back 69s, he is three shots behind Irwin.

"I'm not going to [change] anything that's working good," Levi said. "You can play [good golf] in sneakers. I'm living proof."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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