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Wednesday, January 26, 2005



TURTLE BAY CHAMPIONSHIP




art
ASSOCIATED PRESS




Invincible Irwin

The golfer seems to own
this tournament

IT makes you wonder why anybody else bothered to make the trip.

First off, Dana Quigley takes on the best of the senior circuit at a golf course he should call his own. Oh, Jack Nicklaus designed it, but if he and Quigley played it 100 times, the Golden Bear'd get skinned.

Now, for round two, Quigley might as well drive around the golf course this weekend doing commentary from the fairway because this one belongs to Hale Irwin. Arnold Palmer designed this course out at old Punahoolapa swamp, but Irwin tames it for one week a year.

Together, the two golf courses have paid a king's ransom to Irwin and Quigley. A cool two mil, give or take. In eight trips around Hualalai Golf Club on the Big Island, Quigley has earned $998,875 with two victories and six top-10 finishes. Irwin hasn't played as many rounds as he prepares for this week's Turtle Bay Championship, but only he has won here in the 21st century.

When they tee it up this Friday in the first full-field event on the Champions Tour, Irwin will be trying to win his fifth consecutive title that dates back to 2000 when this tournament was called the Kaanapali Classic and played on Maui.

The tournament shifted sights in 2001 to its current North Shore residence, where Irwin continued his streak. They skipped the 2004 event, much to Irwin's chagrin, so the powers-that-be could use the winners-only MasterCard Championship as a lure for Turtle Bay in 2005.

It worked. The best are here. Not that Irwin is complaining for having to wait the extra three months to defend what is rightfully his. He beat Tom Kite in the last Turtle Bay Championship in October 2003. And Kite's so confident in his game, he's back playing the PGA Tour full-time, so bring it on.

To truly appreciate Irwin's love affair with Hawaii, you have to add up all the victories and all the money he has put in the vault since winning the 1981 Hawaiian Open. Fortunately, the tax man and the PGA Tour have been keeping track, and here's the rub of the green -- $3,529,475.

Dating back to 1996 at Kaanapali, Irwin has won this senior stop five times and has two other top-10 finishes, a second and third. Add it all up and Irwin has won a little more than a million bucks at this event. How did he do it?

Well, he has played 24 rounds at this tournament and has been in the 60s 16 times. He managed to track down Kite in 2003, despite a second-round 73, the only 18 holes Irwin has ever shot over par here. The scoring average of 67.88 might make his fellow seniors want to make the turn and walk away.

After all, Irwin and Hawaii are old companions.

"Hawaii has been absolutely fantastic," Irwin said. "Forgetting golf, this has been a great place for my family and myself to come over to enjoy, relax and kick back, especially when the kids were little. I talked to my daughter (last week) and she said, 'Oh, I wish I was there.'

"So, we've had a great run in Hawaii. And I've said this many times, so excuse me for repeating, but it's always the people who make the places. We go to a lot of nice places, regardless where it is, and it's always the people. You can find good and bad everywhere, but there's a lot of good here."

Irwin spent most of the winter season curled by the fire. His ailing back, neck and shoulder wouldn't allow him to do much more. Only a few months removed from his 60th birthday, the 20-time champ on the PGA Tour and the all-time leading money winner among the senior set, it might be time to slow down on this golf thing.

Spasms and stiffness are signs of the time. Irwin realizes this and didn't practice much for six weeks, playing only in a charity event during that timeframe. He felt good coming into the MasterCard Championship last week, winding up in a tie for third, just one shot removed from the two-man playoff of Quigley and Tom Watson.

Irwin allowed for the easiness of the resort course as the main reason for his 17-under tour of duty. He knows there's no substitute for practice.

The problem is, once he starts hitting buckets of golf balls on a daily basis, his health problems could erupt at a moment's notice.

Had he not had a legitimate shot of holding off Craig Stadler for the Schwab Cup last fall, it's unlikely he would have played much down the stretch. A gutty performance at the Schwab Cup Championship earned him a seventh-place finish, good enough to beat Stadler by a mere 39 points and take home the $1 million annuity for a second straight campaign.

Irwin will find out at this week's Turtle Bay Championship just how good a shape his game is in, because unlike the approachable Hualalai golf course, this one still has a few teeth left in its head.

But really now, does anyone else have a chance in the 78-man field?

"You know, I'm trying to keep that from happening," Irwin said. "This year on tour we've got a guy named (Peter) Jacobsen, the Walrus, this Watson guy, who's been playing fairly well.

"It's getting harder and harder to defend that thing. I'm so impressed with the caliber of play out here, I think, is very underestimated. Look at what Craig did at the Sony last week (tie for ninth). That was a story that was missed by many because it got lost in the Singh-Els deal. All four Champions Tour guys made the cut. So, I think there's a story here that the outside world is missing."

Turtle Bay Championship
www.pgatour.com/tournaments/s548/


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