PGA TOUR HAWAII
Going gets tougher with Turtle Bay up next
The Champions Tour heads to the North Shore, where only Hale Irwin has won since 2000
KA'UPULEHU, Hawaii » It won't take Loren Roberts long to realize he isn't in Oz anymore when he tees it up this week at the $1.5 million Turtle Bay Championship.
Granted, the Arnold Palmer-designed course doesn't belong in Kansas. It has its own brand of beauty. But if Hualalai is the Emerald City of the Champions Tour -- and to hear the players tell it, the accessible par-72 course is just that -- then Turtle Bay may be as hard as Kansas in the wintertime by comparison.
Five-time champion Hale Irwin alluded to that during Saturday's second round of the winners-only event. He sang praises to the Hualalai gods, saying there was no better golf course in the land. But then he added an interesting fact. He said the play from tee to green will be a lot more important in the Champions Tour's first full-field event of 2006.
Translation? Nobody will be 25 under come Sunday afternoon.
That's not to say the 50-year-old Roberts won't be able to tame the Turtle Bay course. He already has an 18th-place finish at the Sony Open in Hawaii to accompany his record-breaking MasterCard Championship win at Hualalai. He obviously loves it here in the island chain, but
beating Irwin at Hale's hale should prove a formidable task for anyone.
Irwin beat 2005 MasterCard champion Dana Quigley by five shots last year to win the same event an unprecedented fifth time. Since the tournament moved to Oahu from Maui in 2000, nobody has been able to carve his name on the trophy save Irwin. The event wasn't held in 2004, when it was moved from the fall to the first event following the MasterCard in 2005.
That shift saved the tournament, but it did nothing to keep Irwin from calling it his own. This year, he is facing a formidable field, no question of that. Only two golfers are missing from the 35-man field who teed it up on the Big Island and only two of the top-30 money winners from a year ago opted to skip this event.
Roberts is just one golfer who could pose problems for the 60-year-old Irwin. There are plenty of others in this field capable of winning, including Don Pooley, who finished second to Roberts by one shot, not to mention Quigley, tour rookie of the year Jay Haas, Gil Morgan, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, Jim Thorpe, Fuzzy Zoeller and Allen Doyle.
But at this point, Roberts might be the man to beat.
"I really think Sony helped me prepare for this week," Roberts said. "My schedule is in flux right now. I'm thinking after leaving Hawaii that I may play six to eight events on the PGA Tour. I'm feeling very good about my game. I had heard about this tournament (MasterCard Championship) since before I came out here and it didn't disappoint"
Roberts certainly didn't disappoint his legion of fans with his record-setting performance. He shattered the Champions Tour record in relation to par with his 25-under 191 performance that also equaled the lowest score for a 54-hole event set by Bruce Fleisher at the 2002 RJR Championship on a par-70 course. Some 27 of Roberts' shots were in the red, with an eagle and 26 birdies. The latter number is a record for most birdies in a 54-hole event, not to mention the record he set at MasterCard for lowest score, besting Morgan's 1998 finish by two shots. Roberts also set the best 18 holes at Hualalai with a final-round 11-under 61 to edge Pooley by one.
Pooley's performance was nothing short of perfection. His 24-under effort -- including a final-round 65 -- was the best finish not to win a tournament, beating Doyle's 21 under that left him one shot shy of winning the Golf Rush Classic in 2001. Pooley joked he had one too many bogeys in his round. He had only one at the par-3 third on Sunday, but it proved to be his undoing.
"Still, I'm really pleased with my tournament here," Pooley said. "I didn't lose, I just got beat by Roberts, who deserved to win. This gives me a lot of confidence going into the season. I feel like if I can putt like I did this week, I have a chance to get a win this year."
If not for Roberts, Pooley's 25 birdies over the weekend would have been a Champions Tour record for a 54-hole event. Jack Nicklaus holds the 72-hole mark with 28 birdies. Good thing this tournament wasn't four rounds or the Golden Bear's mark would have undoubtedly been erased from the books.
"I look forward to playing (this) week on Oahu," Roberts said. "It has been a great two weeks for me. I can't think of any better way to start the season with three weeks in Hawaii. Too bad I didn't win on the PGA Tour, it could have been four weeks (starting with the Mercedes on Maui). But I'll take this. It's been a lot of fun so far."