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Patience the key at US Senior Open

Defending champion Hale Irwin has a little secret he hopes not too many other players find out about at this week's U.S. Senior Open.

Irwin says the key to success on the par-70, 6,709-yard Salem Country Club course designed by Donald Ross is patience.

The 56-year-old is quietly resolved to avoid making any rash decisions once the championship begins on Thursday.

"For me I'm going to look to be patient," Irwin said. "If there is anything that you have to have playing those kind of golf courses, it's a great deal of patience."

In this senior major setting, patience has helped Irwin persevere. In six U.S. Senior Open starts, he has never finished worse than a tie for fifth.

He won last year at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and in 1998 at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.

Irwin will go up against a top-notch field that will include 51-year-old Tom Kite and Larry Nelson, coming off a win last Sunday at the PGA Senior Tour's FleetBoston Classic.

Irwin, who turned 56 on June 3, is aiming to become only the second Senior Open winner older than 55. Twice a winner on the Senior Tour this season, Irwin is hopeful that experience will serve him well on the classic Ross set-up.

"It looks to be a course that will test a lot of shots and a lot of clubs in your bag," he said.

"I think you're going to see a good old classic golf course that has a few quirky shots that we don't see in today's game.

"You're going to have to call on some experience where you might have had to play a certain shot before, and some sucker pins that you just don't hit to. Some of these greens you just want to play to a certain area."

Kite enters with a great deal of confidence gained from his final-round at the U.S. Open where he closed at Southern Hills with a six-under-par 64, the best round ever by a Senior Tour player in a major championship.

He vaulted from a tie for 44th to a fifth-place finish, just five shots adrift of a playoff with Mark Brooks and eventual champion Retief Goosen.

Last Sunday, at the FleetBoston Classic, Kite worked himself into contention again. Then he watched as his 7-iron tee shot at the par-3 17th hit and killed a purple martin, and fell into the water on his way to posting a double bogey.

Kite eventually settled for a third-place tie, four shots off the lead. "It's unfortunate when you have a chance to win a golf tournament and that happens," Kite said. "Kind of a bum break."

Kite's misfortune was Nelson's gain last week. Nelson held his lead to win for a tour-leading third time this season.

Along with Kite and Nelson, Tom Watson, who has split playing time on both the regular PGA and Senior PGA tours this year, and Bruce Fleisher will be considered strong contenders to win their first U.S. Senior Open.

This tournament, though, has produced its share of unexpected champions as well.

In 1992, cigar-chomping Larry Laoretti burst onto the Senior Tour scene and won the title. Two years later, fun-loving South African Simon Hobday held on to win over Australian Graham Marsh, who won in 1997.

Then in 1999, Dave Eichelberger won his first U.S. Golf Association title in 30 years of competing.


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