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Irwin hoping to overcome back problems

It was not the way Hale Irwin typically prepares for a major championship.

He didn't strike a golf ball between June 13 and July 3 and didn't play 18 holes until the day before the start of the Senior Players Championship.

Irwin is playing in his first tournament since dropping out of the U.S. Open last month because of a back injury.

"The back is OK. I can't say it's completely well," said Irwin, the career money leader on the Champions Tour. "It'll need some continued rest, but I can't do that at this time."

Before this past Friday, the 58-year-old Irwin hadn't hit a golf ball since the 12th hole at Olympia Fields. He played a full 18 holes for the first time in Wednesday's pro-am at the TPC of Michigan.

"My preparation has been nil," he said. "Hopefully, I can draw upon my experience here."

He vowed never to return to the level of discomfort he experienced at Olympia Fields, where he called for medical attention after hitting an errant shot that sailed a couple of hundred yards wide of the fairway.

He lay down on a cart, pulling his knees up to his chest to stretch for several minutes before being taken to the course medical center.

"It's been a frustrating summer so far," said Irwin, who won't hit balls after a round or spend extra time on the putting green in an effort to reduce the stress on his aching back.

Irwin, who won the Senior Players in 1999, said he would make up his mind after this weekend whether to play in the Senior British Open in Turnberry, Scotland, in two weeks.

His back forced him to skip the previous Champions Tour major, the U.S. Senior Open two weeks ago at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio.

Bruce Lietzke won that event by two strokes over Tom Watson. It was Lietzke's first major victory in 53 tries, and seventh win since joining the senior circuit in 2001.

The only two-time winner on the tour this year, Lietzke ranks first on the money list, ahead of Irwin.

He spent the week between the Senior Open and the Senior Players in Oklahoma City with family, including his 90-year-old mother.

"I love golf, but it's not my passion," said Lietzke, who will miss the Senior British Open because of a planned vacation.

"Nothing better than winning and having a week off," he said. "Golf has a way of beating you down."

Watson got off to fast starts at his last two major championships. He shot an opening-round 65 at the U.S. Open and a 66 two weeks later in the first round of the U.S. Senior Open.

But he quickly fell out of contention at Olympia Fields, and lost at Inverness after rounds of 72, 70 and 71.

He hopes to be more consistent at the Senior Players, the third of the five majors on the Champions Tour.

First, Watson will have to deal with the Jack Nicklaus-designed TPC of Michigan, where he finished eighth in 2001 and 18th in 2000. He didn't play last year.

"I haven't been consistent in my good play," Watson said after a 7-under 65 during Wednesday's pro-am. "I've had spurts of good play, but I haven't put it together for 54 or 72 holes."


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