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Kite ready to defend Mastercard Championship

Tom Kite is all set to defend his MasterCard Championship title, and do a lot more when the Champions Tour opens its season Friday at Hualalai Golf Club.

Kite led the whole way in winning last year's tournament by six strokes.

With the expiration of his 10-year exemption on the PGA Tour from winning the 1992 U.S. Open, Kite for the first time will devote all his attention to what was formerly called the Senior PGA Tour.

"I'm excited about this year. I have a chance to do some things that I haven't realistically had a chance to do, which is compete for some of the season-long honors," said Kite, 53, who won three times last year.

"I chose to act upon my exemption on the regular tour, and I loved it, but now I don't have that exemption, so all my focus will be on the Champions Tour. If you expect to compete against guys like Hale Irwin, you better lock in full time," he said.

Irwin, last year's player of the year, and Kite are among the 36 players competing in the $1.5 million MasterCard Championship, the first of 31 official events on the Champions Tour.

The tournament is limited to players who have won a major title in the past five years or a regular senior event the past two years.

The renaming of the Senior PGA Tour to the Champions Tour is among a number of changes the 50-and-over circuit has undergone.

The fan-friendly initiatives begun last year, such as honorary observers, galleries in the fairways on closing holes, lessons from the pros and television interviews with players during competition, will be fully implemented in 2003. New fan features include equipment demo days, behind-the-scenes tours of television broadcasts, and rules clinics.

Perhaps the most significant changes on the Champions Tour, however, are the addition of a fifth major to the schedule, the Senior British Open, and a new cart policy that encourages all competitors to walk while limiting cart use by caddies.

Kite won last year's MasterCard Championship, making him only the fourth player to win the season opener on both the PGA Tour and Champions Tour.

Kite is hoping to rebound from a back injury last year.

"This is a great place to get the year started," Kite said. "It's hard to complain with three wins, but I really had it going at the first of the year and then I hurt my back. For whatever reason, the back got better, but I never got my game, my swing, back to the level it had been at the start of the year."

Kite figures to be among a handful of players who could challenge Irwin. Other top players in the field this week include Bob Gilder, who won four titles last year, three-time winner Bruce Lietzke, and Senior Tour Championship winner Tom Watson.

Irwin, 57, who owns a record 36 senior titles, won four times and $3,028,304 in 2002, becoming the oldest player to win the money title and the first senior player to surpass $3 million in a season.

"I love challenges," said Irwin, who is fighting tendinitis in his right elbow that developed late last year. "It goes back to when I was younger. My attitude has never changed. Give me the ball, I'll run with it. If I make a mistake, I make one, but it will never be from a lack of effort. I'm not reluctant to go after it. I'll try as hard as I can."

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