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Champions Tour tiles decided this week

Even by Champions Tour standards, Hale Irwin is old.

Still, the youngest 59-year-old in golf is hoping his trick back holds up long enough to show the youngsters a few more tricks at the tour's season-ending event.

The top 30 Champions Tour players are in the heart of Northern California wine country for the Charles Schwab Cup championship at Sonoma Golf Club.

Craig Stadler passed Irwin atop the money list several weeks ago, but Irwin still holds a narrow 39-point lead in the standings for the season-long Schwab Cup competition. The winner of the Schwab Cup gets a $1 million annuity, while the winner of the tournament gets $435,000 of the $2.5 million purse.

Irwin has struggled with a persistent back injury in his 10th season on the former Senior Tour, but his sweet swing has kept him in position to win the Schwab Cup -- and to defy his age for yet another year.

``It's probably been one of my more difficult years simply because of my back,'' Irwin said Wednesday as the golfers prepared for the 72-hole event. ``It has been a wonderful year. I'm ready for it to be over. To be in the position I find myself has been a bonus.''

The tournament is back in Sonoma for the second straight year, but the golfers barely recognize the vintage 1920s-style course that yielded barrels of birdies and eagles last year, when Jim Thorpe won at 20-under.

The course underwent an extensive offseason makeover, with added length and new menacing rough. What's more, the wine country was soaked in rain Tuesday, making the course even tougher.

That's excellent news for Stadler and several others who criticized the course last fall.

``It's a completely different golf course,'' said Stadler, who has torn up the Champions Tour this season with $2.22 million in winnings and five victories, including three straight during a spectacular month-long run in late summer.

``There was a pretty good reason that somebody shot 20 under par last year. I don't think anybody is going to shoot 20 under par this year. It should be a great challenge and a great event.''

Four players are still mathematically alive for the Schwab Cup, awarded to the golfer with the most points from 30 Champions Tour events during the year.

Irwin leads Stadler after finishing in 10th place at last week's SBC Championship in San Antonio. Tom Kite and Peter Jacobsen, who beat Irwin by one stroke to win the U.S. Senior Open in St. Louis, also have a shot.

But while Stadler, Jacobsen, Kite and the rest of the tour's younger players are quickly taking over the circuit, they're still chasing Irwin and his consistent game.

Though his back often stiffens up in the most uncomfortable places -- while waiting on the 13th tee in San Antonio, or right before a difficult shot over water -- Irwin has done just enough to stay in position for the overall title.

``The caliber of play on the tour this year has been spectacular,'' Irwin said. ``If you're intending to keep up with that play, you have to step on it yourself. You can say what you want about luck, you can say what you want about genetics, but I put in the work. I'm not ready to let my game be anything but the best it can be.''

Though there's big money and two championships on the line, the senior golfers still have the proper perspective about their tour. Thorpe was expected to make another visit to the casino where he played craps and blackjack well into the night last year, while Jacobsen and others intend to enjoy Sonoma's wine and food nearly as much as the golf.

``It's a very unique place,'' Jacobsen said. ``Everybody wants to come to Sonoma, and the course is much more challenging this year. This is the type of event that really defines the Champions Tour.''

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