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Champions Tour opens 25th season

Some Champions Tour players have already enjoyed an impressive start to the 2005 season.

Four players made the cut at the Sony Open on the PGA Tour last week. But the official start for the 50-and-over set is Friday at the MasterCard Championship, when the Champions Tour kicks off its 25th anniversary season.

At the Sony Open, Craig Stadler -- last year's Champions Tour player of the year -- tied for ninth at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu. Peter Jacobsen tied for 28th, Dick Mast finished in a tie for 47th, and Tom Kite tied for 72nd.

The 55-year-old Kite intends to play nearly a full schedule on both tours this year. Mast played at Waialae by getting through Monday qualifying, and he did the same thing this week at the Buick Invitational in California.

"They put on a great show last week," said Fuzzy Zoeller, who last year birdied the final three holes at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Hualalai Golf Club to edge Dana Quigley by one stroke in the Champions opener. "The guys who play well (on the regular tour) have stayed active. Fifty is what old age used to be, but I'd have to say the number has moved to 60."

Gary Player agrees that age is overstated.

"This is the kind of thing I see all the time, and having played as a professional golfer for 52 years, I keep saying wherever I go, the world is completely naive of the standard of play on the Champions Tour," said Player, one of five players to win the career grand slam. "It's one of the great phenomena in golf to see the standard of play."

Thirty-seven players are entered in the MastersCard Championship, the first of 28 Champions Tour events.

The winner takes home $272,000 of the $1.6 million purse in a tournament that includes winners of Champions Tour official money events over the last two years and winners of golf's senior majors over the last five years. Player, Arnold Palmer, and Lee Trevino received special exemptions into the field.

Official prize money on the tour this year approaches $52 million, with an average purse of $1.8 million. The competition has never been keener, and some players who have become eligible for senior golf have proved capable of remaining viable competitors on the regular tour.

In 2003, Stadler became the first player to win events on the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour in the same calendar year, accomplishing the feat in back-to-back weeks. Jay Haas, who turned 52 in December, played on the most recent U.S. Ryder Cup team. Add Greg Norman, Curtis Strange, Scott Simpson and Loren Roberts, all of whom are eligible for the Champions Tour this year, and winning a senior title becomes more difficult.

"It's just getting harder and harder out here. Players are that much better," said Hale Irwin, who has won a record 40 senior titles. "You can't quantify it, but each group of players that comes along, they are better and more fit, and they make for very formidable competition."

 

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