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Hale Irwin seeks putting improvement

Age really is just a number to Hale Irwin.

As his 61st birthday approaches, Irwin remains competitive during his second decade on the Champions Tour, with five top-10 finishes this year. But he said Tuesday that a critical element of his game must improve if he's going to have a chance to win the Senior PGA Championship, which starts later this week at Oak Tree Golf Club.

"Do I feel capable of winning? Absolutely," said Irwin, a four-time winner of the event. "But to do that I need to change. I don't need to change the complete direction of my game, I just need to get a few putts in, rather than a few putts hanging."

Only one player has won the Senior PGA Championship more times than Irwin -- Sam Snead, who won it six times between 1964 and 1973. When Irwin won the 2004 event at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., three days before his 59th birthday, he became the oldest player to win a Champions Tour major since 1976, when 61-year-old Pete Cooper won the Senior PGA.

Irwin and Jack Nicklaus are the only players to win the same senior major four times. Nicklaus won The Tradition four times.

Irwin has a record 44 Champions Tour wins, including seven majors. He also won the Senior PGA Championship in 1996, 1997 and 1998 at the PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He won four events in 2005, marking the 11th straight year he has won more than once, a tour record.

But Irwin said putting woes that began last year have stretched into this year. The problem has become so bad that he plans to use a different putter this week -- an old model he's used in the past -- in an attempt to shake things up.

"Tee to green I've hit the ball well enough," Irwin said. "I've made a few mistakes along the way, (but) I had an opportunity to win on more than just one occasion. So it's not been from a lack of opportunities, it's been just generally poor putting. There's no other way to put it."

Irwin said he needed to try something different, hence the change in putters.

"This being a very important week, why not," said Irwin, who finished tied for 38th the last time he played at Oak Tree, in the 1988 PGA Championship. "I can't think of a reason to stay with what I've been doing. I can think of all sorts of reasons to change."

Even while struggling, Irwin managed to finish second in the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am in February in Lutz, Fla., and took fourth in two other tournaments, the ACE Group Classic in Naples, Fla., in February and the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in Savannah, Ga., in April.

By enjoying sustained success on the Champions Tour, Irwin -- who will turn 61 on June 3 -- is defying the odds. Of the 802 tournaments in tour history, only 15 have been won by a player 60 or older. Irwin has two of those wins, taking last year's First Tee Open at Pebble Beach and the SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, N.C.

As younger talent comes onto the Champions Tour -- Irwin noted Jay Haas, Loren Roberts and Peter Jacobsen as this year's up-and-comers -- it's more of a challenge for older golfers to remain competitive.

"I think it gets harder every year a little bit," said another tour veteran, 59-year-old Gil Morgan. "I'll turn 60 at the end of the year, so I'm getting kind of at the end of my viable career, I would think. At the same time ... the young players just keep coming. But that's kind of a normal progression and that's what keeps the Champions Tour vibrant and alive and keeps a lot of interest going.

"The older players, like myself, we keep trying to hang on, but sometimes it's inevitable at some point in time that we're going to be down the road."



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