Ford Senior Players Championship
Ford Senior Players Championship
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Irwin cruises to seven shot win

Just two months ago, many said Hale Irwin's best days were behind him. This weekend, he had one of the most dominant performances of his golfing career in one of the Senior Tour's most prestigious events.

Shooting an eye-popping 15 strokes under par in the final two rounds, Irwin blew away the field over the weekend to earn his fifth Senior Tour major title and coasted to a seven-shot victory today at the Senior Players Championship.

Earning a first prize of $300,000, the 54-year-old Irwin moved past Jim Colbert to become the all-time leading money winner in Senior Tour history with $8,588,505. Irwin notched his 23rd senior title to match Bob Charles for third-most all-time.

Through his first seven tournaments of 1999, Irwin notched only one top-10 finish. Last year, he finished among the top five in all but two of 22 events entered.

Now Irwin has won three times in his last five starts and today jumped one spot on the 1999 money list to fourth with $968,252, putting himself less than $300,000 behind leader Bruce Fleisher.

Irwin turned in a 7-under-par 65 today to end up with a 72-hole total of 21-under 267, equaling the lowest finishing score since the Senior Players Championship moved to the Jack Nicklaus-designed TPC at Michigan in 1991. Irwin fired a 64 on Saturday, coming within a stroke of the course record and matching the lowest third-round score at this event.

The tournament record remains 27-under 261, set by Nicklaus in 1990 at the Dearborn Country Club. Irwin posted the second-best 72-hole total in the 16-year history of this event, finishing seven shots ahead of Graham Marsh and eight in front of John Jacobs.

The shot that seemed to get Irwin back on track this year came at the final hole of the Nationwide Championship in early May. Tied for the lead at the par-5 18th, Irwin lofted his third shot onto the green and the ball rolled in the cup for eagle, giving him a two-shot victory.

A similiar shot highlighted his round today. In the fairway at the par-4 11th, Irwin holed out his approach for an eagle. After he birdied the next two holes, it appeared his round was turning sour, but Irwin made sure not to let the magic slip away.

After hitting from five feet to save par at No. 14, he misread a chip shot and left himself a 15-footer on the par-3 15th but rolled that par putt in the heart of the cup. His ensuing drive at the par-4 16th found the trees, forcing Irwin to simply pitch the ball back to the fairway. He landed his third shot 12 feet right of the flag, draining that putt to again preserve par.

Irwin followed his astounding triumph at Nationwide with a sixth-place showing at the Las Vegas Senior Classic but quickly returned to the winner's circle, emerging victorious at the Boone Valley Classic on May 30. His season took a brief turn for the worse as he tied for 26th at the BellSouth Senior Classic before withdrawing from the U.S. Open last week with a shoulder problem.

Irwin responded by winning the event for the first time. He was one shot back after the first round and two off the pace through two rounds here before his 64 on Saturday gave him a four-stroke lead. The former University of Colorado defensive back was the runner-up here last year and in 1996.

Irwin felt a twinge in his left shoulder during the second round at Pinehurst No. 2 last week and pulled out, later saying it was the first time he withdrew from an event in 31 years as a professional. Still bothered by the shoulder coming here, Irwin has many of his competitors hoping he will be the picture of health the rest of the year.

Fleisher, who has won four times this year, ended up 11 shots back at 10-under 278 with Gil Mogan, who defeated Irwin here last year by three shots with his 267 total. Morgan won six times in 1997 and 1998, staying a close second to Irwin as the tour's top player, but has gone winless in 1999.

Marsh came up short in his bid for a second major championship this season, having won the rain-shortened Tradition in April. His last victory before that triumph was also a major, the 1997 U.S. Senior Open. The 55-year-old Australian owns six senior titles after capturing only one event on the PGA Tour.

The TPC of Michigan is a par-72 layout that spreads 6,876 yards.