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Published: Sunday, 7/24/2011

U.S. SENIOR OPEN

Greeting old friends, new faces

5 who won titles at Inverness return to bid for U.S. Senior Open crown

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Hale Irwin, 66, knows how to play Inverness Club. He won the U.S. Open there in 1979. Hale Irwin, 66, knows how to play Inverness Club. He won the U.S. Open there in 1979.
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When the U.S. Senior Open first came to Inverness Club in 2003, the field included Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Raymond Floyd.

It was for those players and a few others -- Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez come immediately to mind -- that senior golf was invented, for lack of a better word, in the early 1980s and given a viable tour on which to play.

Those were the guys who built the sport and brought millions of avid fans to the game as players, spectators or both. As time marched on and as Arnie and Lee and the rest no longer could compete on the regular PGA Tour, a senior circuit was created to keep the game's greats in the public eye in a competitive setting.

U.S. SENIOR OPEN FAN GUIDE

Ah, but time waits for no man. Golf is cyclical and, sadly, none of the above-mentioned legends will be playing this week as the game's seasoned veterans return to Inverness for the 2011 U.S. Senior Open.

The "younger" stars of '03 are the elder statesmen now -- Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Bruce Fleisher and Fuzzy Zoeller, to name a handful. (Tom Watson, of course, would fall in that category, but has opted to skip this tournament.)

Craig Stadler's amateur title came 38 years ago at Inverness, and he's back here again this week. Craig Stadler's amateur title came 38 years ago at Inverness, and he's back here again this week.
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The new blood, so to speak, were still playing, and playing well, on the regular tour eight years ago -- Paul Azinger, Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples, defending Senior Open champion Bernhard Langer, Tom Lehman, and Nick Price provide a sampling of that group.

"Every tour changes as the younger guys come on," Langer said. "Look at the PGA Tour with players in their 20s, even teenagers, starring now. On our tour, there are new guys coming on board every month, every week. It's good because you're always getting the very best."

Irwin, the 1979 U.S. Open champion at Inverness and now 66 years old, also noted that the senior roster changes regularly as players hit their 50th birthdays and become eligible for the Champions Tour and for events like the Senior Open.

"I want to say 'Go home, guys,' " Irwin quipped. "No, really, it's great. We've enjoyed a bunch of newcomers, recognizable faces and names who have won major championships coming onto the scene. I played my best golf when I was 52 years old. And you look at the guys who are now around that age, players like Couples, Price and Lehman, and we see some absolutely tremendous golf.

"Most of the guys on the Champions Tour welcome the new faces and the energy and the new personalities they bring. A tour isn't successful if it stays the same."

So, it's true, professional golf is a young man's game and youth is relative based on which tour we're discussing.

Nick Price has four victories since joining the Champions Tour in 2007. He is third this year on the Tour money list with $1,008,718. Nick Price has four victories since joining the Champions Tour in 2007. He is third this year on the Tour money list with $1,008,718.
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In the case of Inverness Club, however, old friends are still around and still abound.

It is remarkable to realize that winners of five major championships, all accomplished at Inverness over a three-decade span of time, will return to Toledo and be in the Senior Open field this week.

Other than at Augusta National Golf Club, where Masters champions of old return to compete on an annual basis, Inverness may well be the only major championship venue to claim five ex-winners in the field.

Inverness champions expected to be in this week's tournament include Craig Stadler (1973 U.S. Amateur), Irwin (1979 U.S. Open), Bob Tway (1986 PGA Championship), Azinger (1993 PGA Championship) and Bruce Lietzke (2003 Senior Open).

"That's pretty cool," Stadler said. "You're not going to find that at many places, if any. Maybe you'll see it 20 years from now at Valhalla [in Louisville] with all the tournaments that are being played there. But the more I think about it, other than the Masters, it might be a first."

Irwin may be the most celebrated of the Inverness champions considering he won three U.S. Opens and has since added a pair of Senior Open titles. Tway's win in Toledo was one of the most memorable in major championship history as he holed a bunker shot at the 72nd hole for his margin of victory. Azinger won in a dramatic playoff over Greg Norman and then added to his golf legacy by captaining the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team to an upset victory at Valhalla. Lietzke out-dueled a legend in Tom Watson.

A five-time winner on the PGA Tour, Tom Lehman has already won taht many times on the Champions Tour since joining in 2009. A five-time winner on the PGA Tour, Tom Lehman has already won taht many times on the Champions Tour since joining in 2009.
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Stadler, however, has tenure. His amateur championship at Inverness came 38 years ago.

"Thanks for reminding me," the Walrus said, laughing. "I didn't know I was that old. Well, yes, I did. It has been a long time."

Stadler, who also won a major as a professional at the Masters in 1982, posted one of the most stunning U.S. Amateur wins of all time. He emerged victorious over a field that included all 20 players from the combined U.S. and British Walker Cup teams which had faced off a week earlier in Massachusetts. They included Dick Siderowf, the reigning British Amateur champion, and defending U.S. Amateur champ Vinny Giles. Both lost to Stadler on the same day during the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds of match play.

"An unknown fat kid from San Diego was kind of a giant killer that day," Stadler said. "The next day, I had so much confidence after the way I played on Saturday that the guy really didn't have a chance."

Bernhard Langer of Germany is the defending champion. Bernhard Langer of Germany is the defending champion.
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That guy was David Strawn, who was 4-down after nine holes and dropped a 6-and-5 decision to Stadler in the 36-hole championship match.

"I didn't hit the ball that well, but I made everything on the greens," Stadler recalled. "My putter broke a lot of hearts that week."

Putting has never been Langer's strength, but he made enough a year ago to win the Senior British Open and the U.S. Senior Open in back-to-back weeks. He'll be among the best known of a well-known field this week at Inverness.

"The connection with the fans is solid because the fans, I guess, are aging right along with the players," said Langer, who missed action earlier this season after thumb surgery. "Most people know us from following us for 20 or 30 years on the regular tour. The tours evolve, but there's always that connection."

Fans at Inverness will have an added edge. With the course's ex-champions in the field, there will be plenty of old friends in sight.

"It's a phenomenal golf course, always has been," said Stadler. "And some awfully good players have won there. It's going to be cool for all of us to come back."

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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