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Seniors: getting older not better

They're all getting older, and some are even getting better at the game that is still very profitable for them, but Senior PGA Tour golfers have memories that won't let them forget how good they used to be.

They pound drives well down the fairway, knock iron shots close to the flag, and drain birdie putts for scores that are often well below par. These men are in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, shooting lights out when the careers of other athletes have gone dark long ago.

But like most competitors, they have high standards. And no matter how well it looks as if they're playing now, the senior pros know they're not as good as they were 10 or 20 years ago.

"There is nothing I do better," said Lee Trevino who, along with 77 other 50-and-older pros, begins play this morning in the GTE Suncoast Classic at the new TPC of Tampa Bay at Cheval. "Nothing. Nobody does anything better at 52 than they did at 25. And you think worse. You don't concentrate nearly as good. Concentration is not what it used to be."

Bruce Devlin shakes his head with despair. "Nothing is better. Not a damn thing," he said. "Putting is the thing I find, for me, is lost. Every now and then I find the stroke. But usually, it's pretty c-----."

Yet they keep trying because, with the kind of money that is available, these guys have plenty of incentive to work on their games.

The purse this week is $450,000, with $67,500 going to the winner. The GTE Suncoast Classic is also one of 16 "Cadillac Series" events, which awards a three-car Cadillac collection to the leading money-winner in those tournaments.

In addition to the official prize money, there is another $70,000 available for the Vantage Classics, a 36-hole tournament within the 54-hole tournament for players who are 60 and older. The winner will be determined by the scores from Friday and Saturday.

One of them is Jerry Barber, who still has a sweet swing at age 75.

"I used to be a really great putter, especially on the long ones," said Barber, who shot his age or better 51 times last year on the senior tour and acts as if that's no big accomplishment. "I think you lose your touch as you get older. And, of course, I feel like I've lost at least 20 to 25 yards with my woods, and 10 to 12 with my irons. That's a big difference."

One thing that helps is shorter courses. The average course length on the senior tour is just under 6,600 yards. On the regular tour, most courses are in the 7,000-yard range. That allows the seniors to hit shorter irons into the holes.

"Everybody knows we can't hit 1- and 2-irons," Trevino said. "If we played those long courses, I don't think people would follow us like they do. The Senior Tour would not be as popular."

Yet some players find more success now than they did on the regular tour, in both prize money and personal satisfaction. Take Tampa's Jim Dent, for example. He never won on the regular tour, but he has six victories since turning 50 and has earned more than $1.5-million.

"I think much better and my chipping and putting are much better than before," Dent said. "I can hit different kinds of chip shots, and I get up and down (one chip, one putt) much more. That's a big difference."

"The biggest single difference is I'm much more accurate off the tee than I ever was," said Jim Colbert, 50, the tour's rookie of the year in 1991. "And I was not a good chipper of the short, easy chips.

"You'd hear these guys on TV saying, "That's a birdie chip.' I never could understand that because I never had a birdie chip. So when I started back, I decided I was going to chip and putt better. I didn't chip the ball in twice a year on the average for 23 years. Last year in 22 tournaments, I think I chipped it in 16 times. That's a lot of strokes."

Most, however, agree that their games are not as good as they used to be. If they think they're better players now, Dale Douglass thinks he knows why.

"I've always been a pretty good putter, and I feel I still drive the ball pretty good," he said. "But getting older, one of the things you lose _ along with your hearing and sight _ is your memory."

_ Today's tee times, 8C

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