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Shorter courses no advantage for Irwin on Senior Tour

For a man who just last year won a tournament on the PGA Tour and whose name is engraved three times on the U.S. Open trophy, the senior version of America's national championship would seem to be a perfect fit.

But as Hale Irwin already has learned, nobody is going to step aside and let him win everything, as so many would expect him to do on the Senior PGA Tour.

Irwin, who turned 50 earlier this month, will be one of the favorites today when the U.S. Senior Open begins at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. But that doesn't mean he will win it.

"These guys are all older than I am, a lot more experienced," Irwin said in jest.

Irwin tied for fourth at his first senior event, the BellSouth Senior Classic, three weeks ago. Last weekend, he tied for second at the Nationwide Seniors.

Although Irwin will be a contender virtually every week and will win his share of tournaments, some of his advantages are negated by shorter courses and easier conditions on the 50-and-over circuit.

Irwin built a reputation as one of the game's best players on difficult courses. And he is considered an excellent long-iron player, clubs he won't need to use as often in senior golf.

"I know what I can do out here," Irwin said. "I have nothing to prove, other than confirming what I expected. The most difficult thing is adjusting to the golf courses. On the regular tour, you would probably see a more difficult setup."

Nice shot: Betsy King on Sunday won her 30th tournament and secured a spot in the LPGA Hall of Fame by birdieing the last two holes for a two-shot victory. But the beginning of her round didn't go nearly as well. On the first tee, King topped her drive only 30 yards.

"My club hit 10 inches behind the ball," King said. "I guess I was a little bit nervous. In my wildest dreams, I could never picture that. I couldn't even do that on purpose. I've hit worse shots. I whiffed one under a tree. (But) when that happened, I just said, "This might not be my day, again, but I'm going to handle it.' "

King did, draining a 40-foot putt for par on the hole. "Making par there was a great confidence-builder."

No payback, but: Greg Norman's eagle Sunday at the Greater Hartford Open was the kind of shot he's become quite familiar with over the years, only he is used to being on the other end.

It didn't come on the final swing like Bob Tway's bunker shot for a birdie at the 1986 PGA Championship, or Larry Mize's 140-foot chip shot for birdie at the 1987 Masters, or Robert Gamez's 7-iron from the 18th fairway for eagle at the 1990 Nestle Invitational or David Frost's bunker shot for birdie at the 1990 USF&G Classic. All of those shots were at Norman's expense.

Norman's eagle on the short par-4 15th was crucial. It turned a one-shot deficit into a two-shot advantage. But it didn't bring back memories of any other tormentors.

"That never entered my mind," said Norman, who has six finishes in the top five in 10 tournaments this year, including two victories. "I'm pretty good at dealing with those things. I don't believe in paybacks or getting even. I just believe in going out there and playing the best golf you can."

One-handed putter: Mike Hulbert gets odd looks these days, but he doesn't care. Whatever works. Earlier this year, Hulbert went to a one-handed putting grip. He had been struggling on the greens, slumping to 105th last year on the tour's putting list. This year he has improved to top 65.

"I decided this was one quick way I could change things, and I felt like I could hole some putts without really changing my stroke around," said Hulbert, who lives in Orlando. "But putting one-handed, I seemed to stroke the ball a lot better, and it kind of got me to use my feel and touch rather than get too mechanical."

Locally: The American Junior Golf Association is staging one of its biggest events at the Innisbrook-Hilton Resort in Palm Harbor. The 18th annual Rolex Tournament of Champions will be July 10-14 and will feature the top juniors from around the world.

Valrico's Beth Bauer will be back to defend her title in the girls division. Tampa's Ryuji Imada, a first-team Rolex Junior All-American, will be one of the top contenders among the boys.

Quote marks: Colorful Simon Hobday, who will defend his U.S. Senior Open this week, missed the cut at the U.S. Open two weeks ago. He would love to go back to the regular Open if he can defend his senior title, which brings an automatic exemption. Said Hobday: "I bloody will, yes. But if I defend that title, I'll probably be drunk until next year."

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.