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Simpson smitten by Champions Tour

Scott Simpson turned 50 late last year, which meant he only got a small sampling of life on the Champions Tour.

But the former U.S. Open champion is loving what he has seen so far.

"Absolutely," said Simpson, who will play in his first Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am when the tournament begins Friday at the TPC of Tampa Bay, his seventh Champions Tour event overall. "I knew it would be fun and it's probably been more fun. Everything about it. I love it out here."

Simpson, who won the 1987 U.S. Open by one stroke over Tom Watson and won seven times on tour, played the PGA Tour from 1979 through last year. The former USC golfer who lives near San Diego had grown weary of that life.

"I was really looking forward to seeing new courses and new towns," he said. "I've really enjoyed that. Being able to come to new places it's invigorating. I was tired of going to the same old places all the time. It's fun to be out here with a lot of guys I've known for a long time. Really good competition, a lot of good players out here.

"It's not the PGA Tour. But neither is the LPGA. Neither is amateur golf. It's different. But there are a lot of good players."

GETTING A CHANCE: Tampa's Doug LaCrosse, a longtime amateur standout who turned pro in 2001, was given the last sponsor exemption in the Outback Pro-Am field and will play in his first Champions Tour event since he qualified for but missed the cut last summer at the Senior British Open.

"This is an absolute treat," said LaCrosse, 53, who was practicing on the TPC of Tampa Bay driving range Tuesday afternoon. "I can't thank the Outback people enough. This is absolutely fabulous. I certainly hope to take advantage of it."

LaCrosse tried and failed to qualify for last week's ACE Group Classic. The Outback has no qualifier. LaCrosse failed to make it through the Champions Tour's qualifying tournament last fall and had tried his hand at Monday qualifying on several occasions over the past few seasons.

"It's not a lot of fun," he said. "There are a bunch of great players out there and it's highly competitive."

The Outback tournament had five sponsor exemptions and gave the other four to Gary McCord, Andy Bean, Gary Koch and Walter Hall.

NO POOLEY: Don Pooley played in the final threesome Sunday at the ACE Group Classic in Naples, shot 72 and tied for sixth. That followed second- and fourth-place finishes, which put him second to Loren Roberts on the Champions Tour money list with $308,840.

But Pooley, 54, will not be improving his position this week.

That's because he elected to play the Chrysler Classic of Tucson, which is being held opposite the Match Play Championship on the PGA Tour.

Pooley's reason? He lives in Tucson, and the tournament gave him a sponsor exemption. "I wanted to support it as much as possible," said Pooley, who won the 2002 U.S. Senior Open.

AROUND THE TPC: Tom Watson, who tied for fourth in Naples, is skipping the Outback Pro-Am and not playing again until the Masters. The eight-time major champion has a busy summer planned, including all five Champions Tour majors as well as the British Open. A number of pros, including Outback defending champion Hale Irwin, McCord and Koch, participated in a pro-am Tuesday that was played at Old Memorial.

- BOB HARIG, Times staff writer

OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE PRO-AM

WHEN / WHERE: Friday-Sunday; TPC of Tampa Bay, Lutz.

COURSE: 6,828 yards, par 71.

PURSE: $1.6-million, $240,000 to the winner.

DEFENDING CHAMPION: Hale Irwin.

FORMAT: The tournament is in its 19th year, but for the third time it will employ a pro-am format, pairing amateurs with pros during the first two rounds. The pros play their own ball for the professional portion of the event and a better-ball format with their amateur partners, who get to use their handicaps. While the pros play all three rounds, only the top 12 teams advance to Sunday.

TV: 1:30-4 p.m., Friday-Sunday, Golf Channel.

TICKETS: $25 daily, $65 for a weekly badge. The Green-Hopper party pass includes access to three hospitality areas, the Michelob Ultra Watering Hole, the Coca-Cola Club and the Cuervo Nation. It's $85 for a one-day pass, $150 for a weekly pass.

SCHEDULE: Today-Thursday - Jose Cuervo Challenge. Shotgun pro-am begins at 10 a.m. each day. Friday-Sunday - tournament rounds, with tee times beginning about 7:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 9:30 Sunday.

INFORMATION: Call (813) 265-4653 or visit outbackproam.com.

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