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Challenge of Champions Tour appealing

The secret to success in senior golf is simple: keep yourself competitive as you approach the golden age of 50.

It is not as easy as it sounds, but that is the formula followed by the top players on the Champions Tour, who begin play this morning in the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am at the TPC of Tampa Bay.

Loren Roberts, the tour's leading money earner and winner of all three events this year, was performing quite nicely on the PGA Tour last year before turning 50.

Jay Haas was having so much success in his late 40s that he was ranked among the top 25 in the world and qualified for the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Peter Jacobsen and Craig Stadler each won regular PGA Tour events three years ago, Stadler becoming the first Champions Tour player to win a PGA Tour event after turning 50.

"We all know that's a huge advantage," said Dana Quigley, 58, the reigning Champions Tour player of the year and leading money winner. "I think if they went out there on the regular tour with the confidence level that they play with out here with us, I think they would really play well. The guys who have dual status (Haas and Jacobsen) could certainly compete out there. That's what we're up against.

"It's a really good challenge. It raises the bar to the level that we know that we have to get better to catch them. Hale (Irwin) always put the bar up there and now Loren has raised it a little bit higher. It's good to have something to shoot for and something to practice for."

Roberts, 50, who won eight times on the regular tour, including in 2002 at the Texas Open at 47, posted two top-10 finishes in each of the past two years and won $874,330 last year on the PGA Tour to rank 93rd on the money list despite playing in just 18 events. He tied for second at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic late in the year.

This week, he will attempt to become the first player since Chi Chi Rodriguez in 1987 to win four straight tournaments on the Champions Tour.

"This is the best mulligan you can possibly have in a professional sport," he said. "I think the Champions Tour in the next two to three years is going to get nothing but stronger because there are a lot of guys who are still playing high-level golf in their late 40s who are coming up."

And that is the beauty of Champions Tour golf. Players see the rewards for keeping their games in shape. In another era, they would have started to taper off in their early to mid-40s. They might have looked for other things to do, other jobs to pursue, as the games no longer stood up to the young players. Now, the golden annuity of the Champions Tour awaits, an incentive to keep working.

Jacobsen and Haas kept their games at a relatively high level on the PGA Tour, but even Stadler, who struggled somewhat in his late 40s, kept competing. The work paid off as he was the Champions Tour player of the year in 2004 with five victories.

Some, like Haas, are so successful in their late 40s that it delays their entry into senior golf. Haas, 52, played just three Champions Tour events in 2004, the first year he was eligible. That's because he was winning more than $2-million on the regular tour.

"I was just watching the Match Play tournament (on TV) and I was in that the last couple of years and I was in the Masters," Haas said Thursday. "I was in the U.S. Open. It's just kind of hard to say, well, I don't want to play in those or I'm going to ignore those. I'm not full (time) here. I guess I'm still going to play seven or eight tournaments (on the regular tour)."

Then there is Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champion, who struggled in his rookie year in 2005. Strange spent most of his late 40s doing television commentary for ABC and played just a smattering of tournaments.

And the rust was apparent as Strange was unable to simply turn his game back on at age 50.

"Last year, I didn't have much of a game," he said. "I knew it, nobody else would listen. I hadn't played in awhile, and the little bit of attention that I had (early in the season) because I was the new kid on the block just made me even more apprehensive."

Strange did not post a top-25 finish until May and had just two top-10s all season. His best finish was a third toward the end of the year at the Constellation Energy Classic, five strokes back.

"I was really surprised that my game didn't perform a little better the second half of the season," he said. "I sat here last year and said it was going to take awhile. And it did."

Meanwhile, a guy like Roberts kept grinding away, knowing what was ahead.

"I paid attention," Roberts said of the Champions Tour. "I enjoyed playing golf. Maybe unlike some guys who have won a lot of major championships and stuff, they may want to do other things. For me, I want to continue playing golf and this is something that is fantastic."