Normally muggy St. Louis was unseasonably cool this week as golfers prepared for the U.S. Senior Open that begins Thursday at Bellerive Country Club.
Jay Haas barely broke a sweat on a practice round - and seemed disappointed.
'I just wish it was a little hotter,' he said.
Haas grew up across the Mississippi River in Belleville, Ill., and calls St. Louis home. He and Hale Irwin, a native of Colorado but a longtime St. Louisan, have both played Bellerive many times.
But that's only a small part of why both are considered top contenders at the 25th Senior Open.
Haas, at 50 a Champions Tour rookie, is having one of his finest years on the PGA Tour, ranking 27th on that money list. And Irwin, at 59, is still among the best on the Champions Tour, ranking second in earnings to Gil Morgan.
Defending Senior Open champion Bruce Lietzke sees Irwin as perhaps the man to beat.
'Hometown golf course, hometown hero,' Lietzke joked. 'This is his chance to shine again.'
Irwin conceded the thought has crossed his mind.
'Winning here in St. Louis would be absolutely terrific. A major championship here would be a huge bonus,' Irwin said.
Haas and Irwin will take any advantage they can get at Bellerive, the longest course (7,117 yards) in Senior Open history. The Robert Trent Jones-designed course hosted the U.S. Open in 1965 and the PGA Championship in 1992.
Irwin has won 20 PGA events, including the 1974, 1979 and 1990 (at age 46) U.S. Opens, and 40 Champions Tour events, including two U.S. Senior Opens and five other Champions Tour majors. He has won more money on the PGA and Champions tours combined than anyone except Tiger Woods.
This year, Irwin has won $1.1 million on the Champions Tour and won twice, including the Senior PGA Championship. He has overcome a bad back that kept him out of the 2003 Senior Open, and said he has his confidence back.
'I think I'm through the 'Can I play again?' thing,' Irwin said.
Haas has become the Barry Bonds of golf, playing his best at an age when most begin to see their game decline.
This year, Haas has earned nearly $1.5 million on the PGA Tour, and has finished in the top 10 in six PGA events. His scoring average of 69.84 is ninth on the PGA Tour.
Haas said the reason for his improved play is simple.
'Nothing more than really hard work, just trying to spend a little more time on the range, on the putting green, in the bunker, just working at it a little bit harder,' he said.
The Senior Open is just the second Champions Tour event for Haas. He finished second to Irwin in the Senior PGA Championship in May.
DIVOTS:@ The Senior Open is the third major this month for the Champions Tour, which has five majors. The Ford Senior Players Championship (Mark James) was July 8-11, and the Senior British Open (Peter Oakley) was July 22-25. ... Three players who participated in the 1965 U.S. Open at Bellerive are back for the Senior Open: Gary Player, who won the '65 event, Raymond Floyd, who tied for sixth, and Arnold Palmer, who missed the cut 39 years ago. ... Peter Oakley, who won the Senior British Open last week, has been added to the field. ... Among those who withdrew were Andy North, the 1978 and 1985 U.S. Open champion (back and knee) and Jim Colbert (hip).
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