And the defending champion is still limited somewhat by an ailment that first struck six weeks ago. Tom Watson will play, but a mysterious nerve condition still has him a bit under the weather.
'Basically it's a weakness in my right arm that's caused by a nerve problem that is really unidentifiable, said Watson. I have no more pain in my neck, they've given me a cervical epidural, and I've seen some relief, but it's still a bit weak.
Anyway, it's just a little bit strange playing golf when I don't have the horsepower on my right side. I still feel a little bit weak at times with the longer swings and shots out of the rough, and actually I feel a little bit weak putting, of all things, in my hand.
Watson won last year by making birdie on the final hole at The Vineyards, breaking out of a four-way tie with Tom Kite, Gil Morgan and Jim Ahern. He looped a wedge up to four feet on the par-5 hole and sank the putt for the win. Kite hit his approach to five feet, but couldnt get the putt to go down.
Watsons nerve condition will eventually disappear, he says. Its has continuously improved, though no one can say definitely when it will go away.
I've just got to build it back, he said. The doctors don't know how long it's going to take to get it back to full strength. They said it would be three weeks, two months, four months, something like that. It took a while for it to finally get to that point, but it -- now, it's going to take a while for it to get back into some strength.
The good thing about it is I will regain my strength.
Watson will have to beat a good field if he is to win, led by the No. 1 player of the Champions money list, Hale Irwin. Irwins intensity level is at its peak. But he says its always at its peak, regardless of where he plays.
To me, it's been approach each shot - as trite as it may sound, you play them one at a time, and I hate that because you beat the heck out of it. There's not a shot here that I haven't played hundreds, if not thousands, of times somewhere else, and it's a matter of putting those increments together.
I think the advantage may come with those people that have achieved in these formats. You can call it intensity, you can call it preparation, you can call it anything you want to, but the experience factor is enormous when it comes to these kinds of events.
The surprise that was the British Senior Open was not a stunner to Irwin. Club pro Peter Oakley won there, and it may happen again this week, says Irwin.
Of course, who would have thought Orville Moody would win the U.S. Open back in 1969? he asked. The first-time winners - who would have thought that Hale Irwin would win at Winged Foot?
There's always a first. There's always someone that can emerge. Whether or not you continue or where you come from, it doesn't matter. His (Oakleys) name is on the trophy and he proved himself that week.
Yes, there are contradictions to that general rule of thumb, but I dare say that there's not too many when it comes to - you might say, OK, here's a handful of experience and a barrelful of inexperience, who do you want? I think your hand would probably go to the experience bowl more often.
Irwin won the U.S. Open three times when he played the regular tour. But he refuses to say that those major wins are more important than the majors he has won on the Champions.
You're playing against a different - you're in a different climate, he said. Not necessarily the weather, but the people with whom you're associated, the whole thing, how it's set up, the intensity level is just different, the approach of the players is somewhat different, it's a little mellowed out.
They play their brand of golf, we play our brand of golf, and do they cross over? Yes. Can I compete with them? Yes. We're seeing it in Jay Haas. We've seen it in Craig Stadler. We can compete with those guys. But to compare championships, that's very difficult. To say that winning here would be more or less important than having won at Silicone Valley or Riviera are more important than Winged Foot or Medinah or Inverness, can't do it. Just an entirely different set of circumstances each time you play.