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Haas Game Big Heart Belie His Age

GEORGE, South Africa -- Jay Haas never imagined being in this setting, not at this stage in his career.
Walking briskly down the 16th fairway Monday, he had the Indian Ocean at his back and the majestic Outeniqua Mountains in the foreground. He was flanked by Tiger Woods and Charles Howell III, both young enough to be his sons.
This week, they're his teammates at the Presidents Cup.
'To put it mildly, that's very cool,'' said Haas, two weeks away from turning 50 and the oldest player in the short history of these matches.
The Presidents Cup was the last item on his wish list going into what figured to be his final year on the PGA Tour.
It seemed like a long shot.
Haas was outside the top 125 in the world ranking. He had not won in 10 years. He was only two years removed from the low point of his career, when he failed to earn enough money to keep his card and had to rely on sponsor's exemptions.
Then Haas, playing with the passion of a rookie, turned in perhaps one of the most remarkable season of any player and his best season in more than 20 years.
He finished 14th on the PGA Tour money list, qualified for the World Golf Championships for the first time and made enough of an impression to be a captain's pick for the Presidents Cup.
'I never thought, 'I can't wait to turn 50 so I can be competitive again.' I never was just trying to play out the string,'' Haas said. 'I thought if I worked at it, I could still compete.''
While he didn't win -- Haas lost on the final hole at the Bob Hope Classic and was runner-up at The Players Championship -- he measures success by the words of two players.
One was Jack Nicklaus, the captain of the U.S. team who picked Haas over three other players.
'He said, 'I'm jumping you over some people, but I feel like you've played well all year, and you've earned it,''' Haas said. 'To hear Jack say, 'You earned it' ... those words are etched in my memory forever.''
The other words came Monday during Haas' practice round on the Links Course at Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate.
Woods told him to forget about the 50-and-older Champions Tour that Haas will be eligible for next year.
'Tiger said, 'You just need to keep playing out here. You're capable of winning -- not just competing, but winning,''' Haas said.
He looked over his shoulder at Woods on the practice range and smiled.
'Even coming from a snot-nosed little punk, I value what he says,'' Haas said with a laugh.
Haas played on the first Presidents Cup team in 1994, when no one knew what to make of the fledgling matches that were patterned after the Ryder Cup as an event to give non-European players a chance at team competition.
The United States won handily that year, although this year is different.
The International team, led by Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Masters champion Mike Weir, has a slightly stronger team and will be favored to win in South Africa.
The only other time the matches were played outside the United States, the International team won 20 1/2-11 1/2 in Australia in 1998, the worst U.S. loss ever.
Haas wasn't on that team. At the time, he was slipping into a slump that appeared to signal the end of his career.
He finished 144th on the money list in 2000 to lose full playing privileges, and some PGA Tour events were passing him over for younger players when it came time to hand out sponsor's exemptions.
'That hurt a little bit,'' Haas said. 'In the early 1990s I played poorly, but at that stage I was only 38, 39 years old. I didn't think it was over. In 2000, I thought that maybe my run is done, and I didn't want it to be.''
He traces the turnaround to 2001, when he met up with Stan Utley during a Nationwide Tour event. Utley was trying to decide whether to work on his game, or pursue a career as a short-game guru. Haas offered to be his first client.
The changes in his putting started to take root at the end of last year, and with better results came greater passion.
That's when Haas, despite turning 49, decided to dream big.
'Once I got into the top 20 on the Presidents Cup list, I kept an eye on this,'' he said.
The clincher might have been the PGA Championship, where Haas closed with rounds of 69-69 to tie for fifth at Oak Hill. Nicklaus selected him the next day.
Haas is the old man on the team, but he might be the most excited.
'This is maybe not the crowning achievement for some of these guys, but for me at age 49 ... if you ask them if at 49 years old they expect to be in this, they'd all say it's pretty special,'' Haas said.
And he might not be done yet.
Instead of playing the Champions Tour next year, where the courses are shorter, the checks are guaranteed and the competition not nearly as stiff, Haas intends to play a full PGA Tour schedule with hopes of making the Ryder Cup team.
'That will be my only goal next year,'' he said. ``I don't feel that because I'm 50 ... that's not a number that doesn't allow me to play well.''
Related Links:
  • Meet the Teams
  • Full Coverage - The Presidents Cup
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