By Marino Parascenzo, Special to PGA.com
LIGONIER, Pa. -- Laurel Valley, a golf club for the rich and quiet in the foothills of the Alleghenies, has been the home of surprises in its short tournament history. There was Arnie Palmer and the magic tree in the 1965 PGA, to say nothing of his two two-stroke penalties.
Then there was big, burly Brian Barnes beating Jack Nicklaus in the morning singles of the 1975 Ryder Cup, then beating him again in the afternoon -- after Palmer, the U.S. captain, had rigged a rematch. (No surprise in the Ryder Cup itself, though. The Americans could have beaten the Brits anywhere back then.)
And then Orville Moody scoring his second career victory in the 1989 U.S. Senior Open (his only other being the U.S. Open 20 years earlier).
But smart money says don't look for any surprises in the 66th Senior PGA Championship.
It opens Thursday with Hale Irwin the odds-on favorite, as he is in most senior events these days. Not to strain a cliché, but he's hale and hearty as one could expect of a 59-year-old, and he has a game to match. With two victories in nine starts already this year, Irwin has a record 42 wins in 237 starts since joining the Champions Tour in 1995. That's a win in every 5.6 appearances. Things like that tend to make one a prohibitive favorite. Irwin carries the burden well.
"I don't lay the odds," Irwin said Wednesday. "It doesn't bother me one way or another. I could click off at least 10 other guys right now that I think have an excellent chance of winning."
He didn't elaborate, but he's obviously thinking -- maybe principally -- of the amazing Jay Haas, 52, who has probably the worst record on the Champions Tour. That's because, even though he's in his second year on the Champions, he's still playing the "big tour" -- the PGA Tour. He played the Champions three times last year and once this year, and is looking for his first win.
Then there are Jim Thorpe and Ireland's Des Smyth, also two-time winners, and elsewhere on the top 10 of the money list the omnipresent Dana Quigley, along with Wayne Levi and Tom Jenkins. Throw in England's tournament-tough Mark James, Fuzzy Zoeller, who owns both a U.S. Open and a Masters, and two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange, a Champions Tour rookie who doesn't figure to keep spinning his wheels. In his eight starts, Strange's best finish was a tie for fifth and the next best a tie for 21st.
So it would seem this is Irwin's championship to win or lose.
But not so fast. There might be inklings that the Hale Irwin of 2005 -- he'll be 60 on June 3 -- isn't quite the same one of recent years. He did win twice this year, and he tied for sixth last week, but his game since late February -- with finishes from 14th to 36th -- has led some to wonder whether he's finally hit the dreaded wall.
The history of senior golf shows that a player's best years are the earliest, in the age 50-55 bracket, and after that the skills decline rapidly. It's said they hit a wall at 55. It's actually a line, like the one Archie "Moonlight" Graham stepped over in "Field of Dreams," the one that once you cross, you can never go back. If Irwin has crossed the line, he's already been an incredible exception to the rule of age.
"Longevity in any profession seems to be one of those mystical things," Irwin said. "But for me, it means a number of things. Genetics, obviously. I've been blessed with a fairly good physical composition. Mentally, I think I might be a little unstable at times, but that's just the way it goes. But I think that's certainly a good part of it. But secondly, I really tried not to let myself feel older.
"There are times, certainly, when your body doesn't react quite the way it used to. But there are some accommodations you can make in playing the game. Maybe you don't hit the ball quite as far. Maybe you're more proficient in other areas. Maybe just managing your game better."
Translated into practical terms, it meant, for example, that Irwin doesn't think Laurel Valley is going to be a dragon that will keep him awake nights.
"The challenge is certainly there, but getting a feel for it is not the big issue," he said. "Because there's really not a lot of tricky holes out there. What you see off the tee is what you get. Your second shot is pretty much what you get. For those of us who are unfamiliar with Laurel Valley, I don't think it will be that hard to pick up."
Irwin even started regenerating from the depths the shots he was hitting in the 1975 Ryder Cup, when he went unbeaten (4-0-1) in the U.S.'s 21-11 rampage over Great Britain and Ireland.
Haas had pretty much the same opinion of Laurel Valley, even though it's playing wet and heavy from days of rain. "The rough's not brutal, but with conditions like this you have to play out of the fairway," Haas said. "If you hit the ball pretty well and make some putts, you got a chance. If not, then it's going to be a struggle."
"It's a ball-striking course," said D.A. Weibring. "If you drive the ball well and you're going to have to manuever the ball both ways and play a lot more medium iron shots if it stays wet. You're going to have to handle the speed of the greens, the contour of the greens. So I think it sets up to really crown a very good champion."
Zimbabwe's Mark McNulty, who used to own the South African Tour, found Laurel Valley user-friendly. "I haven't heard anybody mention one blade of grass that's out of place," he said. "So it's in fantastic condition and it's playing fair. The fairways are wide enough, and if you hit it in the rough, you deserve to take the penalty. And even the rough is fair."
The weather will be the thing, said Peter Jacobsen. "If it's wet and cold, it's going to cause problems on any course," Jacobsen said. "It plays long, and with a lot of uphill holes. So yeah, weather will be a factor."
But the weather and the course will be the same for everyone, which means that for now, the answer keeps coming up -- Hale Irwin.
"And I still think," Irwin said, "that there's better golf to be played by me."
Fabian Used to Seeing Double After Torn Retina
Dan Fabian, former Pittsburgh-area club professional, had suffered a detached left retina, and after corrective surgery and a grueling recovery, he sees two holes when he putts. Thus when you're talking golf with him, the question has to be -- So Dan, which hole do you putt at?
Fabian just grins. He has long since accepted his difficulty with good grace, and he can yuk it up with anyone. But really -- which hole?
"I spot putt," Fabian said. "I pick the line and I've already judged the speed, and then I putt to the spot."
That's the humor and the practical side of a frightening episode. Fabian knew from eye examinations that he might one day have a detached retina, and it happened in February, 2003, on the golf course, when he was looking down at the ball.
"It didn't hurt," he said. "It was like a dark brown curtain came down over my left eye." He knew what had happened. He summoned help. A little while later, he was undergoing emergency surgery. After that punishing recovery, he returned to golf, and has to -- no joke -- keep his eye on the ball. If he looks the wrong way, he sees two balls.
"Part of my routine is seeing double," Fabian cracked.
He was the head profesional at Westmoreland Country Club outside Pittsburgh, and retired and moved to West Palm Beach, Fla., where he's a volunteer instructor in youth golf. He was playing some of his best golf on the PGA Senior Winter Tour when the episode hit.
"It's not as bad as it sounds," Fabian said. "You get used to it. You adjust."
Aaron Still Haunted by 1965 PGA That Got Away
Tommy Aaron doesn't remember which tree it was, or whether that particular tree is still there along Laurel Valley's first fairway. But he'll never forget that that was where the 1965 PGA Championship began to slip away.
It was the start of the final round. Aaron had the solo lead through the first two, and shared it with Dave Marr through the third. Then the final round, and for Aaron, who had yet to win on the tour, trouble at No. 1.
"I hit my drive up against a tree and had to take an unplayable lie," Aaron said. "I made double bogey. And I followed that up with one bad shot after another."
He slipped quickly from contention. He went out in 40, finished with a 7-over 78 (Laurel was a par 71 then), and tied for eighth, seven shots behind Marr, winning his first and only major. Aaron then shook off a spell of hot starts and poor finishes and went on to win the Canadian Open, the Atlanta Classic and the Masters. Was it simply a matter of a golfer telling himself that he was just going to go out and win?
Said Aaron, chuckling, "I don't think you ever say you're just going to win."