Better With Age Still a force on the regular Tour at 50, Jay Haas saw how the other half lives during his Champions debut at the Senior PGA

June 06, 2004

Typical rookie," Jay Haas said last week in Kentucky. "I got lost
coming to the golf course." Then, having finally found his way
from the Hyatt to Louisville's Valhalla Golf Club, Haas walked
into the locker room and stepped back 28 years in time. Graham
(Swampy) Marsh stood at an open locker. Gibby Gilbert, David
Graham, Andy North and J.C. Snead sat at a table trying to solve
the world's problems. In the washroom Haas ran into Jerry (Magoo)
McGee, who always loved to play the market, and in the dining
room he exchanged greetings with 68-year-old Gary Player, whose
eyes still retain their competitive gleam.

"I know 90 percent of the guys here, even some of the club pros,"
said Haas, who became eligible for the Champions tour on Dec. 2,
when he turned 50. "These are the guys I competed against when I
was younger."

By comparison, Haas admitted, the locker rooms he frequents most
weeks, as a member of the PGA Tour, are full of strangers. ("I
know the names of a lot of the young guys, but I can't always put
the face with the name," he says.) There are exceptions, such as
Jerry Kelly, Phil Mickelson, Kenny Perry, Tiger Woods and the
rest of Haas's teammates from the 2003 U.S. Presidents Cup team.
Or young Adam Scott, who edged Haas in the quarterfinals of last
year's Accenture Match Play Championship after Haas had beaten
Retief Goosen, Shigeki Maruyama and Nick Price. Or '03 Masters
champion Mike Weir, who won last year's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic
by two strokes over Haas, whose go-for-broke four-iron on the
par-5 finishing hole landed in the water.

Typical rookie? Hardly. Haas waited six months to make his
Champions tour debut. When he teed it up last Thursday at the
Senior PGA Championship he was 21st in the World Ranking and 25th
on the PGA Tour money list. More important--and this is why he
had put his Champions tour card in the same pile as those
mass-mailed membership cards from AARP--Haas was 12th on the U.S.
Ryder Cup points list. A top 10 finish on that list, which is
based solely on Tour performance, will guarantee him a spot on
captain Hal Sutton's 12-man squad and give Haas the distinction
of playing in his third Ryder Cup 21 years after playing in his
first.

It almost made sense then that Haas, who finished fifth in last
year's PGA Championship at Oak Hill, was the pretournament pick
to win the senior version at Valhalla. "Somebody asked me when
was the last time I was a pretourney favorite," he said
good-naturedly. "I said, 'Maybe never.'" He then countered his
modesty by shooting a four-under-par 67 to share the first-round
lead with senior heavyweights Hale Irwin, Gil Morgan and Tom
Watson. Speaking for most of his peers, Watson gave this succinct
appraisal of Haas: "Timeless swing. Great sense of humor. Friend
to everybody."

Watson could have added "patience of Job." Bad weather
interrupted Haas's first round after he had played 15 holes on
Thursday afternoon, and when he got to Valhalla early on Friday
morning he found a course flooded by heavy rains and a swollen
creek. "My ball was in the fairway on number 7," Haas said. "You
would have to row to get to that hole now." Repairing to the
locker room, he worked a crossword puzzle, thumbed through a
magazine and then slipped easily into remembrance mode, recalling
a storm-plagued tournament in Charlotte in the late '70s.

"I had this '65 Corvette, which I had parked on a road by the
clubhouse," said Haas, who lived in Charlotte at the time. "It
was raining hard, and after two or three hours a guy comes into
the locker room and says, 'Anybody own a little red Corvette?
It's underwater.' I ran outside, and water was up to the middle
of the doors. I panicked. I got in the car, sat in the water and
turned the key. It started! It growled like a boat, but I got it
out of there." He shook his head. "The interior was never the
same, though."

The Corvette ended up in the junkyard, but Haas went on to win
eight Tour events between 1978 and '93. He now lives in
Greenville, S.C., with his wife, Janice, and daughters Haley, 20,
Fran, 16, and Georgia, 12. His oldest boy, 23-year-old Jay Jr.,
played college golf at Augusta State, and number-two son, Bill,
22, is a senior and an All-America at Jay's alma mater, Wake
Forest. Asked if he gives his boys strokes when they play, Haas
shook his head. "I hope they beat me every time we go out, but
I'm never going to lay down for them."

The same spirit of genial competitiveness had prevailed on
Thursday afternoon, when Haas started his round on the back nine
with old friends Craig Stadler and Fuzzy Zoeller. "I was
nervous," Haas said. "I had some pretty good adrenaline pumping
because I didn't want to come out here as a favorite and get my
butt handed to me." On the 4th hole, a short dogleg left, Haas
played a three-iron off the tee and hit his ball into a fairway
bunker. "That'll teach you, son," Zoeller joked. "We don't lay up
out here. We hit driver on every hole." Later, during a long wait
on the 6th tee, Haas held up a hand to hush Stadler when he saw
that D.A. Weibring was getting ready to hit. Morgan smiled at
Haas and said, "You don't have to worry about that on this tour.
None of these guys can hear."

Jokes about the infirmities of age are standard fare on the
Champions tour, but Haas wasn't buying it. Since 2000, when he
had surgery on his left shoulder, Haas has worked on his strength
and flexibility, knowing he will need both to keep up with the
fitness-crazed seniors. He has put even more effort into his
short game, going so far as to junk all his old concepts about
putting and start anew with Tour player and teaching pro Stan
Utley.

Last year Haas poured his ball into the hole with such regularity
that he garnered seven top five finishes on the regular Tour
(including a tie for second at the Players Championship) and won
more than $2.5 million. This year, despite the tick over on his
odometer, he has motored on with a third at the Hope and three
other top 10s, never missing a cut in 11 starts. "Three years ago
I couldn't have imagined being in this position," he said,
referring to a 2000 season that had ended with him 144th on the
money list. "This is beyond my expectations."

The only thing Haas hasn't done during his return to top
form--and he admits this is no small thing--is win. He hasn't won
on Tour, in fact, in 11 years. So when he looked up at a leader
board after two holes of the final round of the Senior PGA and
saw that he was at six under, a stroke behind Irwin, the leader,
and a stroke ahead of Watson, he had to feel like an underdog.
Irwin had won 39 times on the Champions tour, including three
straight Senior PGA titles between 1996 and '98. Watson, playing
part time, had won a Senior PGA and two other senior majors in
the last two years.

So Haas was going to have to brave Hale and high water--and not
necessarily in that order. Another wave of thunderstorms and
tornadoes swept through Louisville on Sunday afternoon, sending
the pros back to their hotels to clean their shoes and watch 60
Minutes. On Monday morning, while waiting to see if the water
would recede, Haas chatted with Irwin in the locker room and did
another crossword puzzle. Admitting to some proficiency with the
brainteasers, he described the puzzle in his hometown paper as "a
tap-in," but said the daunting New York Times crossword was like
"Carnoustie in a 30-mph wind."

The Valhalla puzzle? That was no pushover, either. When the final
round ended in sunshine on Monday evening, the answer to the clue
"2004 Senior PGA champion" was ... Irwin. Haas, meanwhile, shot
70 and finished a stroke behind, in second--not bad for a fellow
who, the week before, couldn't find the course.

With his Champions tour debut behind him, Haas turned his
attention back to the PGA Tour, hoping to harvest more Ryder Cup
points between now and August. Until then he has scheduled only
two more visits to the old-folks circuit--the U.S. Senior Open
and the Senior British Open. "I still think I can play better,"
he said before leaving soggy Louisville, "but I realize I can't
play forever at this level. The last 10 years went by in a blink.
Another blink and I'll be 60."

The solution, as any of the age-defying guys in the locker room
could have told him, is simple: Don't blink.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND TWO WORLDS Haas picked on pros his own age at Valhalla (left) butcan still hang with David Toms (far right) and Woods. COLOR PHOTO: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND JUST DAD A father of five, Haas whiled away the time during rain delays in Louisville with his daughter Haley.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND WATERLOGGED Despite seven inches of rain and severe flooding atValhalla, the event was completed on Monday evening.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)