Originally created 02/17/99

Irwin, Pak could use a mulligan on this season



They share virtually nothing in common except where they were last year and what they have done lately.

Hale Irwin put together one of the most astounding seasons in golf last year on the Senior Tour, dominance measured by more than just seven victories and $2.8 million in earnings. In 22 events, he finished out of the top five just two times.

Se Ri Pak is coming off the most sensational rookie season since Nancy Lopez 20 years earlier -- two major championships, two LPGA scoring records (including a 61) and two other victories during her rapid rise to fame.

Now for the encore.

Irwin has played two tournaments and still hasn't won, still hasn't finished in the top five, still hasn't threatened anyone on Sunday. His final-round 73 in the American Express Invitational marked the first time in his senior career he failed to make a birdie.

At least he has shot in the 60s, something Pak still hasn't managed this year in 13 rounds.

In many respects, Irwin and Pak face the same problem. Both are trying to put last year behind them without having had enough time to recharge the batteries.

"Winning is the real tonic. It's the real balm for the blues," said Irwin, who is having more success waxing poetic than waxing the field like he used to on the Senior Tour. "Once you get it in your system, it's hard to flush that out. You just want more of it.

"It's just that right now, I need to catch my breath and restart," he said.

Irwin played until Christmas, but the time away from golf caused him to pay more attention to problems that surfaced with building a house in Phoenix. And the break from golf lasted only four weeks.

"That break was either too short or too long," he said. "I didn't have the opportunity to create the momentum, let it go and then recreate it. And it was too long a period in which to try to keep it. I think I've found myself sort of crashing."

It would be a high-speed crash, at that. Irwin won nine times in 1997, tying the Senior Tour record set in 1985 by Peter Thomson. Last year was even more of a whirlwind, a weekly showdown with Gil Morgan. Both had six victories until Irwin captured the season-ended Tour Championship.

So where does he go from there? More victories? More money?

"That has been the challenge thus far this year, to get my interest level back up where it should be, get my energy level up where it needs to be to be competitive," Irwin said. "There's just a lot of things swirling around in this chamber right now. Get those straightened out and I'll be fine."

Pak's season officially ended in November, but that's when things really heated up. She had a bizarre breakup with swing coach David Leadbetter and was put on the open market by Samsung, who farmed out management of the 21-year-old star.

"Last year, big season. 1999 is new season," she said.

The good news for Pak is that the new season is starting out the same way. She didn't even record a top 10 last year until winning the LPGA Championship, and she did all of her damage in 11 weeks.

Still, she has no coach and doesn't plan to find one right away. And her putting has been suspect the first month of the year.

"No reason," she said. "Sometimes it doesn't work. That is golf."

What might help both shake their doldrums is competition. Kelly Robbins and Karrie Webb have shown they are serious about getting back to the top, and Annika Sorenstam is always a factor.

Bruce Fleischer caught Irwin's attention by becoming the first senior player to win his first two tournaments. The real challenge is in September, when Tom Watson turns 50. Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins are eligible three months later.

"Hale Irwin better get all the money he can," said Chi Chi Rodriguez. "Because when Tom Watson and Tom Kite get here, it's going to be a different story."

That kind of talk only gets Irwin's juices flowing.

"There are those who probably think that this is all going to come to a crashing end once Tom Watson gets on the Senior Tour and we all ought to roll over," Irwin said. "I think hardly the case. I look forward to them coming."

The question is what kind of game he'll have when they get there.