CARY, N.C. -- Several months of back pain have finally slowed down Hale Irwin on the Champions Tour.
Irwin, with an unprecedented 91 top three finishes in 200 career tournaments on the 50-and-over circuit, is normally in the mix for player of the year honors. But he's not a contender this year because of a nagging injury that has hampered his game.
Irwin hurt his lower back in the first round of the U.S. Open in June and hasn't been the same since.
He's taken injections for the pain, but those didn't work. Doctors have advised several months of rest.
"I'm probably about 75 percent and that's about where my golf is right now, too," Irwin said Thursday as he prepared for this weekend's SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club. "I've only got a few hard swings in my body at this point and I try to limit those to where it's necessary."
Tee times for Friday's opening round have been pushed back to mid-morning to give workers time to clean up any possible debris left on the course by the remnants of Hurricane Isabel.
Irwin has won at least two Champions Tour events in each of his eight previous seasons for a total of 37 victories, but he's got just one title this season with a handful of tournaments remaining.
"I've had to really play around my game," Irwin said. "Part of the issue is, 'Should I even be playing?' I've asked myself that many times. I've determined that I just can't sit at home and see it all go by.
"The fact that I've not been able to play to the standards that I normally have has been frustrating," he added. "Every shot I hit I have to factor in what I can do and toward the end of every day I have fatigue."
Irwin, a former football player at Colorado, said cutting back on his daily workout regiment has also hurt his game.
"I'm trying to be judicious in what I do," he said. "I haven't done my workouts nearly as much nor with the intensity that I normally do. I didn't get anywhere with some of the more aggressive treatments I had so now I'm going what Dr. Irwin thinks is best."
Irwin said he never considered just packing it in this season and coming back fresh in 2004.
"There is a lot of outcome and no income right now, so it's helpful to have even those scraggly little checks coming in to pay the heating bill," he said. "People often say, 'Well, you don't need the money.' That's for me to determine."
While Irwin has had an off season for him, he's still made $1.14 million heading into the SAS, good for seventh on the money list.
And despite the injury, two-time defending SAS champion and tour money leader Bruce Lietzke believes Irwin is still the player to beat.
"Hale has usually had six or seven wins by this time," Lietzke said. "I still think Hale Irwin is the best player out here. I'm still putting him at the top of the heap and when he recovers I'm betting he'll continue to be the best player."
At 58, Irwin said he's had no thoughts about retiring.
"There is still more to do," he said. "There is a point that you have to realize that your game wasn't what it was once-upon-a-time, but honestly I think I can still do what I was doing when I started the Senior Tour. I still feel that's there."