Originally created 06/18/04

A second wind has hit Haas



SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - Just try to make sense of this.

In one group on Thursday was a young champion in the prime of his life looking like he's one more missed fairway from the end of his career.

In the group right behind him was an AARP-eligible senior in the supposed twilight of his career looking like he's three days away from his peak must less the Champions Tour.

In the golfing sense, Jay Haas is a lot further away from David Duval than the 18 years that separate them. Haas hasn't won a PGA Tour event since Duval was a rookie. He was about ready to quit trying three years ago when Duval was winning a British Open.

Now Haas is playing potentially the finest golf of his life and Duval is playing his worst. Go figure.

If Haas is too old to be considered the best player never to have won a major, he's at least the best player eligible to have never won a major on the regular and senior circuits. The finest 50-year-old golfer on the planet isn't ready to concede anything to a bunch of kids.

"Just because I'm 50 shouldn't eliminate me from the equation," Haas said after shooting 4-under-par 66 to share the first-round lead of the 104th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

No it shouldn't. Haas is every bit as capable of winning this U.S. Open as Tiger Woods or even Sergio Garcia - a player less than half his age. If the Ryder Cup team were chosen today, he'd be automatically on it.

"It is impressive," said Woods of Haas. "You look at the way he's been playing, it's just the norm, isn't it? He's been playing great golf for a year and a half now. It's just a continuation. He's hitting the ball farther than he ever has. He's rolling the ball better now than when he was in his prime."

Call it a second prime. Haas has nine career victories but none since 1993. He won't say he's better now than when he was winning two tournaments a year in 1981-82, but he's a smarter kind of good these days.

"Until I win, I can't say that it's the best I've ever played," he said. "But I think it's probably equal to the most consistent stretch I've ever had."

He thanks technology for his longevity - as if titanium drivers and solid-core golf balls are the Levitra of golf.

"I think the equipment has allowed me to stretch my career a little bit, renewed my passion for the game," Haas said. "I think in 2000 I was 148th or something like that (144th) on the money list and I just didn't want that to be it. I worked a little bit harder. And along with better equipment I think I'm doing some things that I wouldn't have thought four years ago."

While the young guns get most of the publicity and endorsements, it's just as much an old man's game these days. In the field this week are 153 guys younger than Haas, including his son, Bill, who recently won the Ben Hogan Award as the college player of the year.

"I realized a long time ago that I'm always playing with my kids and their friends," he said.

"I'm trying not to make a big deal out of the 50 thing."

If Haas needs any inspiration, he doesn't need to look far. Playing with him Thursday and today is Raymond Floyd, who became the oldest U.S. Open champion at Shinnecock in 1986 at age 43, and Tom Kite, the oldest first-time major winner at the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach at age 42.

Haas can trump every major age record in the books should he win this week.

"All my career I've felt like I'm capable of winning a major," said Haas, who has come as close as 14 top-10 major finishes in 31 years. "I can't tell you what it would mean for me to do something like that. I guess I've never been one to dwell on that. I'm disappointed it didn't happen or hasn't happened.

"But I'm more of a glass half full guy. I feel like it's been a pretty successful career and who knows what's going to happen in the next 10 years."

A win here and he'll own a PGA Tour card until he's 56 and be exempt for the U.S. Open until he's 61.With that at stake, he's not a man ready to play with kids his own age like he did a few weeks ago in finishing second in the Senior PGA Championship in his cameo Champions Tour debut.

"I think the more I play on the regular tour, the more I want to play on the regular tour," he said. "I enjoyed the heck out of the PGA Seniors and I'm sure in the future I'll enjoy all the senior events. But right now I feel I want to do this and the better I play here the more I want to play here."

Certainly the two geezers he's playing with today aren't going to tell him he's too old to keep dreaming.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.