Haas' next test: nerves

With Woods chasing, veteran is halfway to PGA title, first major

August 14, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

MEDINAH, Ill. -- Jay Haas can recall the feelings he had four years ago, when he led the Masters after 36 holes. The nervous knot in his stomach, the shaking of his hands, the knocking of his knees. He hopes the same feelings today on the first tee at Medinah Country Club, yet not the same results.

At 9-under-par 135, Haas leads the 81st PGA Championship by one shot over Canadian left-hander Mike Weir, by two over Tiger Woods and three over Lee Westwood of England. Looking for his first major championship, Haas hopes to have more success in the third round here than he did at Augusta National in 1995.

"I remember shooting 40 on the front nine the third round and then coming back shooting 32 or 33 and having a chance," recalled Haas. "But the next day I didn't do anything. I shot something like 72 and just stayed right there. I was on the outside looking in."

That's been the story for much of his 24-year career, which includes nine wins and more than $7 million in earnings but not a serious sniff of a major.

"If I go through my career and don't win a major, it would be disappointing," said Haas, 45. "I don't think I would be a failure because of that. I think I've had a nice career. I don't think I've done what I set out to do. We all set lofty goals. Pulling off what I should do is a little more difficult all the time."

It won't get any easier this weekend. Not only does he have Woods breathing down his neck, but also a fellow named Hale Irwin. The Senior Tour's most dominant player the past four years, Irwin has won three U.S. Open titles, the last of which came here nine years ago.

Irwin, the oldest player in the field at 54, is tied at 5-under 139 with first-round leader Sergio Garcia of Spain, the youngest player at 19, as well as Stewart Cink and Skip Kendall, who moved into contention with a course-record 7-under 65. Another Spaniard, Miguel Jimenez, is five shots off and tied with 1998 British Open runner-up Brian Watts.

As heartwarming a story it would be for Irwin to win, it might even be even more meaningful to Haas. Not only because of what he has yet to accomplish, but also because his 18-year-old son, Jay, is caddying for his father before starting his own college golf career shortly at Augusta (Ga.) State.

"It would mean a great deal," said the elder Haas, whose last victory came at the Texas Open in 1993. "We all want to win golf tournaments and majors especially, and I've not done that. I'm disappointed that it's not happened. I'm not devastated by it. Any championship is a thrill. To have Jay out there would be unbelievable."

As Haas took advantage of fairly benign conditions until making a bogey on the par-4 18th hole after driving in the rough, and Weir stumbled with bogeys on two of his last three holes, Woods turned into a high-price grinder by the time his round ended early last night. He made three straight birdies to start off, but wound up with seven straight pars as the weather conditions deteriorated.

"I'm very proud of the way I played coming in," said Woods, who wound up with a 5-under 67. "It wasn't easy. It was windy, rainy, gusty, swirly."

Asked about his fast start, Woods said, "It wasn't necessarily a statement. It was the fact that I wanted to get off to a positive start. The way it looked on the leader board, the guys were going really low."

The way the leader board looked last night, and the way the 7,401-yard course is playing, it seemed to suggest that Woods was in wonderful position to finally win his second major championship, two years and 10 majors after winning his first at the Masters. His calm demeanor belies the intensity that still boils beneath the surface.

"It's the same amount of pressure," said Woods, who finished tied for third at this year's U.S. Open and tied for seventh at last month's British Open. "I'm just a lot better player than I was then. My whole game is better. Maybe on the outside I'm looking more at ease, but inside it's a different story."

Though nearly twice the age of the 23-year-old Woods, Haas will have to deal with his own churning emotions better than in the other 66 major championships in which he has played, particularly those where he has been in contention. His best finish was a tie for third at the 1995 Masters.

"The last couple of days, I've been nervous," he said. "I've been excited. The adrenaline is pumping. I saw my name on the leader board and it charged me up. But it's a good nervous because I'm playing well. I don't know that a major is different, because I haven't been leading a major with six holes to play."

And when he has won?

"The times I've been fortunate to win, I can't swallow, my mouth is dry and all the bad feelings we try to get," Haas said. "We want that feeling, and when we get it or when I get it, it's like, `Oh now, What do I do?' But I need to embrace that. I need to enjoy the fact that I will be nervous because that's what I've worked for my whole career, to be in positions like this."

Leading a major with 36 holes to play.

His stomach in knots, his hands shaking, his knees knocking.

Haas can't wait for today's round to start.

Pub Date: 8/14/99

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