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Seniors turning back clock for Black

Hale Irwin knew that the Black Course was going to eat his lunch, which didn't prevent him from having a very nice lunch on the Monday before the U.S. Open in 2002.

"It's going to kick my butt," the 57-year-old, three-time Open champion said then. It did. He shot 82-81 and missed the cut.

Bruce Fleisher, then 54 years old and exempted into the Open field by winning the U.S. Senior Open in 2001, played a practice round, decided the Black was too much for him and withdrew. Could the Black be no country for old men?

There are three 50-year-olds at the Open this year, Tom Lehman, Fred Funk and Eduardo Romero, and all of them are feeling their oats, ready to tackle the toughest course and the toughest competition they will face all year.

Lehman, 50, and Funk, 53, had to go through 36-hole qualifiers to get here, Funk surviving a four-hole playoff for his spot. Romero, 54, is the defending Senior Open champion. "It's an opportunity to play in the greatest championship against the greatest players on the greatest golf course," Lehman said yesterday. "Who wouldn't want to experience that?"

From 1995 to 1997, Lehman played in the final group on Sunday at the U.S. Open without winning one of them. He finished from second to fifth. In 1996, he won his only major, the British Open. He had a distinguished career, including the captaincy of the 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup team, but he hasn't won a PGA Tour event since 2000.

Still, he relishes the thought of playing the Black. "There's a great atmosphere of playing here in New York," Lehman said. "It's amazing. I still believe that I can compete out here. I feel like I can have one magical week. As long as I have the ability to compete, I don't want to quit trying."

Funk didn't play in the 2002 Open, but heard such good things about the Black that he just had to try for this Open, even coming off a winter in which he was rehabilitating from a staph infection in his right knee.

"Playing in our national championship means a lot to me," said Funk, who finished sixth in the Open at Shinnecock in 2004. "I know this is a brutal golf course. It's long and I'm not. But I thought it was worth a shot. I really wanted to see this course and wouldn't have a reason to come here otherwise. The U.S. Opens I've experienced in the New York area are very special."

When Romero got on the plane in Buenos Aires on Sunday for the 12-hour flight, he felt the energy surging within him. "When it comes to the majors, I am not 50, I am 35," Romero said. "When I got on the plane, I said 'I'm going to the U.S. Open.' I feel like Superman."

Romero, nicknamed "El Gato" (the Cat) was a longtime European Tour player who shifted to the United States when he turned 50 to play on the Champions Tour. He qualified for six Opens, with 25th his highest finish. He's always had length and he's always had the bubbly enthusiasm, which leaves him undaunted by this week's challenge. "This is all good this week, really fantastic," Romero said. "I love the U.S. Open because it's the toughest course with the toughest players."

These 50-year-olds are long shots to make the cut Friday and dark horses to be in contention on Sunday. "There aren't going to be a lot of chances left for me," Lehman said.

And that's why they are all here.

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