Ian Stanley begins two of the most important weeks of his long and illustrious career when he tees up in this week's Senior British Open, presented by MasterCard, at Royal County Down in Northern Ireland.
The Australian golfer won the European Seniors Tour's most prestigious title 12 months ago and also prevailed at the De Vere PGA Seniors Championship and a change in the schedule means that he will now defend both titles in successive weeks.
Stanley was in wonderful form when produced rounds of 71-66-68-73 to win the 2001 De Vere PGA Seniors Championship title at De Vere Carden Park and seven weeks later he proved to be a worthy champion once more when he defeated New Zealand's Bob Charles in the first Senior British Open to held over the venerable links at Royal County Down.
The two Antipodean golfers finished the regulation 72 holes tied on six under par 278 but it was Stanley who won the 129,566 euro (£79,000) first place cheque when he secured a regulation par five on the first extra hole. It was a victory that all but secured the Australian Number One status on the 2001 Seniors Tour Order of Merit and also set him up for what will now be a unique double defence over the next fortnight.
“I am really looking to the next two weeks and have been ever since I found out that the two tournaments would be played back-to-back,” said Stanley. “I've got lots of great memories of winning both titles but it has to be said that winning the Senior British Open was extra special because I did it with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player in the field.”
Nicklaus and Palmer are not in this week's starting line up but that is more than made up for by the presence of five time Open Champion, Tom Watson, who is making his debut in the Senior British Open.
Watson showed that he was in splendid form when he narrowly lost out to Don Pooley in a play off at the recent Senior PGA Championship in America and he comes to Royal County Down looking forward to perpetuating a love affair with links golf that started when he won on his Open debut at Carnoustie back in 1975.
The popular American golfer is joined in the Senior British Open field by three other former Open Champions and all three harbour realistic hopes of winning the title.
Bob Charles won the Senior British Open twice back in 1989 and 1993 and last year came mightily close to becoming the second man to accumulate a hat-trick of victories. Last month he also showed that he has lost none of his legendary prowess on the greens when he posted a 67 in the second round of the Wales Seniors Open.
Tony Jacklin is the second former Open champion to tee up at Royal County Down Golf Club and the 1969 Champion's recent form suggests that he could soon break his duck and win for the first time on the European Seniors Tour.
The 58 year old Englishman has re-dedicated himself to competitive golf this summer and his results have improved accordingly. He started the season with a strong 12th place finish at the inaugural Tobago Plantations Seniors Open but his best placing to date came when he shared fourth place behind Japan's Seiji Ebihara at the lucrative Wales Seniors Open in Harlech. That brought the Englishman a cheque for 38,746 euro (£25,050) and means that he goes into the Senior British Open holding down tenth place on the Seniors Tour Order of Merit.
Jacklin and Ebihara will both start out among the favourites to win at Royal County Down and another man to be included in that category is Scotland's Bernard Gallacher who won the recent Mobile Cup at Stoke Park in Buckinghamshire.
The former Ryder Cup captain required 63 starts before recording his maiden Seniors Tour title but now that he has entered the winner's circle he could become a much more consistent threat.
Gallacher alluded to that in the aftermath of a win that took him into sixth place on the Seniors Tour's Order of Merit title.
“I felt that a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders when the final putt went in,” he said. “I had been trying for so long that I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to win but now that I have I can relax a bit and get on with things. There's no doubt it will help my confidence. In fact I feel like a different person already.”
England's Denis Durnian got the same sort of lift when he won last year's Wales Seniors Open and subsequently he has developed into one of the most consistent performers on the Seniors Tour. He finished second behind Stanley on last season's Order of Merit and is back in that place this season after a total of five top ten finishes in his first seven starts.
Durnian goes into the Senior British Open one place ahead of Ireland's Christy O'Connor Jnr and it is O'Connor who will receive most of the support in Ireland. O'Connor Jnr won the Senior British Open for two years in a row in 1999 and 2000 but was unable to go for an unprecedented third successive title 12 months ago when he was forced to pull out of the Championship suffering from a broken ankle sustained in a freak motorbike accident earlier in that year. He went on to miss virtually the whole of the 2001 season but has bounced back with several encouraging performances this season including a tie for third in the AIB Irish Seniors Open and a share of second place at the Wales Seniors Open.
“It's starting to come together," said O'Connor. “I was having trouble with my back at Adare Manor but I have has some treatment and it is much better now. I am looking forward to getting back to Royal County Down.”
Gary Player, the only man to notch up three victories in the Senior British Open, would have been in the field, but withdrew due to the rib injury which forced him to miss the Final Qualifying for the 131st Open Golf Championship.