Hale Irwin put a coat of wax on the Buick Classic on Sunday by sinking a six-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole of the Westchester Country Club in Harrison, N.Y., for a 15-under-par tournament total of 269. That gave him a two-stroke victory over Paul Azinger, Father Time, the Muse of History, the theory of probability and parents everywhere who tell their children they need a good night's sleep.
As soon as the putt dropped, the 45-year-old Irwin scaled a small knoll in back of the the green and, in what has now become a custom, ran along the gallery slapping high fives like a kid with a stick along a picket fence. He had done something similar at the U.S. Open the Sunday before, when he sank a 45-foot birdie putt on Medinah's 18th hole. The next day he beat Mike Donald with a birdie on the 19th hole of their playoff for the Open championship.
After that victory Irwin could have backed out of the Buick Classic by claiming fatigue, but, as he says, "a commitment is a commitment. Exhaustion is no excuse." So after one hectic day at home in Frontenac, Mo., he played in the Buick's Wednesday pro-am. Last Thursday he treated the gallery to another round of high fives after he got a hole in one with a pitching wedge on Westchester's 112-yard 6th hole. "I'm going to have to come up with something new," Irwin said after his second win of the week.
And what will he do this week for an encore? "Nothing," he said. "Just spend some time at home and savor these victories. I better step off the merry-go-round before I get dizzy."
Indeed, Irwin's accomplishments of late have been dizzying. He came from five strokes behind to become the oldest U.S. Open champion. His triumph at Westchester also made him the first golfer since Billy Casper in 1966 to win a tournament the week after winning the U.S. Open. Casper won the Open at Olympic in San Francisco and then the Western Open at, of all places, Medinah. That 1966 U.S. Open was Irwin's first. He made the cut as a 21-year-old amateur and junior defensive back at Colorado.
Irwin won his back-to-back tournaments without the benefit of a decent meal or much sleep. "I find myself waking up at 3 a.m., staring at the ceiling," he said on Sunday. Azinger, a mere 30, said, "Winning two tournaments in a row is incredible. Winning one the week after winning the Open is next to impossible. Hats off to 45-year-old Hale Irwin."
Because of his advancing years, Irwin has become Hale the Conquering Folk Hero, which is nice but a bit unfair. Irwin, the winner of two previous U.S. Opens, in 1974 and 79, is finally getting the recognition he deserved years ago, back when he wore glasses and braces. If anything, Irwin looks younger than he did 10 years ago. The most common call along the fairways last week was "Win it for us over-40 guys, Hale!"
He is now besieged by autograph seekers of all ages. One older man gave Irwin a hat to sign on the way to the first tee on Sunday, but the man, unaccustomed to asking for autographs, didn't even have a pen. He smiled sheepishly, and Irwin smiled right back.
Irwin began the day tied for the lead with Blaine McCallister at 10 under par, three shots ahead of a large group that included Azinger and Craig Stadler. With birdie putts on holes 2 and 3, Irwin shook McCallister, his playing partner. Perfectionist that he is, Irwin made such a sour puss after his tee shot on the fourth hole—a decent enough drive—that a spectator was moved to shout, "Regroup, Hale," which was pretty funny considering the way Irwin has been playing the last few weeks. Azinger, who was two groups ahead, was moving into double figures under par, but Irwin, sensing the challenge, birdied 7 and 9 to go 14 under.
On the back nine, Irwin played almost flawlessly from tee to green, but his fatigue began to show in his putting. "I was making 'wishy' putts," he said later. "I was wishing the ball into the hole instead of stroking it."
Nevertheless, he came to the 18th needing only a par 5 to win. He belted a tremendous drive, and rather than play safe and lay up in front of the green, he hit a three-wood that ended up on the fringe. From there, he chipped to within six feet of the pin to set up his birdie putt and his victory dance. Call it the Irwin Shuffle.
Flanked by an army of identically dressed Buick executives, Irwin received a check for $180,000, which gave him $400,000 for the week. He also got a Tiffany crystal trophy, which toppled from its base—but didn't break—when he tried to lift it. "I haven't done my Nautilus training in a while," he said.
The crystal was a fitting symbol for this victory, because golf seems so crystal clear, so easy, to Irwin nowadays—two weeks before the Open, he finished third at the Kemper Open. He says he is on a roll not because of an adjustment in his swing or a new set of clubs but because he is believing in himself again. "If there is a message in all of this, it's that you should take some time to learn about yourself, to know yourself," he said.
In the press conference after the tournament, Irwin was asked to judge which was more amazing, his back-to-back wins or Nolan Ryan's recent no-hitter. "You left out George Foreman," he said. "Actually, a 43-year-old throwing a no-hitter is pretty impressive. Ah, I'll vote for me."
Irwin won't play a tournament again until the British Open, beginning July 19 at St. Andrews, and he is thinking of having his 15-year-old son, Steve, caddie for him there. "I don't play well at St. Andrews," said Irwin. "I like courses with clearly defined targets." Does that mean he shouldn't be expected to win? "'I might surprise you again," he said.
After meeting the press, Irwin faced a drive to Providence, where the next day he would make an appearance on Good Morning America and play in a corporate golf outing in the afternoon. Then he was scheduled to take a flight back to St. Louis, where on Tuesday he was to give a clinic for one of his pet projects, Clubs For Kids, and start whittling away at the stack of messages from well-wishers in his office. (He runs a golf course, design and management firm.)
On the evening following his second victory of the week, in the evening of his career, Irwin sat in front of his locker and said, "The best part of all this is not the endorsements, not the money, not even my place in golf history. The best part is the smiles I see on friends and family and even strangers. The best part is knowing I'm having a positive effect on other people, the 45-year-olds who arc thinking they might not be over the hill, after all, or the kids I'll see on Tuesday."
Give him five, America.
After the U.S. Open, Irwin took a victory ride with wife Sally and daughter Becky.
Irwin literally tore up the Westchester course, finishing with a 15-under-par total of 269.
Irwin only gets to borrow the U.S. Open trophy, but the Tiffany crystal is his for keeps.
[See caption above.]