Riding to the airport on Sunday night, Hale Irwin cracked open a
light beer in the backseat of a courtesy car and reflected on
winning his first major championship on the Senior PGA Tour. The
adrenaline high hadn't worn off yet, but beneath the obvious
self-satisfaction was a dazed former football jock who had once
again stiff-armed the golfing demons. "You battle that little
devil that sits on your shoulder," Irwin said. "He's got a golf
club. Some people mistake it for a pitchfork, but it's a golf
club. And he can be a real jerk. He's always talking in the
middle of your backswing."
Delirium? No. Just too much golf, too much pressure, too many
commercial flights and too many nights on the road. The
three-time U.S. Open champion had just gutted-out a four-week
stretch of tournaments--the Players Championship, the Tradition,
the Masters and the PGA Seniors Championship--and was finally
headed home to St. Louis for three days of rest before traveling
to Las Vegas for this week's Senior tour event. At 50, and in
his 28th year of professional golf, Hale Irwin is learning that
it's never too late to make a name for yourself.
He has never won a money title. He has never been named Player
of the Year. He has won three U.S. Opens and 17 other
tournaments on the PGA Tour, but he has never gotten the respect
he deserves. The PGA of America passed him over as Ryder Cup
captain in both 1993 and '95 even though his match-play record
in five appearances was 13-5-2. Two weeks ago at the Masters he
said, "Greg Norman is a superb player, but if he wins here, he's
tied me with three majors. I don't hear people cackling about
how great Hale Irwin is."
Perception is everything. Irwin is fairways and greens,
substance over style. When he won the Opens at Winged Foot in
1974 and Inverness in 1979, the fashion was pointed collars,
polyester pants and thick white belts. In his Coke-bottle
glasses, he looked more like a valedictorian than an All-Big
Eight defensive back from Colorado. But there is nobody tougher
in the fourth quarter. He proved that at Medinah in 1990,
becoming, at 45, the oldest player to win a U.S. Open. He proved
that again last week at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens,
Fla., doing what Norman was unable to do at Augusta, protecting
his lead and taking home another trophy.
"I think you learn through the years that most tournaments are
lost and not won, major championships even more so," Irwin said
as the car pulled out of PGA National. "We can point to all
sorts of examples of that being the case. What I wanted to do
was exactly what I did on the back nine: play good, solid,
intelligent golf, keep the ball in play and out of problem areas
and get home."
Irwin was seeking retribution. He had pulled a Norman at the
Tradition, blowing a three-stroke lead with eight holes to go
and providing Jack Nicklaus the opportunity to win his 100th
tournament. It was an uncharacteristic performance. "I know how
to finish, but I was too impatient, too anxious," Irwin said. He
would learn from that experience and set himself up so that
bogeys on the 71st and 72nd holes of the PGA Seniors would not
On Sunday, standing on the 15th tee, Irwin held a four-stroke
lead over Isao Aoki of Japan. In 1994 Ray Floyd dumped two balls
into the water that runs along the right of that hole, made a
quadruple-bogey 7 and lost to Lee Trevino. Irwin wasn't thinking
about Floyd, but he was thinking about terra firma. He hit a
soft-fading five-iron to the left side of the green, let out a
mouthful of air, headed to the watercooler and said to the
spectators lining the tee, "I'm getting too old for this."
Too old? How about too good. Irwin slam-dunked the birdie putt
from 30 feet to go five up, and that was the end of any drama.
Floyd, the defending champion, finished 11 strokes out in 19th
place. Nicklaus, who redesigned the course and won the event
here in 1991, was 13 strokes back in 22nd. Even with the closing
bogeys Irwin won by two over Aoki.
Irwin was just too strong--and too lucky. He opened last
Thursday with a 66 to extend his streak to 89 straight Senior
holes in Florida without a bogey. Twice during the opening round
he escaped with pars after hitting approach shots that landed in
marsh waters. On the 11th hole, he removed his shoes and socks,
put on a rain suit, waded calf-deep into a pond, splashed out
and made a 20-footer. At the 17th, only his right shoe and sock
had to come off. Dipping one foot into the gunk, Irwin wedged to
3 1/2 feet and drained the putt for a 3. "My feet don't smell
too good," Irwin said.
His game stunk on Friday. The run of holes without a bogey ended
at 95, but a 74 put Irwin only one stroke back of Vietnam vet
Buddy Allin. During that round Irwin three-putted the 8th green
from 12 feet for a double bogey and complained about being
mentally fried. Saturday was comeback day. Irwin shot 69 to
retake the lead and went to bed watching the NFL draft. His
nephew, Heath Irwin, a 6'5", 305-pound offensive guard at
Colorado, was selected in the fourth round by the New England
On Sunday the old safety picked off his fourth victory in 19
Senior tour events and increased his Senior earnings to more
than $1.4 million since joining the tour last June. "It's not
peer recognition," Irwin said as his car pulled up to curbside
check-in at Palm Beach International Airport. "It's
self-recognition. It's being able to say to yourself, 'I did
that.' Today I did."
Somewhere Norman was flying home to the same airport in his
private jet. Irwin was tipping another skycap, heading down
another long concourse for another commercial flight,
unrecognized, but not unfulfilled.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN [Hale Irwin]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN In his debut on the Senior tour, Argentina's Vicente Fernandez hacked his way to third place.