"In 1985 I was 40 years old," says Hale Irwin, "and I vaguely
remember that Peter Thomson was winning all these Senior tour
events. I don't want to say there wasn't any interest or
awareness, but the whole concept seemed like light-years away."
Irwin got to ruminating on the old days hours after an opening
67 in last week's Hyatt Regency Maui Kaanapali Classic in
Lahaina, Hawaii. He had just finished fooling around with a
fishing pole a few miles down the coast from the Kaanapali Golf
Club when, carefully cradling a plastic cup of beer, he took a
seat on a lava flow high above the Pacific's pounding surf. He
was dressed in a very Hawaiian shirt and Bermudas, revealing a
pair of legs that could double as O.B. stakes. "Back then I
never imagined that I'd seriously play the Senior tour, let
alone make a run at Peter's record," Irwin said. "I mean, are
In this, his third season among the half-century set, Irwin has
surprised himself and the golf world with one of the most
dominant seasons in the game's history. Heading into Kaanapali,
Irwin, 52, had already become the first player on any tour to
earn $2 million in a season, and his eight wins (in only 20
starts) left him just one shy of Thomson's 12-year-old record
for victories in a single Senior tour season.
Irwin snagged win number nine on Sunday by shooting a
one-under-par 70, more than enough on a windy day when none of
the other contenders made a move. Irwin is giving himself two
more chances to make the record his own: at the Oct. 31-Nov. 2
Ralphs Senior Classic at the Wilshire Country Club in Los
Angeles and at the Tour Championship the following week at the
Dunes Golf and Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "He'll probably
win 'em both," says Bruce Summerhays, who led Irwin by a shot
heading into the final round at Kaanapali before tying for
second with Mike Hill, three back.
On Sunday evening Irwin was deferential to both Thomson and his
record, saying, "Peter will always have his place in history.
You can't take away the man's accomplishments. But would it be
greedy to ask for just one more?"
Thomson, 68, doesn't think so. "I have always expected [the
record] to be broken," he said last Friday from his home in the
suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. "I'll be perfectly happy should
Hale be the one to do it. I think he's one of the great players
of recent years, as well as a perfect gentleman."
There is something fitting about Irwin and Thomson being linked
in the record books. They are two sides of the same coin. Irwin
won three U.S. Opens, the first in 1974, surviving the famed
Massacre at Winged Foot, and the last 16 years later, when he
became the Open's oldest winner, at 45. In a career spent mainly
overseas, Thomson secured his place in the pantheon with five
British Open titles, including a remarkable stretch from 1952
through '58 when he won four championships and finished second
Says Irwin of Thomson, "He didn't have a big game, but it was
Says Thomson of Irwin, "He doesn't overpower a golf course, but
he has a masterly ability to play it on his own terms."
That the descriptions are interchangeable is lost on neither.
They share plenty more. Thomson has long been considered golf's
Renaissance man, a painter and a student of wine, literature and
classical music. In 1982 he lost a bid for a seat in Parliament
in Australia by about 1,000 votes in a year when his
Conservative party got creamed. Irwin is one of contemporary
golf's most thoughtful voices. He stuck around college
(Colorado) long enough to win the 1967 NCAA Championship in
golf, become a two-time All-Big Eight defensive back and get a
degree in marketing after being named an academic All-America.
Today, Irwin admits to the unthinkable: He enjoys the
pretournament pro-ams. They give him an opportunity to pick the
brains of his amateur partners on topics outside of golf.
Thomson and Irwin are masters of their craft yet hardly
celebrities. The notion of having his own plane, as many other
top golfers do, has always struck Irwin as gauche, so he flies
commercial and is rarely recognized. In the mid-'80s Thomson
sported the Texas vanity plates 5 times on his car (they now
hang in his library), but even with that clue, "people didn't
know me from a bar of soap," he says. The only subject on which
Irwin gets tongue-tied is his past glories. When it comes to
modesty, Thomson does him one better: He has turned his old
trophies into vases. "You can't find any silver cups in any of
my houses," he told Golf Digest a few years ago, "except the
ones that hold flowers."
Naturally Irwin and Thomson are each too gentlemanly to compare
his record season with the other's. Among the players who
witnessed both, however, Irwin's is rated better. "What Hale has
done is way, way far above Peter's feats," says Orville Moody,
who finished 12th on the '85 money list and was 69th last week
in Maui. "There's so much more competition now. Back in '85
there were only five or six guys who could really play."
That's an exaggeration, but not by much. The first 20
tournaments of 1985 were won by five players--Thomson (eight
victories), Lee Elder (four), Don January (four), Miller Barber
(three) and Arnold Palmer. Their dominance was diluted only in
the final four events, when Mike Fetchick, Harold Henning and
Gary Player broke through. (Player played just one tournament in
'85 after turning 50 on Nov. 1.) "The conditions are much
tougher now," says Elder, who was 76th at Kaanapali. "The
courses are longer, the fields are deeper, and technology has
made the bad players better."
Because the Senior tour didn't begin to keep official stats
until 1988, scoring is the only meaningful way to compare the
two players (especially when considering the relatively meager
purses of 1985, when Thomson won only $386,724). Thomson's
stroke average of 70.17 didn't even lead the tour in '85. He was
nipped by January's 70.11. With a scoring average of 68.93,
Irwin has a chance to break Lee Trevino's record of 68.89, set
To appreciate what Irwin has done to the competition this
season, it's necessary to look past the usual barometers of
victories and money totals. The latest batch of tour statistics
reveals that Irwin leads in scoring, birdies, total driving,
greens in regulation and putting. Everything that counts, in
other words. Twice this year he has won tournaments without a
bogey--at the Boone Valley Classic in September and at the
Vantage Championship two weeks ago. His smooth 63 last Saturday
in Hawaii gave Irwin eight straight rounds in the 60s, the
longest streak on tour this year. Sunday's victory also marked
the fourth time this season that he has won back-to-back starts,
"He's dominating top to bottom," says Dave Stockton.
"He has no weakness," says Chi Chi Rodriguez.
Surprisingly, Irwin agrees. Few players are as self-lacerating,
but he says, "I think I'm a more complete player. There's no
reluctance now if I have to play a certain shape of a shot. As a
result I'm hitting my irons closer than ever. My putting's
improved, particularly in the crunch. I'm a little bit longer
and straighter off the tee, and that's mostly technology. I
think I'm managing my game better than ever. I still see in
myself an ability to learn, and a willingness."
Last year, Irwin's first full season on the Senior tour, he
played splendidly but made a number of uncharacteristic blunders
down the stretch, accounting for seven runner-up finishes and
only two wins. "I was trying too hard," he says. "An analogy I
like is that trying to win a tournament is like driving through
traffic. Last year I was too anxious, too stressed out. I was
flooring the gas, then jamming on the brake, over and over, but
I wasn't getting there any faster. This year I sit back, get in
line and wait for my turn to pass."
Thomson is next to be overtaken, not that he minds. "I
accomplished what I wanted to accomplish," he says. "In '85 I
think all of us had the question in our mind whether the [Senior
tour] was going to survive. I was very pleased I pulled my
weight. After that I tapered off with no regrets for what I
might be giving up."
"I don't see it in my nature to do that," says Irwin. "Playing
competitively is a part of me that will always be there. I'm
certainly not going to take this year and say, See ya. I won't
play more next year, but I won't play any less."
That's the scary thing. Irwin's already talking about 1998 and
thinks he could play even better. This season has been full of
distractions. He and his wife of 29 years, Sally, are building a
home in the Phoenix area, and they've been sweating even more
intricate details for their daughter Becky's wedding in early
January. Their son, Steven, graduated from Colorado in May, and
the old man has had the agony of watching his kid suffer through
his first few months as a pro golfer, on the Golden State
minitour. Then there is Irwin's golf-course design business,
which is booming. He's putting the finishing touches on three
courses, recently broke ground on the TPC of Raleigh (N.C.) and
has been laying the groundwork for several more projects that
are to get under way next spring. "When all I have to focus on
is golf, I usually do pretty well," says Irwin, which isn't good
news for his competitors.
One person who is sure to keep tabs on Irwin's progress is
Thomson, even though he doesn't get the tournament results Down
Under until they appear later in the week in the local paper.
Pointing this out last Friday, he asked if it wouldn't be too
much of an imposition to give him a ring when the Kaanapali
Classic was over, just to let him know how his record was faring.
On Sunday evening, after Irwin had packed up his oversized check
for $127,500 and his piece of history, a call was made to
Thomson's home to give him the bittersweet news.
The phone rang, but nobody answered.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Irwin, an avid angler, hooked his ninth win of '97 at Kaanapali and will take two cracks at number 10.[Hale Irwin fishing]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSONThomson (below) earned $386,724 in '85, yet Irwin became the first golfer to win $2 million in a year. [Peter Thomson golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN [See caption above--Hale Irwin golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Sally made Hale's major moments in '97: his PGA Seniors victory in April (above) and last week's win. [Sally Irwin kissing Hale Irwin]