Jack Nicklaus's ball hit, hopped, rolled and dropped. When the
58-year-old Nicklaus, feeling chipper after his resurrection at
Augusta, sank the nine-iron shot to eagle the 1st hole on the
first day of last week's PGA Seniors' Championship in Palm Beach
Gardens, the crowd roared and the gods seemed to smile on the
Senior tour. The Golden Bear pumped his fist and did a little
jig. I can win this thing, we interpreted his body language to
What a dreamer. It was going to take more than an eagle or two
(Nicklaus holed out from the fairway again in the second round)
to break Hale Irwin's stranglehold on the PGA Seniors.
Irwin has won this tournament, first played in 1937 and the
oldest of the Senior majors, all three times he has entered
since turning 50 on June 3, 1995. Only Eddie Williams, who won
three straight in the mid-1940s, has done as well in this event.
Irwin has been so dominant that in each of his 12 rounds at the
Champion Course at PGA National, his name has never sunk lower
than second on the leader board. Last week he went 13 under par
to win by seven strokes over runner-up Larry Nelson and eight
over Gil Morgan. Irwin's margin of victory was the largest in a
Senior major since he won this tournament by a dozen shots last
year. "It was like two different tournaments going on," said
Nelson, "seeing how well Hale would play and seeing who would
Morgan knew before the tournament began that Irwin was going to
be a handful. "I played nine holes of a practice round with him
on Wednesday, and he said it was his fourth practice round,"
Morgan recalled. "Right then I knew that Hale meant business. He
was telling me how the wind had been different every day. I
couldn't help thinking, Uh-oh."
To some, Irwin's performance served as a metaphor for the state
of the Senior tour. His victory was predictable, a term not
usually associated with golf. Either Irwin or Morgan has won
five of the first nine official events of '98, and they split
the first two majors. As an entry, Irwin-Morgan has made 14
starts and finished in the money--either win, place or
There are two schools of thought as to whether such a two-man
game is good for the Senior tour. "Rivalries make sports great,"
says Nelson, who despite high expectations has not been able to
make it a threesome. "Look at Nicklaus-[Lee] Trevino in the
'70s. Did anyone ever get tired of that?" The other side holds:
We knew Nicklaus-Trevino, Senator, and Irwin-Morgan is no
Great rivalries have edge. Ali and Frazier hated each other.
When the Yankees played the Dodgers, Goose Gossage threw at Ron
Cey's head. Of course, no one expects low blows and beanballs
from golfers, but even Nicklaus and Trevino had their rubber
Irwin, potentially, could bring a little heat to the party. An
incident last Saturday was more accident than fit of pique, but
we did see Irwin rip down a cup dispenser on the 13th tee after
failing to birdie the 12th hole. One almost wishes that Morgan
would get bent out of shape now and then, too.
The reality, though, is that the nascent Irwin-Morgan rivalry is
in an amorphous state, conjuring up nothing but an unfortunate
sense of redundancy to some fans. Perhaps the more Irwin and
Morgan go head-to-head the more that situation is likely to
Plus, certain cold facts shouldn't be ignored when gauging the
place of Irwin and Morgan on the golf continuum. The Senior tour
used to be about the good old days, but when the money grew, the
emphasis changed. Arnie's Army is no more than a sideshow these
days. The fight for million-dollar purses and multiple titles by
younger men like Irwin and Morgan is what the tour is all about.
It's the competition that counts now, not the nostalgia.
So here's the bottom line: Irwin and Morgan are good men and as
tough as they come between the ropes. At this point in their
competitive lives, either one of them could kick Jack Nicklaus's
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN At this point, either Irwin (right) or Morgan could kick Nicklaus's butt. [Hale Irwin putting]