The senior tour is huggable again, what with the sally of
victories by affable underdogs such as John Jacobs, Bruce
Fleisher, Allen Doyle, Gary McCord and Bob Duval, each of whom
has put pro golf's ultimate mulligan to ideal use this season.
But would everyone be so pleased about this development if the
guy being displaced as top dog wasn't the ornery Hale Irwin?
I think not, and I'm not alone. "Yes, I've sensed an impatience
with the Hale and Gil Show; a lot of people are rejoicing,"
Irwin said last week during the Tradition, the Senior tour's
first major, in which he wound up 20th. (Two-time defending
champ Gil Morgan, Irwin's only competition for the past two
years, had to skip the tournament because of a bad back.)
Those rooting for Irwin's demise can hide behind history. The
fact is, the Senior tour sheds its skin every few years, and as
Irwin piled up 16 wins in 1997 and '98, and Morgan 12, the clock
was counting down. In this decade alone the tour has seen three
eras come and go. The first was led by Lee Trevino and Mike
Hill, who were followed by the triumvirate of Jim Colbert,
Raymond Floyd and Dave Stockton, who gave way to the now
flickering dominance of Irwin and Morgan. Chances are the new
players who have added spice to the '99 season will be
remembered as precursors to an epoch when Tom Kite, Lanny
Wadkins and Tom Watson claimed the lion's share of the pie. The
point is, projecting Irwin's decline doesn't have to be taken as
Only it is. Let's face it, even the Senior tour's biggest fans
have had a hard time getting their arms around Irwin. His
precise, almost surgical game, while a model of completeness to
a purist, is too sterile for popular taste. The thing about
Irwin that's most off-putting, though, is that he wants it so
bad you can taste it. His gouge-out-their-eyes approach, which
was not only acceptable but also celebrated on the regular Tour,
is out of place in the feel-good world of carts and no cuts.
When Irwin dominated the other Seniors, he was viewed as a
bully, and if the unassuming Morgan hadn't been nipping at his
heels, there might've been a movement to exile Irwin to the big
Tour until he got his head on straight.
Irwin is well aware of his negative aura and has tried to kill
it with kindness, lavishly praising the vanquished and joking
with the fans, yet all it takes is one mediocre shot to reveal
the wolf within. Therefore, rather than achieving the sort of
separate but equal status enjoyed on the Senior tour by a
dominator like Trevino, Irwin has simply remained separate.
"I've had my locker assigned next to Hale for 25 years," says
Joe Inman. "He's never been discourteous, but it's a nod hello
and a nod goodbye. He's about his business, but it creates a
distance." Which explains why McCord has been cast as a kind of
Senior savior. "The players loved the way Gary won [last month's
Toshiba Senior Classic] and the way he is," says Inman. "It's
good for business."
McCord is the anti-Irwin, a self-proclaimed mediocrity who works
hard to project a laid-back, wisecracking image. He's also a
throwback to the tradition of Chi Chi Rodriguez and Simon
Hobday, characters who gave the Senior tour its color. At the
snowy Tradition, McCord snapped off one-liners about the
weather, and when asked how he cared for his handlebar mustache,
said, "I use wax, with a light dusting of Viagra." McCord makes
you believe that the tour is still more about how than how many.
Irwin, on the other hand, is all substance. He has produced the
best Senior golf ever played, and while doing so has convinced a
lot of us that the over-50 crowd is also quite capable of
playing a game with which we are not familiar.
Don't think for a minute that just because a few new faces have
popped up in the winner's circle Irwin, at 53, is through. The
previous two seasons have left him temporarily sated, and the
last three months have given him something to prove. Irwin may
not be huggable, but he's definitely buggable. "That's exactly
when Hale is a great player," says Inman.
At this point in the '98 season Irwin had only one victory. Then
came the PGA Seniors' Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.,
where he won for the third straight year.
Next stop on the Senior tour? Palm Beach Gardens. It's way too
early for the Hale-haters to be happy.
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN
"I've sensed an impatience with the Hale and Gil Show," Irwin
said. "A lot of people are rejoicing."