2004: Champions Tour - Irwin survives Senior storm
Storms that last entire weeks usually merit a name. Although there were no official titles for the steady march of weather systems that disrupted play for six consecutive days at the 65th Senior PGA Championship, there were plenty of unofficial monikers.
From the outset, the incessant barrage of weather delays were labeled a major inconvenience and turned senior golf’s oldest major championship into an exercise in evacuation. By the time Mother Nature was done with her deluge, most players had settled on one title – frightening.
When Hale Irwin finally tapped in for birdie on the 72nd hole May 31 to claim his 40th Champions Tour title, 7 inches of rain had been dumped on Valhalla Golf Club. Floyds Fork, which snakes its way across the 6,990-yard layout, had overrun its banks for the second time, turning the ninth fairway into a quagmire of frustration.
“They had everybody done at 54 holes (before Sunday’s delay that forced the event’s first Monday finish since 2000), that should have been the tournament,” said Fuzzy Zoeller. “I don’t know why they brought us back here (Monday).”
For the week, officials doled out more suspensions than a high school principal during senior skip day. All total, play was interrupted 10 times and evacuation SUVs became something of a mass transit system.
This Senior PGA was a marathon and Irwin was the over-50 circuit’s version of Timothy Cherigat, the cagey Kenyan who won the Boston 26-miler in April.
In a week filled with extremes, few traveled as far emotionally as Irwin. The 58-year-old wasn’t the pre-tournament favorite; that honor belonged to reluctant rookie Jay Haas. And as Irwin quietly prepared for the Champions Tour’s first major of 2004 late Wednesday with a dinner for one and a good book, senior golf’s most fiery competitor looked every bit the serene grandfather.
It was a much different person who took to the course when the first round, delayed 2 hours by overnight rains, began in earnest. Irwin slogged his way to a five-birdie, one-bogey 67 and was tied with Tom Watson as the week began to take on its weather-riddled theme.
“It wasn’t a picture-perfect round, but it was pretty good considering the lack of experience that I’ve had on the course,” said Irwin. “This was only the third time I’ve played (Valhalla), so I’m building a bit of history.”
If the mud and the tournament’s manic, on-again, off-again ways favored young legs, as course-designer Jack Nicklaus suggested before play began, then Irwin must be an infant at heart.
“The old fox did it,” said Haas, who missed an 8-footer for birdie at No. 18 that would have matched Irwin’s 8-under total.
Officials hoped to beat another less-than-ideal forecast Sunday, but that wishful thinking was washed away by an early shower. When the warning horns began their familiar wail, Irwin was in the middle of the second fairway and reeling from an opening bogey. He had no idea that the most challenging part of his day would soon be barreling down Interstate 71 toward Louisville.
Sunday’s delay was prompted by a tornado that touched down near Valhalla. It was one of 23 tornadoes that were reported Sunday in the Louisville area, but none was as frightening as the twister that hit downtown, a short distance from the tournament hotel.
“The windows started shaking, how could you not wake up?” said Irwin of the storm that hit his hotel about 11:30 p.m. “I went to the bathroom for a while and then went back to bed but, of course, you don’t go back to sleep with everything that is going on.”
Comparatively, his final 17 slushy holes must have seemed like a welcome reprieve. He rebounded from his opening bogey at No. 1 Sunday with a dramatic chip-in from 30 yards at No. 5 to move two shots ahead of Dave Barr and Haas.
Haas, whose Ryder Cup aspirations will limit his Champions Tour starts to a handful of senior majors this year, tied Irwin with a birdie at No. 10 on Monday.
Irwin’s erratic back nine included just three pars, and his bogey at the 17th dropped him to 7 under and tied with Haas, whose missed birdie chance at No. 18 wrapped up a round of 70.
Irwin, eight years Haas’ senior, answered with a calm two-putt birdie on the final hole. Irwin shot rounds of 67-69-69-71 for a 276 total, the Senior PGA’s lowest winning score since 2001.
This side of the Ohio River hasn’t seen a champion this deserving since Smarty Jones lapped the Kentucky Derby field by two lengths last month. Irwin, the Haas-described “old fox,” was happy to be standing after five days of delays and downpours.
“Relief is spelled S-R, P-G-A, O-V-E-R,” Irwin sighed. “I feel like I’ve been run over and put away wet."