2005: Has age-defying Hale Irwin truly been given his due?
The years advance, the scrapbooks fray at the edges, but the enduring snapshot is practically interchangeable. Hale Irwin, late Sunday afternoon, standing on the 18th green somewhere, lifting yet another trophy into an azure sky. • There he was in Hawaii three weeks ago, a little more than four months shy of his 60th birthday, doing it again, making another speech, collecting the winner’s spoils at Turtle Bay. Others his age either have broken down – as out-of-date football players are expected to do – or simply have hung “gone fishin’ ” shingles.
You watch him win and wonder: Does this ever get old?
Better yet, will he ever get old? When will Irwin start acting his age?
“Hale’s an oddity,” says Larry Nelson of the man he has competed against for three and a half decades. “An oddity, one, in that he is still as competitive as he is at the age he is. And two, that he’s still physically able to do it. The man was blessed with a swing that has held up over the ages.
“There’s nobody who has aged as well as Hale has.”
Hale Irwin is the Champions’ champion, his tour’s living, breathing yardstick. In his mind, there is victory and then beyond that, little difference between second and 10th. It’s winning that always has filled his inner tank with high-test adrenaline. He still vividly remembers the charge he felt nearly 34 years ago when he won his first PGA Tour event at Hilton Head Island, S.C.
“I went to Delta Airlines the next morning, and
I felt different,” Irwin recalls. “There must have been a spring in my step. Delta was a (PGA Tour) sponsor then, and when I got to the counter, they said, ‘Congratulations Mr. Irwin, we’ve upgraded you to first class.’ That had never happened before. I felt different. It was special.
“The wheels were off the runway then, and I was flying.”
That was 60 victories ago. He has flown, all right. Twenty PGA Tour triumphs, including three U.S. Opens, the last one arriving at Medinah when he was 45. Since turning 50, he has dominated the Senior PGA Tour, now Champions Tour, like nobody before him, winning 41 times heading into last week’s Ace Group Classic. In 230 starts, he has finished in the top 3 a dazzling 100 times (nearly 44 percent) and collected nearly $21 million.
Perhaps even more astonishing has been Irwin’s ability to obliterate the Champions Tour’s
steadfast iron wall that players once crashed into
at age 55. Once upon a time on the Senior Tour, players did their damage from age 50-54 and quietly faded away. Irwin has won 15 of his titles since turning 55.
“It’s sort of like what happened with the speed limit of 55,” Irwin says. “A few people in the beginning ignored it. I certainly ignored it.”
Adds Dave Stockton, who knows what it’s like to be on top of the senior mountaintop: “He just keeps going. Part of it is, how many years are you willing to pay the price?”
A few months after winning the seasonlong Charles Schwab Cup points race (and its $1 million annuity) at age 59, Irwin showed up in Hawaii last month to open a new season. A cranky back kept him from practicing, yet he was striking the ball crisper than he had all last year.
“Who knows?” muses caddie Kenny Harmes, who is beginning his fifth season on Irwin’s bag. “He might win until he’s 70.”
Guess Hubert Green might have known something five years ago when Harmes, then employed by Green, finally summoned the nerve to ask permission to begin working for Irwin.
Says Harmes: “Hubert told me, ‘If you don’t take that job, you’re fired.’ ”
Irwin has a difficult time believing that he has been playing the over-50 circuit for a decade, and that he soon will be staring down the barrel at 60. He laughs when he notes some people wince when they turn 30 and others consider 40 to be over the hill.
“Fifty,” Irwin continues, “is ‘one foot in the grave.’ And anything above that seems to be utter chaos. I feel good. Generally speaking, unless there is something going on in my body at this point and time, I feel good about things.
“The fact that I will be 60 in June (3) . . . does not seem at all possible. It’s just a number. To still be playing, I never foresaw that 20 years ago. The Champions Tour, and golf in general, has provided me a great education, a great means in which to discover my golf and perhaps appreciate it more.”
It also has provided the opportunity for golf to discover Irwin, a player some believe has been the Billy Casper of his generation – that is, immensely skilled and talented, yet famously overshadowed
by the flashier players of his era. When Irwin turned pro in 1968, there was Arnie and Jack, a burgeoning challenger named Lee Trevino and a flashy, good-looking kid at Brigham Young by the name of Johnny Miller who would turn pro a year later. Irwin? He was the smallish but tough former Big Eight defensive back from Colorado who wore glasses. Try selling that in Hollywood.
But what Irwin delivered was dogged determination, a steely long game, a prowess both for understanding and staying within his own abilities, and a competitive mentality that welcomed the pressure of being on golf’s biggest stage.
Between the ropes, Irwin always has been all business, and among fellow players he carries something of a “lone wolf” reputation. Maybe that’s because he’s not one to be hanging around
the locker room swapping stories and jokes with others when that time can be better spent in the gym or on the practice tee.
Irwin always has had a gift for devising a plan to get the job done. He said it traces to his days in football, when he often was the smallest player on the field. In Irwin’s world, where there’s a will, there’s always, somehow, a way.
Harmes recalls a Saturday morning in Naples, Fla., a few years ago when Irwin was hitting the ball atrociously on the practice tee before his round. Shots were spraying everywhere.
“We go out to play and he shoots 65,” remembers Harmes. “One of the caddies who’d watched him on the range later told me he thought Hale was going to shoot 80 that day. But mentally, he’s unbelievable. I know every single week we’re going to have a chance to win a golf tournament. That’s the greatest thing about my job.”
As once was the case in his football days, when he could astutely read his keys and be in the right position, Irwin prepares as well as anybody. As a golfer, he can accept a poor shot (“You’re not always going to make a perfect swing,” he acknowledges), but has zero tolerance for poor preparation leading into that shot.
“It’s not like we’re trying to put a rocket on the moon,” Irwin says. “Planning out a golf shot is not that difficult if you’re paying attention to what you’re doing.”
He wasn’t the winner of the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot as much as he was the top survivor, managing to “outlast” everybody with a winning score of 7-over 287. A second Open triumph came five years later. Perhaps the signature moment for which Irwin will be remembered, however, is the spontaneous lap around the 18th green at Medinah in 1990, when he seemingly high-fived the entire city of Chicago after making a 50-foot bomb to force a Monday playoff against Mike Donald.
Steve Irwin, Hale’s son, was 15 at the time, watching on TV with a friend at the Pepsi Little Peoples Golf Tournament in Illinois. He wishes he had been there, but like many fans, never will forget watching the wild scene that unfolded.
“The lap he took, that’s more of the personality he exudes off the golf course,” says Steve, 30, who played professionally on the mini-tours for a couple of years but now is a reinstated amateur in Colorado. He works for his father’s golf design business. “My dad is a fun-loving, exuberant type of guy. He’s got to be in a different mode when he competes, focused, but Medinah was a knee-jerk reaction that produced an entertaining sprint.”
The next day, Irwin defied the odds, winning his third Open at age 45.
Hale Irwin says competitiveness is a family trait. He learned it from his father, Hale Sr., a salesman, then passed it along to his own children. Irwin believes anybody can be competitive in any walk of life. The venue doesn’t have to be a golf course.
“You can be competitive in journalism, you can be competitive in business,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. To me, it’s (about) not accepting anything but your best. It doesn’t mean you have to beat somebody else, or that you have to defeat somebody else. It means you have to go out and give it your best shot at whatever you’re doing.”
When you’re Hale Irwin, giving one’s “best” translates into winning golf tournaments.
Adds Steve Irwin, who has absorbed his father’s teachings: “When you’re used to being successful, you want to keep doing it. There’s no reason why you should ever be OK with losing. That’s one reason he has lasted as long as he has. He still wants to win.”
The past two seasons, Irwin’s rock-solid body – he has not strayed far from his University of Colorado playing weight of 170 pounds – has begun to betray him. A tender back and assorted neck and shoulder pain creeped up late last season, nearly costing him the Schwab Cup. Just before the final round of the season-ending event in California, he saw Champions Tour president Rick George on the first tee and told him he didn’t know if he could play.
“He said, ‘Rick, I don’t know if I can go,’ ” remembers George. “Then he teed it off and fought his way through it. That’s what competitors do.”
Winning and losing sometimes can be an ultrathin line, the divisor being fear. Though some players are afraid of success, others like Irwin are driven more by a fear of not succeeding. He is not afraid to accept the consequences of pouring everything he has into something and still coming up short.
Irwin’s success on the Champions Tour has pretty much gone according to plan. He’s not so bold to say he expected to step out and win 41 times and pile up the millions that he has, but Irwin knew senior golf would be an arena in which he could shine. He considers 1997, when he won nine events in 23 starts, his best year (yet) in pro golf. It’s the best “yet” because with Irwin, each new season brings with it the window of opportunity to improve, to continue to accumulate life’s lessons.
“I think he’s a better player now than he was nine or 10 years ago on the regular tour,” says Champions Tour player Jim Thorpe. “Hale has no weaknesses. These guys coming out on our tour to play against him are in for a rude awakening.”
Irwin looks forward to a day when he and wife, Sally, who once traveled the PGA Tour with him in an old Pontiac, can visit places around the world they’ve never been. Maybe Italy. Hale won’t even bring the clubs. For now, though, there still is some golf to play. Off the course, his design business and being a grandfather keep him busy. This season and next will define his future plans as a competitor. Italy may have to wait.
“If he could win the money title at 60, that should go down as one of the great accomplishments of all time,” says Harmes.
Maybe then Irwin will get the recognition he deserves for his extraordinary body of work, a genuine masterpiece in longevity. Yes, he’s in the Hall of Fame, and on the Champions Tour, nobody has done it better. Has he received his proper due? Know this: If his career has slipped a tad below the radar, it’s not something keeping Irwin awake at night.
“I can’t tell people to go ‘appreciate’ my career,” he says. “Sure, I think Hale Irwin kind of got lost in the shuffle a little bit. But am I hung up on that? No. If I went out and did what I can do, and did the best I could do, I couldn’t do anything else. That’s what athletics have always taught me. If you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.
“When I came out, I didn’t have blond hair. I didn’t have the following. There wasn’t any buildup. So there was nothing to make anyone believe I was going to be anything special.”
He proved otherwise. He has been something special. And, as usually is the case with Irwin, he’s not done.
He never is.