Two rounds into last week's Phoenix Open, 49-year-old Hale Irwin found himself sizing up a leader board that included himself and a couple of other PGA Tour graybeards, Ben Crenshaw, 43, and Tom Watson, 45, plus a host of young whipper-snappers. "It looks like it's us against them," Irwin said. "The old guys versus the young guys."
It is only a matter of months before Irwin will be able to claim membership in either group. The oldest competitor at Phoenix. Irwin turns 50 on June 3, making him eligible to become the youngest member of the Senior PGA Tour on that date. But he is not sure if he is ready to give up his senior status for Senior status. Irwin is enjoying the third prime of his 27-year career on the Tour, having finished 10th on the money list last season with $814,436. He was the playing captain of the U.S. Presidents Cup team, which defeated the International team 20-12. And he has ridden the momentum of that banner year into 1995. After placing 12th in his opener at the Mercedes Championships, Irwin shot a cool 66-66-72-69-273 at Phoenix to finish tied for seventh, behind winner Vijay Singh who beat Billy Mayfair on the 1st hole of a playoff. "The better I play now, the more difficult the decision becomes," he says.
What makes Irwin's call so tricky is his own competitive instinct. In one breath he says, "I have a tremendous desire to test myself against the best in the world," which means duking it out on the PGA Tour. Then he says, "I guarantee I will not flip-flop between tours. I have to be realistic. My future is not out here," which means playing the Senior tour.
There are some very interested observers wondering, Will he or won't he? "We've been kidding Hale that we don't want him on the regular Tour and they don't want him on Senior tour," says Crenshaw with a grin.
Irwin's dilemma is the result of a rejuvenated game. After winning 17 Tour events between 1971 and '85, Irwin fell into a rut that he didn't get out of until his stunning victory at the U.S. Open in 1990, when at 45 he became the oldest Open champ ever. Three mediocre seasons followed, and even Irwin wondered if he was washed up. But after making the switch to oversize clubs early last year, Irwin started playing better, and that refueled his competitive fire. He beat Greg Norman down the stretch to win the MCI Heritage Classic last April and is in the middle of a comeback that just keeps coming.
At the TPC of Scottsdale last week, all of Irwin's game was on display: dependable driving, solid putting and deadly iron play. But for Irwin, who is self-taught and claims never to have had a professional lesson, it is not his physical abilities that set him apart; it is how he plays from the neck up that makes him so good.
Irwin is one of the few Tour players who stuck around college long enough to get a degree—in marketing, from the University of Colorado. He genuinely enjoys playing in the weekly pro-ams because he can pick the brains of his playing partners about the world outside of golf. The wire-rimmed spectacles he sported for most of his career (he switched to contact lenses in 1988) gave him the look of a bookworm, and he is indeed analytical in his approach to golf.
"I learned a lot talking to him at the Presidents Cup," says Phil Mickelson, 24, and himself a college graduate. "Hale has so much to say about how this game is played. He really opened my eyes about thinking your way around a golf course."
With his three U.S. Open victories—the others came in '74 and '79—Irwin has carved out the reputation of a player who wins on tough courses where planning and patience preempt pyrotechnics. "Hale picks courses apart," Crenshaw says. "His course-management skills are so sharp he has a tremendous advantage over most players."
As a boy growing up in the tiny prairie town of Baxter Springs, Kans., Irwin played sports year-round. He was the guy who always seemed to make the play when it mattered the most. He went to Colorado on a football scholarship and was a two-time All-Big Eight selection at defensive back, in addition to being the 1967 NCAA individual champion in golf. Irwin's eyes really shine when he talks about his days on the gridiron. One of his favorite memories is a 1967 game against national power Oklahoma in which he picked off two passes and made a touchdown-saving tackle. "I still remember how good that hit felt when I delivered it," he says. How many pro golfers can match that? At six feet and 170 pounds, Irwin was usually one of the smallest guys on the field. He relied on keen instincts and guile, and, he says, "A lot of my success was from desire, and nothing else." Says Paul Azinger, who was co-captain with Irwin at the Presidents Cup, "Hale is without a doubt one of the most competitive individuals I've ever known."
That smoldering competitiveness and detached thoughtfulness have made Irwin one of the more intense figures in the game. Johnny Miller once called him a "first-class lone wolf," and just watching Irwin's gait as he marches down a fairway lets you know he is all business. A not-for-attribution poll among Tour players last year tabbed Irwin, along with steely Nick Faldo, as the "least favorite personality to play with." Irwin couldn't care less. "When I'm on a golf course, taking care of my business is all that I'm thinking about," he says. Irwin's flintiness belies a lively mind. "Hale has an incredibly dry wit, and a quick wit," says Azinger. "But it is really hard to get to know him during the course of a golf tournament, because he is so intense."
Irwin is of the old school. He remembers his early days on the Tour, before things became so cushy. In 1971 he and his wife, Sally, who was pregnant with the first of their two children, packed all their belongings into a 1970 Pontiac Bonneville and drove from the Phoenix Open to the next Tour stop, in Miami. After recounting the tale last week, complete with its shabby motels and driving mishaps, Irwin paused for a moment and then said, "Young players today don't have a clue how good they've got it. You wish sometimes they'd show a little more thankfulness, a little more respect for the game and the people that make all of this possible." If Irwin sounds like an old fuddy-duddy, that's because he is one. "I think Hale will enjoy the Senior tour a little more, because he'll be playing with his contemporaries," says Azinger.
One such fellow is Raymond Floyd, who has much in common with Irwin. Floyd won the 1992 Doral Ryder Open at age 49 and finished that season 13th on the money list, but in the two full seasons since, he has played primarily on the Senior tour, winning six tournaments and almost $2.1 million. He recently phoned Irwin and told him that the competition may be on the PGA Tour, but the opportunity to win regularly, which is what both of these old warhorses play for, is with the half-century set. "That's a bit of an oversimplification," Irwin says. "But Raymond definitely didn't make my decision any easier."
While Irwin wavers, other players are having no trouble making up their minds for him.
"Hale would be crazy not to go," Azinger says. "The Senior tour is no gimme, but mark it down: Hale will be in contention every week, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him dominate."
Watson has a different take. "If I still had the tools, like Hale obviously does, I would stick it out here, because it is the only place where you have the chance to beat the best," he says.
"Most of the guys my age are looking forward to it," says Crenshaw. "It sure looks like fun to me."
Irwin is counting on his game to make the decision for him. If he plays well through the spring, he is sure to spend the whole year on the regular Tour and make a run at the Ryder Cup team. He is currently 18th in the points race for the 12 U.S. spots. Irwin has played on five Ryder Cup teams already, to the tune of a 13-5-2 record, and would love one more go-round. And he added last week, "If I have a great season out here on the PGA Tour, by all means I'll play another. But if I don't, then I won't hesitate to move on to the Senior tour."
Then, looking like a kid reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Irwin placed a hand over his ticker and said, "I'll know in here what is the right thing to do. The bottom line is this: I will feel good with whatever I decide. And when I have the energy and the focus, I usually play pretty well."
Players on both tours should consider themselves forewarned.