BIRTHDAYS HAVE never been a big deal to Hale Irwin. No expensive
gifts. No elaborate cakes. No surprise parties. In fact, Irwin
says, there have been only two memorable birthdays in his entire
life: ``My 16th, because I could drive, and my 21st, because I was
legally an adult. All the other birthdays, I've glided right
Even when Irwin turned 50 on June 3, thereby making him eligible
for the Senior PGA Tour, he celebrated on a golf course, this time
playing against the PGA Tour young guns in the third round of the
Memorial, in Dublin, Ohio. At his locker at Muirfield Village that
morning, Irwin received black balloons and flowers from his
employees at Hale Irwin Golf Services, his course-design business
in St. Louis; a cane with a golf ball on top from two dozen
players; and a T-shirt with the black and gold of his alma mater,
Colorado -- depicting a charging buffalo throwing a football with
one hoof and dragging a golf bag with another -- from Barbara
Nicklaus and Irwin's wife, Sally, and his agent, Ken Kennerly.
Written across the front in bold letters: THE MEMORIAL TOURNAMENT
SALUTES HALE IRWIN ON HIS 50TH BIRTHDAY. Later, the gallery at 15
serenaded Irwin with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday to You.
In keeping with the tradition of other birthdays, Sally had
planned a quiet family dinner at a local restaurant. Daughter
Becky, 23, who works for the PGA Tour in licensing, flew in from
Atlanta, and son Steve, 20, the No. 1 golfer at the University of
Colorado, came through on his way back from St. Louis to Boulder
for summer school. Unfortunately, a rain delay kept Hale on the
course so long that it washed out Sally's dinner plans, but he was
perfectly content to celebrate with fast-food hamburgers and two
birthday cakes in their hotel room.
``I was with the three people I love most in this world. What
more could I have asked for?'' Irwin says. ``Fifty is just a
number. I don't feel any different. Too many people make too much
``Granted, we all have to look at age sooner or later. Somewhere
it will catch up with you. But age hasn't caught up with me yet,
and even if it had, I'm not sure I'd allow myself to admit it.''
That's why Irwin approached his Senior debut last week in
Nashville, at the BellSouth Senior Classic at Opryland, with mixed
emotions. He shot a lackluster 70 the first day, but he got on
track with a 68 on Saturday followed by a 69 on Sunday, to finish
tied for fourth, with a nine-under 207, four behind the winner,
Although Irwin hasn't played particularly well this year on the
PGA Tour -- in 12 events, he has finished in the top 10 only
twice, missed the cut twice and is ranked 61st on the money list,
with $186,911 -- he did have a fantastic season in 1994, the
second most profitable of his 27-year career. He finished 10th on
the money list, with $814,436; won the MCI Heritage Classic at
Hilton Head, outdueling Greg Norman down the stretch; had five
more top-10 finishes; and was the playing captain of the
Presidents Cup U.S. team, which defeated the International team
On one hand, Irwin knows he could probably dominate the Senior
tour if he committed himself to it full time. That would be a
financial windfall. Not only would he gain in winnings, but the
extra exposure would boost his course-design business and create
more endorsement opportunities. But on the other hand, a move
from the PGA Tour to the Senior tour represents something more
costly to Irwin's ego: the admission that he's getting older.
``In my mind, I'm in good physical shape,'' says Irwin, who at
six feet, 175 pounds, looks as fit as he did in his days as a
two-time All-Big Eight defensive back for the Buffaloes in the
mid-'60s. His daily regimen includes weightlifting and running,
as well as time on the StairMaster and a rowing machine. ``I'll
always be a proponent of playing golf courses as long and as
difficult as possible, no matter what age I am or how much my
skills decrease. I want to play four-day tournaments instead of
the three-day tournaments on the Senior tour. I believe that
everybody on the Senior tour should have to walk the course. I
don't want to take a cart. I don't even know where I'm supposed
to park it.
``I'll never back down from competition. I've always wanted to be
the guy with the toughest assignment, no matter what sport I
played. I'm not afraid to hit a free throw when the game's on the
line, to kick a field goal to win the game, or sink a 45-foot putt
to win the U.S. Open. That's what makes my blood flow. And if I'm
running a race against somebody who's faster, I'll win because
I'll want it more.''
His major goal in 1995 is to earn a berth on his sixth Ryder Cup
team, and to do that, he says, he must finish in the top 10 in all
of the six remaining PGA Tour events that he has penciled in on
his schedule. ``My heart is still on the regular Tour,'' admits
Irwin, who also plans to play in six Senior events this year.
``Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd both told me that if I really
want to compete, then I should play the regular Tour. Jack told
me, `Your skills will diminish on the Senior tour.' He said I
won't be as challenged by the golf courses, and I won't be playing
against such deep fields.''
But as quickly as Irwin gets those words out of his mouth, he's
torn again. ``The hard part is knowing I only have a limited time
frame to succeed on the Senior tour,'' Irwin says, shaking his
head. ``I've got to do it while I'm young, while I'm in my early
50's. If I wait until I'm 55 or 57 to dedicate myself to the
seniors, that's pushing the envelope a little bit.''
Irwin debuted at the BellSouth in part to put an end to
questions from the media and the fans. Even his caddie, John
Sullivan, who has also worked for Nicklaus and Johnny Miller,
noticed the Senior-tour questions starting to wear on Irwin.
``Hale has an ideal personality for golf: He gets mad quick, then
it's over with and he's on to the next shot,'' Sullivan says. ``A
lot of guys get caught up in their dirty laundry. That's one
reason Hale's been able to play so long at such a high level. He
stays in the present tense and goes about his business. I think
the reason he missed two cuts [the Byron Nelson and the Colonial]
is that the Senior-tour questions were getting to him.''
In an effort to clear his mind and iron out his putting, Irwin
also felt that a Senior event would be a better tune-up for this
week's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Country Club than, say, the
Tour's Kemper Open or even a week of practice at his own country
club in St. Louis.
``I didn't want to go to the Kemper -- that would have been
ultra-intense,'' says Irwin, who has won three Opens, including
his stunning victory at Medinah in 1990, when at 45 he became
the oldest Open champion ever, defeating Mike Donald in a
19-hole playoff. ``And I didn't want to go to the Open having
spent a week at home. A certain part of me wanted to be
refreshed, and I felt I'd get that on the Senior tour.
``I have to be in a tournament to focus. I get more done out
here in a day than I do at home in a week. At home I should
practice. Out here I have to. At home I should make the putt.
Out here I have to.''
For a man who's so competitive that he was once voted by his
peers on the PGA Tour the ``least favorite personality to play
with,'' it's doubtful that Irwin could ever actually feel
refreshed from a tournament, much less from a single round of
golf. But there were some aspects of his first round as a Senior
that were refreshingly different. When he stepped to the 1st tee
at 11:40 a.m. last Friday, in muggy, hazy, 92-degree heat, Irwin
looked calm and cool in his beige shirt and tan slacks. Playing
with Arnold Palmer, 65, and John Brodie, 60, Irwin had the
fewest wrinkles and the flattest tummy of that bunch, or any of
the others, for that matter.
``On the 1st tee,'' the marshal bellowed, ``making his first
Senior tour appearance, from Kapalua, Hawaii, Mr. Hale Irwin.''
Shielded under multicolored umbrellas and shaded by big straw
hats, the gallery let out a thunderous roar. Irwin responded by
hitting what he later called his best drive of the day. ``Give 'em
hell, Hale!'' one man shouted. ``Let's go, rookie!'' a woman
cheered. Irwin -- who lives in Frontenac, a St. Louis suburb, but
is under contract to the Kapalua resort, in Maui -- smiled and
waved to his fans.
Even as the temperature soared to almost 100-degrees, the
atmosphere remained positive and upbeat all afternoon, thanks
mostly to Palmer's presence in the threesome. Realizing that his
skills have deteriorated, Palmer plays the galleries instead of
the golf courses, seeming more like a Las Vegas entertainer than
one of the alltime legends of the sport. He constantly banters,
jokes with his caddie or flirts with the ladies. While
practicing his putting on a tee box, for instance, Palmer
swatted a ball over to the ropes, and a man kicked it back.
``There's a better-looking toe right next to you,'' Palmer
quipped, and he immediately shot a ball in the direction of a
pretty young woman.
With Arnie's Army storming the Springhouse Golf Club course,
Irwin and his debut got lost in the shuffle. Although he got off
on the right foot, making a birdie on the 1st hole, Irwin, who's
third on the regular Tour in driving accuracy, didn't drive the
ball well. He bogeyed number 4, hitting left into the water, and
bogeyed number 18, again hitting too far left. Frustrated
throughout his round, he spent a lot of time chatting with
Sullivan about his mistakes.
When he finally finished his first round as a Senior, at two-under
70, Irwin forced a tiny smile and gently tipped his visor. Then he
turned his back to the gallery, leaned over and angrily jammed his
putter into his golf bag. After two press conferences, Irwin
headed to the driving range, and half an hour later he was back
in the present tense, having put his debut in its proper
``You just don't say, `This is the Senior tour,' step on the
course and play well,'' Irwin says. ``There are so many
different personalities to contend with, different environments
to get used to. You have to play three or four months before
you're truly comfortable.
``I'm seeing guys in the locker room that I haven't seen in
years. I'm playing a course I've never played. I'm staying in a
hotel I've never stayed in. I'm in a town I've seldom been in.
All day, I'm thinking that I'm playing the second round, when
it's the first. There are a whole lot of mental gymnastics that
I'm going through. I feel like I've changed time zones.
``Give me time. I'm still a baby out here. I'm not trying to
rock my own cradle. I'm just trying to test the waters.''