He's Flat-out Fantastic At the Senior Open, Hale Irwin rose up and took his game to new heights

August 02, 1998

He used to make golf look like a form of accounting. Hale Irwin
could fire subpar rounds when he had to, but he never fired our
imaginations. In 26 years on the PGA Tour, Irwin won three U.S.
Opens and 17 other titles, but never led the money list. He had
only one three-victory season and always fell short in the
Masters, the British Open and the PGA. His game was brainy and
obsessively clean. He made 86 consecutive cuts in one admirable
if uninspiring stretch. If a three-time U.S. Open winner can be
called a grinder, Hale Irwin's the one.

As a Senior, however, Irwin has dazzled and dominated--never
more than on Sunday in the U.S. Senior Open at Riviera Country
Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., where an exquisite
restoration made the venue worthy of its conqueror. After an
ugly opening-round 77, the 53-year-old Irwin used all his
cunning to avoid the kikuyu grass rough that tripped up almost
everyone else, clawing ever closer to leader Raymond Floyd. Then
Irwin willed his way to two birdies on the final three holes to
pass Floyd and finish a shot ahead of runner-up Vicente
Fernandez. The 12-footer Irwin drained at Riviera's famed 18th
made him the only player to achieve a one-stroke U.S. Open or
Senior Open victory with a birdie on the final hole.

Though the powers of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Lee
Trevino are fading, eroding the nostalgic appeal of the Senior
game, the level of play on the Senior tour is higher than ever.
Sure, the courses are shorter and the fields shallower than
those on the regular Tour, but today, for the first time, the
best golf on the over-50 circuit compares favorably with the
kind played anywhere on earth. Like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird
15 years ago, Irwin and Gil Morgan have lifted their sport to
new heights. That's a superb achievement even if their charisma
reminds you of Will Perdue.

Irwin is as good as ever from tee to green, and a better putter
than he used to be. "Hale Irwin as a Senior is the best putter I
have ever seen," says Floyd. Last year Irwin equaled Peter
Thomson's single-season mark of nine Senior victories. Last
week's Open crown gave him 18 wins in 72 Senior events, leaving
him only 10 short of Trevino's record total of 28 Senior tour
titles, and he has spent only three years on the tour. Such
virtuosity allows us to appreciate Irwin as never before.
There's no perspective like retrospect, and it now appears that
for all his accomplishments, Irwin may have been an
underachiever on the PGA Tour. Anyone who can do what he has
done after age 50 must possess a boatload of talent. "I'm still
learning how to play, how to understand my game," he said last
week.

He will probably always be a man apart. Though he has acquired
some polish over the years, Irwin retains the flinty soul of a
lone wolf. In his last days on the regular Tour he finished
first in a magazine poll that asked players to name their least
favorite playing partner. He's still more Hale than hearty, even
when things are going his way. "After caddying for Jack, I
thought I would never meet anyone who was more intense, but now
I have," says Irwin's caddie, John Sullivan, who has worked for
Nicklaus several times. "I'm not calling Hale a better player
than Jack, but he is definitely more of a competitor. He
absolutely cannot stand to hit a bad shot, even in a pro-am."

Don't expect Irwin to mellow anytime soon. "This is too much
fun, doing what I did today," he said at Riviera. The more he
does what he did on Sunday, the brighter the future looks for
Senior golf.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK KNOCKOUT After missing a birdie putt at 17 on Sunday, Irwin holed one at the 18th to win. [Hale Irwin laying on golf course]

His caddie says Irwin is "definitely more of a competitor" than
Jack Nicklaus.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)