By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – At age 66 – he’ll be 67 a week from Sunday – you’d think Hale Irwin would have experienced every “first” imaginable in golf by now.
After all, we’re talking about a 20-time PGA Tour winner who won three U.S. Opens.
We’re talking about a player who, since joining the Champions Tour in 1995, has amassed an unthinkable, Tour-record 54 victories, with 19 of those coming after the age of 55.
This is a man who has won seven majors on the Champions Tour, including four Senior PGA Championships (1996, 1997, 1998 and 2004).
Yet there he was, standing on the ninth green Friday at Harbor Shores – his last hole of the day – needing a par to record a score lower than his age for the first time.
However, it wasn’t meant to be. Irwin bogeyed the par-5 with a messy three-putt – the lone blemish on his card in the second round of the 73rd Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid, where he fired a terrific 5-under 66 that was still pretty darn good.
It was the fourth time in his life that Irwin’s scorecard matched his age. The competitor in Irwin didn’t care much for that stat -- or any others like the fact that his average driving distance is a yard longer now than it was 15 years ago, for that matter. Instead, he was irritated by the three-jack on the last green.
“The three-putt at the ninth hole was a real killer,” he said. “Just simply because it would have been great to play without a bogey. And when you have as many birdie putts as I had today and not make … really I didn't putt well at all, which I know is going to sound pretty trite, but at the same time I really didn't putt very well, I just played very, very well.”
Friday’s 66 along with Thursday’s hard-earned even-par 71 in strong winds placed Irwin at 5-under 137, just two shots behind 36-hole co-leaders John Cook and Roger Chapman.
His second-round assault on Harbor Shores began promptly. Starting on the back nine, Irwin immediately birdied No. 10 by holing a 5-foot putt and then snagged another birdie at No. 11 when he stuffed an 8-iron approach to within two feet of the hole.
Irwin kept the momentum going with a pair of birdies from inside of five feet at Nos. 14 and 15, making the turn in 4-under 31. Two more birdies on the front side had him at 6 under through 14 holes, until that bogey at the last.
In all, Irwin needed just 28 putts Friday. On paper, that looks fantastic – just like his score. However, he said he’d consider switching putters for the weekend because he missed his fair share of mid-range birdie tries. Simply put, though the score suggests otherwise, he didn’t make everything he looked at.
“Whereas the score looks really good and it is, I'm very happy with it, the manner in which I got it was a little frustrating because I left a really, really, really good round out there,” he said. “And, knock on wood, you hope to have these kind of tee-to-green rounds all the time and take that knock on wood back and hope you don't have putting days like I had today.”
With all his accomplishments in golf, Irwin has nothing left to prove to anyone. However, he might be looking for a measure of redemption on the weekend.
Last year in the 72nd Senior PGA Championship at Valhalla, Irwin was the 54-hole co-leader with Japan’s Kiyoshi Murota. Truth of the matter is, Irwin should have had the lead to himself entering that final round, but his costly double bogey on the 18th hole in the third round let a host of players back into the mix.
Eventually, Irwin faded on Sunday with a 1-over 73 and Tom Watson defeated David Eger in a playoff.
This latest performance is pretty much out of the blue. The 2012 season hasn’t been anything to write home about for Irwin. His lone top-10 was a tie for ninth at the Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf, a two-man team event. Aside from that, his best individual performance in seven starts was a tie for 36th at the Allianz Championship.
But there’s just something about the majors that brings out the best in Irwin.
“These are exacting golf courses and they require exacting shots and it's not a normal Tour event where we're kind of going into host clubs and doing it year after year,” he said. “And it's just as much a golf tournament as it is sort of a social occasion. And they're fun, they're enjoyable, and that's why we have the Tour and that's why it's successful.
“But there are those tournaments, and the Senior PGA Championship is one of them, that are earmarked as major championships for us,” he continued. “And again, it's exacting conditions, exacting golf courses, and that's the way it should be. And hence why I think there are some of us that look so forward to these kind of events. And if you can do well in them, excel in them and have a chance the last day, then that's kind of why, I hate the term, ‘that's what it's all about,’ but I think that's why we continue doing what we do and continue trying to push that bar beyond where some people might stop. I just don't believe in that. It's just not in me to do that.”
Of course, there are still 36 extremely testy holes remaining, but if Irwin were to somehow win, he'd replace Jock Hutchison as the oldest winner of a senior major. Hutchison was 62 when he won the Senior PGA Championship in 1947.
The 54-year-old Cook, for one, respects his elder.
“He's an inspiration,” Cook said. “I have such respect for Hale and Gil [Morgan] and Tom [Watson], I played with Tom Wargo a couple times the last couple years and he can still play a little bit. Watson in his 60s. So Hale just keeps getting it done. You wouldn't expect anything else from a competitor like Hale.”