Hale Irwin, now 70, still has drive to compete on Champions Tour
By Dan O'Neill
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Hale Irwin is the most decorated player in the history of senior golf. He has the most career wins (45) and earnings ($26 million) on the Champions Tour, and by a lot.
He has three U.S. Opens to his credit, as well as two U.S. Senior Opens. He nearly won a third Senior Open at Bellerive Country Club in 2004, finishing a stroke behind Peter Jacobsen.
Earlier this month, Irwin turned 70 years of age. The Joplin, Mo., native and former Colorado football defensive back has white hair, a bit of a paunch and numerous aches and pains.
"I'm just starting to scratch the surface of that," Irwin said.
So why does a distinguished player with plenty of money and nothing more to prove keep going?
"I don't know why I'm still here," said Irwin, who is competing in his 21st U.S. Senior Open, at Del Paso Country Club. "I think I still have this belief that I can accomplish something in the game.
"Now, I'm not going to ... sit up here and say I can win because I think anybody is an odds against you winning. I am, at best, a long shot, but there are things that I can still do on a course like this that could help me out, the experience part."
Maybe he's still here because he can start a Senior Open on a USGA championship course with an even-par 70, as he did Thursday.
"Doesn't surprise me, either," said Rocco Mediate, who had a 72. "(Irwin's) won three of them (U.S. Opens). So he knows how to play them anywhere. You've got a golf course that's moving a little bit. He's tough. I'm not surprised at all, not at all."
As always, Irwin was his own worst critic.
"I have not been, nor did I today, play particularly well," Irwin said. "I hit enough good shots to have some opportunities. I hit enough bad shots to take away those opportunities.
"If I could post four 70s, I would be very happy with that. Probably would not win, but it would be a good, achievable score for me. So I'm one leg of the quadruple crown there."
The last robust season for Irwin, who still maintains a home in St. Louis, was 2007, when he had a win, two seconds and 10 top-10 finishes. He made more than $1.2 million that year. Since then, a third at the 2012 Senior PGA Championship ranks as his best finish.
Over the last four seasons he has just five top-10s. This season, a tie for 23rd at the par-3 event in Branson is his best. But this week represents Irwin's ninth start this year. This week represents an opportunity for Irwin to find something on a golf course he enjoys.
When you have that kind of championship pedigree, you never know. This week he's in Sacramento trying to compete in a senior major, because he still can.
"So at 70 years old, you just be realistic and say, 'I've got 'X' number of years in which I can physically and mentally do what I want to do,' and that's what I say," Irwin explained.
"I get torn between the, 'Can I do this?' or 'Do I want to do that?' That's where I am right now. If I concentrate, for instance, if I'm out practicing and I'm concentrating on that shot, I'll hit it. But if I get the slightest thought, 'Oh, I forgot to call someone,' I hit the worst-looking shot. I can't multi-task mentally the way I used to."
Irwin is happy to be hitting shots at Del Paso Country Club, a traditional USGA championship-style course. He's not sure how he would have hit them last week in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
"I couldn't believe how far the ball was running, not just forward but sideways," said Irwin, who became the oldest player (45) to win the U.S. Open with his playoff victory at Medinah in 1990.
"As a player, if you're asked to hit the ball here and you end up there, that seems to be a little at odds with what the (championship) committee is asking of you. But, again, not having played it, I don't know. It was different."
Irwin said there won't be much conversation when he decides he's had enough. He knows his future is much shorter than his past. He knows his illustrious career is behind him and the door is closing. When it's closed, he'll know.
"There will be no scripted act," Irwin said. "You know better than that. It's going to be when the time comes. It will be my call."
This article was written by Dan O'Neill from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.