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° 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°, 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 all-time 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.