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 through."
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. 1 don't feel any different. Too many people make too much of it.
"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, Jim Dent.
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 20-12.
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."