Riding to the airport on Sunday night, Hale Irwin cracked open a light beer in the backseat of a courtesy car and reflected on winning his first major championship on the Senior PGA Tour. The adrenaline high hadn't worn off yet, but beneath the obvious self-satisfaction was a dazed former football jock who had once again stiff-armed the golfing demons. "You battle that little devil that sits on your shoulder," Irwin said. "He's got a golf club. Some people mistake it for a pitchfork, but it's a golf club. And he can be a real jerk. He's always talking in the middle of your backswing."
Delirium? No. Just too much golf, too much pressure, too many commercial flights and too many nights on the road. The three-time U.S. Open champion had just gulled-out a four-week stretch of tournaments—the Players Championship, the Tradition, the Masters and the PGA Seniors Championship—and was finally headed home to St. Louis for three days of rest before traveling to Las Vegas for this week's Senior tour event. At 50, and in his 28th year of professional golf, Hale Irwin is learning that it's never too late to make a name for yourself.
He has never won a money title. He has never been named Player of the Year. He has won three U.S. Opens and 17 other tournaments on the PGA Tour, but he has never gotten the respect he deserves. The PGA of America passed him over as Ryder Cup captain in both 1993 and '95 even though his match-play record in five appearances was 13-5-2. Two weeks ago at the Masters he said, " Greg Norman is a superb player, but if he wins here, he's tied me with three majors. I don't hear people cackling about how great Hale Irwin is."
Perception is everything. Irwin is fairways and greens, substance over style. When he won the Opens at Winged Foot in 1974 and Inverness in 1979, the fashion was pointed collars, polyester pants and thick white belts. In his Coke-bottle glasses, he looked more like a valedictorian than an All-Big Eight defensive back from Colorado. But there is nobody tougher in the fourth quarter. He proved that at Medinah in 1990, becoming, at 45, the oldest player to win a U.S. Open. He proved that again last week at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., doing what Norman was unable to do at Augusta, protecting his lead and taking home another trophy.
"I think you learn through the years that most tournaments are lost and not won, major championships even more so," Irwin said as the car pulled out of PGA National. "We can point to all sorts of examples of that being the case. What I wanted to do was exactly what I did on the back nine: play good, solid, intelligent golf, keep the ball in play and out of problem areas and get home."
Irwin was seeking retribution. He had pulled a Norman at the Tradition, blowing a three-stroke lead with eight holes to go and providing Jack Nicklaus the opportunity to win his 100th tournament. It was an uncharacteristic performance. "I know how to finish, but I was too impatient, too anxious," Irwin said. He would learn from that experience and set himself up so that bogeys on the 71st and 72nd holes of the PGA Seniors would not matter.
On Sunday, standing on the 15th tee, Irwin held a four-stroke lead over Isao Aoki of Japan. In 1994 Ray Floyd dumped two balls into the water that runs along the right of that hole, made a quadruple-bogey 7 and lost to Lee Trevino. Irwin wasn't thinking about Floyd, but he was thinking about terra firma. He hit a soft-fading five-iron to the left side of the green, let out a mouthful of air, headed to the watercooler and said to the spectators lining the tee, "I'm getting too old for this."
Too old? How about too good. Irwin slam-dunked the birdie putt from 30 feet to go five up, and that was the end of any drama. Floyd, the defending champion, finished 11 strokes out in 19th place. Nicklaus, who redesigned the course and won the event here in 1991, was 13 strokes back in 22nd. Even with the closing bogeys Irwin won by two over Aoki.
Irwin was just too strong—and too lucky. He opened last Thursday with a 66 to extend his streak to 89 straight Senior holes in Florida without a bogey. Twice during the opening round he escaped with pars after hitting approach shots that landed in marsh waters. On the 11th hole, he removed his shoes and socks, put on a rain suit, waded calf-deep into a pond, splashed out and made a 20-footer. At the 17th, only his right shoe and sock had to come off. Dipping one foot into the gunk, Irwin wedged to 3� feet and drained the putt for a 3. "My feet don't smell too good," Irwin said.
His game stunk on Friday. The run of holes without a bogey ended at 95, but a 74 put Irwin only one stroke back of Vietnam vet Buddy Allin. During that round Irwin three-putted the 8th green from 12 feet for a double bogey and complained about being mentally fried. Saturday was comeback day. Irwin shot 69 to retake the lead and went to bed watching the NFL draft. His nephew, Heath Irwin, a 6'5", 305-pound offensive guard at Colorado, was selected in the fourth round by the New England Patriots.