Thomson and Irwin are masters of their craft yet hardly celebrities. The notion of having his own plane, as many other top golfers do, has always struck Irwin as gauche, so he flies commercial and is rarely recognized. In the mid-'80s Thomson sported the Texas vanity plates 5 TIMES on his car (they now hang in his library), but even with that clue, "people didn't know me from a bar of soap," he says. The only subject on which Irwin gets tongue-tied is his past glories. When it comes to modesty, Thomson does him one better: He has turned his old trophies into vases. "You can't find any silver cups in any of my houses," he told Golf Digest a few years ago, "except the ones that hold flowers."
Naturally Irwin and Thomson are each too gentlemanly to compare his record season with the other's. Among the players who witnessed both, however, Irwin's is rated better. "What Hale has done is way, way far above Peter's feats," says Orville Moody, who finished 12th on the '85 money list and was 69th last week in Maui. "There's so much more competition now. Back in '85 there were only five or six guys who could really play."
That's an exaggeration, but not by much. The first 20 tournaments of 1985 were won by five players—Thomson (eight victories), Lee Elder (four), Don January (four), Miller Barber (three) and Arnold Palmer. Their dominance was diluted only in the final four events, when Mike Fetchick, Harold Henning and Gary Player broke through. (Player played just one tournament in '85 after turning 50 on Nov. 1.) "The conditions are much tougher now," says Elder, who was 76th at Kaanapali. "The courses are longer, the fields are deeper, and technology has made the bad players better."
Because the Senior tour didn't begin to keep official stats until 1988, scoring is the only meaningful way to compare the two players (especially when considering the relatively meager purses of 1985, when Thomson won only $386,724). Thomson's stroke average of 70.17 didn't even lead the tour in '85. He was nipped by January's 70.11. With a scoring average of 68.93, Irwin has a chance to break Lee Trevino's record of 68.89, set in 1990.
To appreciate what Irwin has done to the competition this season, it's necessary to look past the usual barometers of victories and money totals. The latest batch of tour statistics reveals that Irwin leads in scoring, birdies, total driving, greens in regulation and putting. Everything that counts, in other words. Twice this year he has won tournaments without a bogey—at the Boone Valley Classic in September and at the Vantage Championship two weeks ago. His smooth 63 last Saturday in Hawaii gave Irwin eight straight rounds in the 60s, the longest streak on tour this year. Sunday's victory also marked the fourth time this season that he has won back-to-back starts, another first.
"He's dominating top to bottom," says Dave Stockton.
"He has no weakness," says Chi Chi Rodriguez.
Surprisingly, Irwin agrees. Few players are as self-lacerating, but he says, "I think I'm a more complete player. There's no reluctance now if I have to play a certain shape of a shot. As a result I'm hitting my irons closer than ever. My putting's improved, particularly in the crunch. I'm a little bit longer and straighter off the tee, and that's mostly technology. I think I'm managing my game better than ever. I still see in myself an ability to learn, and a willingness."
Last year, Irwin's first full season on the Senior tour, he played splendidly but made a number of uncharacteristic blunders down the stretch, accounting for seven runner-up finishes and only two wins. "I was trying too hard," he says. "An analogy I like is that trying to win a tournament is like driving through traffic. Last year I was too anxious, too stressed out. I was flooring the gas, then jamming on the brake, over and over, but I wasn't getting there any faster. This year I sit back, get in line and wait for my turn to pass."
Thomson is next to be overtaken, not that he minds. "I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish," he says. "In '85 I think all of us had the question in our mind whether the [Senior tour] was going to survive. I was very pleased I pulled my weight. After that I tapered off with no regrets for what I might be giving up."