"In 1985 I was 40 years old," says Hale Irwin, "and I vaguely remember that Peter Thomson was winning all these Senior tour events. I don't want to say there wasn't any interest or awareness, but the whole concept seemed like light-years away."
Irwin got to ruminating on the old days hours after an opening 67 in last week's Hyatt Regency Maui Kaanapali Classic in Lahaina, Hawaii. He had just finished fooling around with a fishing pole a few miles down the coast from the Kaanapali Golf Club when, carefully cradling a plastic cup of beer, he took a seat on a lava flow high above the Pacific's pounding surf. He was dressed in a very Hawaiian shirt and Bermudas, revealing a pair of legs that could double as O.B. stakes. "Back then I never imagined that I'd seriously play the Senior tour, let alone make a run at Peter's record," Irwin said. "I mean, are you kidding?"
In this, his third season among the half-century set, Irwin has surprised himself and the golf world with one of the most dominant seasons in the game's history. Heading into Kaanapali, Irwin, 52, had already become the first player on any tour to earn $2 million in a season, and his eight wins (in only 20 starts) left him just one shy of Thomson's 12-year-old record for victories in a single Senior tour season.
Irwin snagged win number nine on Sunday by shooting a one-under-par 70, more than enough on a windy day when none of the other contenders made a move. Irwin is giving himself two more chances to make the record his own: at the Oct. 31-Nov. 2 Ralphs Senior Classic at the Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles and at the Tour Championship the following week at the Dunes Golf and Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "He'll probably win 'em both," says Bruce Summerhays, who led Irwin by a shot heading into the final round at Kaanapali before tying for second with Mike Hill, three back.
On Sunday evening Irwin was deferential to both Thomson and his record, saying, "Peter will always have his place in history. You can't take away the man's accomplishments. But would it be greedy to ask for just one more?"
Thomson, 68, doesn't think so. "I have always expected [the record] to be broken," he said last Friday from his home in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. "I'll be perfectly happy should Hale be the one to do it. I think he's one of the great players of recent years, as well as a perfect gentleman."
There is something fitting about Irwin and Thomson being linked in the record books. They are two sides of the same coin. Irwin won three U.S. Opens, the first in 1974, surviving the famed Massacre at Winged Foot, and the last 16 years later, when he became the Open's oldest winner, at 45. In a career spent mainly overseas, Thomson secured his place in the pantheon with five British Open titles, including a remarkable stretch from 1952 through '58 when he won four championships and finished second three times.
Says Irwin of Thomson, "He didn't have a big game, but it was very controlled."
Says Thomson of Irwin, "He doesn't overpower a golf course, but he has a masterly ability to play it on his own terms."
That the descriptions are interchangeable is lost on neither. They share plenty more. Thomson has long been considered golf's Renaissance man, a painter and a student of wine, literature and classical music. In 1982 he lost a bid for a seat in Parliament in Australia by about 1,000 votes in a year when his Conservative party got creamed. Irwin is one of contemporary golf's most thoughtful voices. He stuck around college (Colorado) long enough to win the 1967 NCAA Championship in golf, become a two-time All-Big Eight defensive back and get a degree in marketing after being named an academic All-America. Today, Irwin admits to the unthinkable: He enjoys the pretournament pro-ams. They give him an opportunity to pick the brains of his amateur partners on topics outside of golf.