He used to make golf look like a form of accounting. Hale Irwin could fire subpar rounds when he had to, but he never fired our imaginations. In 26 years on the PGA Tour, Irwin won three U.S. Opens and 17 other tides, but never led the money list. He had only one three-victory season and always fell short in the Masters, the British Open and the PGA. His game was brainy and obsessively clean. He made 86 consecutive cuts in one admirable if uninspiring stretch. If a three-time U.S. Open winner can be called a grinder, Hale Irwin's the one.
As a Senior, however, Irwin has dazzled and dominated—never more than on Sunday in the U.S. Senior Open at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., where an exquisite restoration made the venue worthy of its conqueror. After an ugly opening-round 77, the 53-year-old Irwin used all his cunning to avoid the kikuyu grass rough that tripped up almost everyone else, clawing ever closer to leader Raymond Floyd. Then Irwin willed his way to two birdies on the final three holes to pass Floyd and finish a shot ahead of runner-up Vicente Fernandez. The 12-footer Irwin drained at Riviera's famed 18th made him the only player to achieve a one-stroke U.S. Open or Senior Open victory with a birdie on the final hole.
Though the powers of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino are fading, eroding the nostalgic appeal of the Senior game, the level of play on the Senior tour is higher than ever. Sure, the courses are shorter and the fields shallower than those on the regular Tour, but today, for the first time, the best golf on the over-50 circuit compares favorably with the kind played anywhere on earth. Like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird 15 years ago, Irwin and Gil Morgan have lifted their sport to new heights. That's a superb achievement even if their charisma reminds you of Will Perdue.
Irwin is as good as ever from tee to green, and a better putter man he used to be. " Hale Irwin as a Senior is the best putter I have ever seen," says Floyd. Last year Irwin equaled Peter Thomson's single-season mark of nine Senior victories. Last week's Open crown gave him 18 wins in 72 Senior events, leaving him only 10 short of Trevino's record total of 28 Senior tour tides, and he has spent only three years on the tour. Such virtuosity allows us to appreciate Irwin as never before. There's no perspective like retrospect, and it now appears that for all his accomplishments, Irwin may have been an underachiever on the PGA Tour. Anyone who can do what he has done after age 50 must possess a boatload of talent. "I'm still learning how to play, how to understand my game," he said last week.
He will probably always be a man apart. Though he has acquired some polish over the years, Irwin retains the flinty soul of a lone wolf. In his last days on the regular Tour he finished first in a magazine poll that asked players to name their least favorite playing partner. He's still more Hale than hearty, even when things are going his way. "After caddying for Jack, I thought I would never meet anyone who was more intense, but now I have," says Irwin's caddie, John Sullivan, who has worked for Nicklaus several times. "I'm not calling Hale a better player than Jack, but he is definitely more of a competitor. He absolutely cannot stand to hit a bad shot, even in a pro-am."
Don't expect Irwin to mellow anytime soon. "This is too much fun, doing what I did today," he said at Riviera. The more he does what he did on Sunday, the brighter the future looks for Senior golf.