The senior tour is huggable again, what with the sally of victories by affable underdogs such as John Jacobs, Bruce Fleisher, Allen Doyle, Gary McCord and Bob Duval, each of whom has put pro golf's ultimate mulligan to ideal use this season. But would everyone be so pleased about this development if the guy being displaced as top dog wasn't the ornery Hale Irwin?
I think not, and I'm not alone. "Yes, I've sensed an impatience with the Hale and Gil Show; a lot of people are rejoicing," Irwin said last week during the Tradition, the Senior tour's first major, in which he wound up 20th. (Two-time defending champ Gil Morgan, Irwin's only competition for the past two years, had to skip the tournament because of a bad back.)
Those rooting for Irwin's demise can hide behind history. The fact is, the Senior tour sheds its skin every few years, and as Irwin piled up 16 wins in 1997 and '98, and Morgan 12, the clock was counting down. In this decade alone the tour has seen three eras come and go. The first was led by Lee Trevino and Mike Hill, who were followed by the triumvirate of Jim Colbert, Raymond Floyd and Dave Stockton, who gave way to the now flickering dominance of Irwin and Morgan. Chances are the new players who have added spice to the '99 season will be remembered as precursors to an epoch when Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson claimed the lion's share of the pie. The point is, projecting Irwin's decline doesn't have to be taken as anything personal.
Only it is. Let's face it, even the Senior tour's biggest fans have had a hard time getting their arms around Irwin. His precise, almost surgical game, while a model of completeness to a purist, is too sterile for popular taste. The thing about Irwin that's most off-putting, though, is that he wants it so bad you can taste it. His gouge-out-their-eyes approach, which was not only acceptable but also celebrated on the regular Tour, is out of place in the feel-good world of carts and no cuts. When Irwin dominated the other Seniors, he was viewed as a bully, and if the unassuming Morgan hadn't been nipping at his heels, there might've been a movement to exile Irwin to the big Tour until he got his head on straight.
Irwin is well aware of his negative aura and has tried to kill it with kindness, lavishly praising the vanquished and joking with the fans, yet all it takes is one mediocre shot to reveal the wolf within. Therefore, rather than achieving the sort of separate but equal status enjoyed on the Senior tour by a dominator like Trevino, Irwin has simply remained separate. "I've had my locker assigned next to Hale for 25 years," says Joe Inman. "He's never been discourteous, but it's a nod hello and a nod goodbye. He's about his business, but it creates a distance." Which explains why McCord has been cast is a kind of Senior savior. "The players loved the way Gary won [last month's Toshiba Senior Classic] and the way he is," says Inman. "It's good for business."
McCord is the anti-Irwin, a self-proclaimed nediocrity who works hard to project a laid-back, wisecracking image. He's also a throwback to the tradition of Chi Chi Rodriguez and Simon Hobday, characters who gave the Senior tour its color. At the snowy Tradition, McCord snapped off one-liners about the weather, and when asked how he cared for his handlebar mustache, said, "I use wax, with a light dusting of Viagra." McCord makes you believe that the tour is still more about how than how many.
Irwin, on the other hand, is all substance. He has produced the best Senior golf ever played, and while doing so has convinced a lot of us that the over-50 crowd is also quite capable of playing a game with which we are not familiar.
Don't think for a minute that just because a few new faces have popped up in he winner's circle Irwin, at 53, is through. The previous two seasons have left him temporarily sated, and the last three months lave given him something to prove. Irwin nay not be huggable, but he's definitely luggable. "That's exactly when Hale is a great player," says Inman.
At this point in the '98 season Irwin had only one victory. Then came the PGA Seniors' Championship in Palm Beach Gar-dens, Fla., where he won for the third straight year.
Next stop on the Senior tour? Palm Beach Gardens. It's way too early for the Hale-haters to be happy.