For more than 20 years, the perception of Hale Irwin was that of a boring, mechanical, uptight guy who looked as if he'd be more comfortable behind a desk reading computer printouts than among the rich and famous of professional golf, hitting pinpoint 5-irons and making 40-foot putts.
There were the black, bookwormish glasses that Irwin wore when he came out on tour in 1968. There was the boy-it-hurts-to-smile look that became part of Irwin's dour on-course persona, even as he was winning two U.S. Open championships and earning a reputation as one of the best players in the world.
"I didn't have blond hair, I wasn't from Australia and I didn't hav my shirttail hanging out of my pants," Irwin said recently. "There were a lot of images out there, but I didn't fit any of them. My game was methodical. I didn't have that glamorous reputation behind me. I was starting from scratch. I didn't fit the mold of what a professional golfer was supposed to be. My personality sat on the back shelf."
It sat there until the final regulation hole of last year's U.S. Open at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago. A winding, 60-foot birdie putt would put Irwin into a playoff with Mike Donald and ultimately lead to victory. The celebration that followed the putt would forever change Irwin's image.
No more Mr. Ice Guy.
"I think the spontaneity of it was what was people were surprised by, with the visibility of an event like that," said Irwin, who danced around the green, putter aloft, doubled back to give high fives to the gallery and then blew a kiss to those in the bleachers behind the green. "I wasn't planning on making a 60-foot putt for birdie. It just happened."
Irwin's wife, Sally, said later that day: "I think it shocked a lot of people. I wasn't surprised, because that's the way Hale is at home. Not that he goes around high-fiving the neighbors. He's a fun guy. At the same time, he is a very competitive person and an ex-football player. I think that side of him just came out."
"It was a flashback for me," said Eddie Crowder, Irwin's football coach during his days as an all-Big Eight safety at Colorado. "I saw him do that a lot when he made an interception, or when he made a big hit. From what I know about him, Hale has always been a very serious person, but he has a fun side to him. Golf just restrained that part of his personality."
Irwin's celebration and his third U.S. Open victory (he beat Donald in a 19-hole playoff the next day) will be talked about quite often this week, when he defends his historic championship at Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. The tournament is scheduled to begin Thursday.
The victory last year made Irwin, 45 at the time, the oldest Open champion and put him in a select group of golfers who have won three or more Opens. But Medinah did more than that for Irwin; it rejuvenated a flagging career and made him as popular with the fans as he was respected by his peers.
"What transpired last year was a lot of emotional buildup," said Irwin, whose last victory before the Open was in 1985 at the Memorial Tournament and whose next one came a week later, along with the high fives, in the Buick Classic. "It was going from being a non-factor for a couple of years to suddenly having a chance. I was thinking, 'How many opportunities am I going to have left? Can I still do it?' "
It had been a steady decline for Irwin, a top-10 player seven times between 1973 and 1981 who had won 17 tour events and more than $3 million by the time he reached 40. By 1986, when he had fallen to No. 128 on the money list, Irwin was spending nearly as much time working on designing golf courses as he was trying to conquer them.
But as a waning economy forced Irwin to abandon some of his projects, it also made him change his professional priorities. At last year's Players Championship, Irwin took part in a psychological analysis given to members of the tour. The answers he received were pretty much what he expected.
"I've always felt comfortable with myself, and it proved 'u everything I thought," said Irwin. "Not that this was a springboard, but it was another piece of the puzzle. It showed that I am the club selector, not the caddie, on the golf course. It showed that I am flexible, but intent on doing it my way."
While many figured Irwin was just getting his game ready for th Senior Tour, he had other ideas. He didn't blame his slide on a faulty swing, or a premature case of the yips. It had more to do with what Irwin did better than just about anybody else on tour: think about, and execute, the next shot.
"I had not lost my game, I had lost my concentration," said Irwin, who is eighth in all-time tour earnings at close to $4.4 million. "I was careless to the point of utter stupidity at times. It's not a revolutionary thing. Maybe it was a revelation. It's not like I had to have a swing change. My mental game plan changed some. It wasn't a quantum leap into the unknown. It was getting the car on the road."