He's on the money Golf: Hale Irwin, at first skeptical about joining the Senior Tour, has flourished on it. He can become the sport's all-time money-winner this week at the tour's stop in Columbia.

June 28, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Hale Irwin was not that excited about the prospect of joining the Senior Tour when he was about to turn 50 three years ago.

He was only a year removed from the last of his 20 victories on the PGA Tour, and the competitive fires, if not quite as ablaze as they once had been, were still apparent for this three-time U.S. Open champion.

As much as Irwin wanted to throttle down from a life he had led since turning pro in 1968 to his focus on his family and a burgeoning course-design business, Irwin still needed to feel challenged. And he wasn't quite sure that playing a bunch of older guys with cigars dangling from their mouths and arthritis in their hips would provide it.

"You do have that lingering feeling that maybe you still can compete against the younger guys," Irwin said last week. "But I think I've come to realize that I'm where I should be."

After attending last week to one of the 20 courses his company has built or is building, this one in Reno, Nev., Irwin will be back attending to his position as the Senior Tour's dominant player in this week's State Farm Senior Classic, beginning Friday at the Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia.

It is a position Irwin has held since shortly after arriving on the Senior Tour.

It took him more than a month to win his first event, but Irwin has put together a record that indicates either that he has improved with age or that the competition is not quite as stiff as its collective bones. Consider the way Irwin's Senior Tour record of nine victories or $2,343,364 in earnings last year -- the most money ever won by a golfer in a year -- was perceived.

"The caveat was, well, 'It's the Senior Tour,' " said Irwin. "I agree with those who think you have to put a small footnote on it. The year I had also came during the year Tiger Woods won the Masters, which brought a lot of hype and a great following to the sport. That's the reality and I deal with reality. I don't deal with 'What ifs?' "

Irwin has not quite dominated the same way this year, winning three times and finishing in the top three eight times in his first 10 events. But he still reached $1 million in earnings in a season faster than any other player in the tour's 18-year history, and still leads Gil Morgan and Senior Tour rookie Larry Nelson in the Player of the Year race.

Barring an unforeseen collapse this week from a player who has finished in the top 10 in 60 of the 68 Senior events he has entered -- he also has an incredible 36 top-three finishes -- Irwin will earn the $6,335 he needs to pass Greg Norman's $11,936,443 as the all-time leading money-winner in the history of the sport.

Asked if he feels as if his other career accomplishments have been overlooked, Irwin said: "Honestly, I don't think a lot about it. But the truth is, I don't try to be something I can't be. I don't want to be on a stage where I can act out the part."

In other words, Irwin doesn't mind being considered a player who was respected by his peers for his consistency more than admired by fans for his flashiness. It took the last of his Open victories at age 45 -- making him its oldest champion and putting him in a group of five players who have won at least three, including legends Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus -- to give Irwin his props.

"I don't consider myself unnoticed," said Irwin. "The players who got more attention than I did deserved it."

In fact, it was what Irwin did after making a 60-foot putt to get into a playoff with Mike Donald that gave many a glimpse of a personality few got to see during his career. Irwin ran around the 18th green at Medinah, high-fiving the crowd. He would do the same thing the next week at Westchester Country Club when he won the Buick Classic.

No more Mr. Ice Guy.

"I think people got to see Hale for what he is," Sally Little said then of her husband. "He's not doing back flips for the neighbors, but he's a lot looser than people think."

Irwin is not trying to cultivate a new image on the Senior Tour, but he has simply done so with the 16 victories in 68 starts. He will never be as loose as Lee Trevino, as much a showman as Chi Chi Rodriguez or as dynamic as Gary Player, but he is as intimidating a presence as Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer was to Irwin when he first came out on the PGA Tour.

He is clearly the man to beat in any tournament.

At least any Senior Tour event. At last week's U.S. Open, Irwin experienced what he laughingly called "an out-of-body experience" when he shot 10-over-par 80 in the first round at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Clearly embarrassed by his performance, Irwin went out and shot 68 the next day. Though he missed the cut by a shot, he made his point.

"It was important to show everyone I could still play," he said. "I still think to this day that if I got into the mind-set to play the PGA Tour, I could do it."

Could he?

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