Hale Irwin has always managed to put time in a bottle -- and seal it tight. The man who won his third U.S. Open at age 45 is approaching 57 and showing no signs of slowing down or settling for anything less than the winner's check.
The all-time money leader on the Senior PGA Tour by a sizable margin -- his career earnings of more than $15 million in a little more than six years is more than $4 million ahead of anyone else -- Irwin would like to keep crushing the stereotypes as well as the competition.
Less than a month before the 2002 U.S. Senior Open is scheduled to begin at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Irwin is at the top of this year's money list ($2,108,100 as of last week) and is trying to become the oldest player to lead the senior tour in earnings.
The secret to Irwin's continued success is simple: the less practice the better.
"I think I've been able to extend that period of three to four years because I don't wear myself out," Irwin said recently. "You wear yourself out if you hit a lot of balls. I try to keep myself as much as I can physically and mentally fresh."
With two victories already this year, Irwin has won a Senior Tour-record 34 events, including a pair of Senior Open titles. After a slow start in 1995 and 1996 when he was still trying to play as much as he could on the regular tour, Irwin's Senior Tour career took off in 1997.
Though most of the attention in golf that season went to a phenom named Tiger Woods -- starting with his 12-shot victory as a 21-year-old at the Masters -- Irwin won more tournaments (nine) and earned more prize money ($2,343,364) than Woods or any other player in the world.
Few noticed, leaving Irwin more than a bit irked.
"I think the tour is not as advanced in the marketing of [Senior Tour] players as well as they could be," Irwin said. "When I came out, the tour expressed the desire to have someone dominate. I won nine events and didn't see the tour do anything."
Irwin actually became a scapegoat for what ailed the Senior Tour -- a dominant player perceived to not have much personality. In truth, Irwin remains just as competitive as he was during a 28-year PGA Tour career that produced 20 victories and earned him almost $6 million.
The competitiveness goes back to Irwin's childhood in Kansas, where he has a still vivid memory of being a Little League pitcher in the town of Baxter Springs. There was one night when Irwin was unhittable before the lights went out for about a half an hour.
"After the lights came back on, they started hitting me," he recalled. "A kid hit a three-run home run and my coach took me out. I had never been taken out of a game before. I had never given up a home run. It devastated me. But it was a great learning tool. It made me realize I still had things to work on."
Irwin gave up baseball for golf while he was in high school, but his competitive fires were stoked mostly on the football field. Irwin earned a scholarship to Colorado, where he was named All-Big Eight as a defensive back under Eddie Crowder.
The personality Irwin exhibited playing football was kept under wraps throughout his golf career. It finally came out when Irwin made a 50-foot putt to force a playoff in the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah, and he celebrated by high-fiving the fans around the 18th green and blowing kisses to those in the bleachers.
"I wasn't surprised because that's the way Hale is at home," Sally Irwin said of her husband back then. "Not that he goes around high-fiving the neighbors. He's a fun guy. At the same time he's a very competitive person and an ex-football player."
Irwin is a lot more relaxed on the Senior Tour than he was for most of his PGA Tour career, but sometimes that's not enough to satisfy his critics.
"Golf in itself is entertaining, that's my perspective," he said. "I always felt that the game should be ahead of us. The game itself should be the feature rather than it being a spectacle made for the players. The players help make the spectacle.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't be entertainers. But do I come out tomorrow in a clown suit and a rubber nose?"
Nor does Irwin have any intention in being satisfied with second place. Except for more gray hair on his head, Irwin doesn't look much different than he did when he beat Mike Donald in a 19-hole playoff to win his third Open, becoming only the fifth player to accomplish that feat.
"Have I been cognizant of keeping in shape? Yes. Have I been a zealot about it? No," he said. "I must have some good genetics. That's something I should thank my lucky stars for having. But it's also being able to take an ability that I have managed to develop and have faith in it.
"All those things sort of come together and coalesce. Those lines will cross somewhere. I'm not expecting to play like this forever. But I feel like I'm capable of playing now just as well as I've ever played, just as long as I keep my interest ... I don't like playing for eighth or 15th place."
In a couple of weeks, Irwin will get another chance to see how much game he has left, when he tees it up in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black Course on Long Island. Irwin will like to show that he is more than the one-round wonder he was last year in Oklahoma, when he led the Open at Southern Hills during the first round.
As was the case 12 years ago, Irwin is being given a special exemption by the USGA.
"I still think for me to be challenged to the ultimate, I have to go over there and play every now and again just to see how hard you have to work just to get back to where you're the best," he said. "The last time they did that [gave him a special invitation], I won it."
It might be time to see what's left inside the bottle.