I would to play against Loren (Roberts) or Jay (Haas) any day of the week, Irwin insists. I would love to play against Tiger any day of the week. It makes you a better player.
This week Irwin is in Edmond, Okla., near Oklahoma City for his 42nd Champions Tour major ' the Senior PGA Championship. As a member of the regular tour from 1968 to 1994, he won three U.S. Opens. As a senior, hes won seven major championships. But hes won this tournament four times, the last time just two years ago, only a month shy of his 60th birthday.
And the secret may have been his enthusiastic willingness to play with the top players of the game. It never has mattered to him that he may look foolish trying to keep up. He thoroughly enjoys the difficult competition.
Thats what I did when I first started playing the tour, he said. I thought I knew how to play golf until I got out here. But woe is me, I didnt how to play golf.
But you learn by watching, and the occasional question. Certainly observation is the greatest tool going. I kept my eyes open, my ears open, and my mouth shut, trying to learn how to play.
His hair now is gray where it used to be brown. The hairline is slowly, ever so subtly, receding. But Irwin still revels in spying on the other players on the driving range. He observes intently when he is playing, trying to spot which each player does to make him successful.
I can go out and watch Loren putt and try to pick up something, he said. I can watch Jays rhythm and smoothness through the ball. There are things I can pick out of anybodys golf game that is very good, and try to emulate that.
I can go watch Tiger and say, Is there anything in his game that would make me a better player? Is there anything watching Phil Mickelson in a mirror that will make me a better player? I like to watch all the guys. Anybody that comes out, Im one of the first to go see how theyre hitting it, see what theyre doing.
Even at 60, even with all his experience, Irwin constantly is an observer. And when a newcomer has something that Irwin can use, Hale knows it immediately. For an old-timer who is still humble enough to learn, Irwin knows that there are lots of little things he can pick up by just observing. And by observing, he can tell who is going to be huge success before they ever hit a ball on the Champions Tour.
I predicted that Loren would be successful. Hes just got the right head for it. We play on greens that are very good for his stroke, he said.
He, Jay, and Im sure when Fred Funk comes out, a number of others coming right from the regular tour right on the Champions Tour ' theyre bringing with them all those assets which have made them good on the regular tour. And theyre not taking any time off, they coming right out and picking up right where they left off.
Irwin may not be of an age where he can hope to be the best player on the tour, but he isnt far from it. He led the tour with four victories and won just under $2 million. This year, though he hasnt broken through with a victory yet, he is fifth in money won. He is second on tour in greens in regulation, a better than average putter, and still long enough with the driver. The problem is, with a back that has been a problem for many years now, he finds himself often reduced to watching his fellow competitors hit instead of hitting himself.
But ' he has learned to get the utmost out of the time that he can practice.
I think I practice now much more with meaning, because I know I cant ' and probably shouldnt ' be out there for a very long period of time, says Irwin.
I used to stay out there (practicing) three times as long as I do now. But now I practice with a purpose. And I get a lot more done in the same amount of time.
Yes, somewhere, sometime, Hale will finally realize his time has come to watch fulltime from the sideline. It will probably be when his back tells him no more. But he says that time hasnt come yet ' not even a hint of it.
Somewhere along the line, he says, the years add up. I dont feel as though Ive reached that time yet. Jack or Arnold or Gary would probably tell you that the will to win is as strong as its ever been. But they would also have the realization that maybe their bodies are not what they used to be ' Jack certainly. That happens.
I dont think Im quite there. Hopefully I wont be for awhile.