Hale Irwin won another Champions Tour event this past week. Not unusual, you say? Well, it is when you consider Hales age ' less than two months shy of 58. And it is when you consider that is now leading the Champions Tour money list ' again. You can track him all over the course by the trail of dollar bills dropping out of his pockets.
Throughout his eight years, he has taken on all comers and proved he was better. When he started, he had to beat Raymond Floyd, Dave Stockton and John Bland. Irwin did it. Three or four years later, he had a new set of challengers ' Bruce Fleisher, Larry Nelson, Gil Morgan. Irwin was equal to the challenge. Now he has Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Bob Gilder. And its still Irwin.
Theyve come and Irwin faced off against all Jack Nicklaus, Jim Colbert, Allen Doyle, Bruce Lietzke, Doug Tewell, Jim Thorpe. He has proven he is better than all. No one knows when he is going to slow down. Not this year, when Jay Haas and Craig Stadler join the tour. Not next year, when Peter Jocobsen graduates. Will it be in 2005, when Greg Norman, Loren Roberts and Curtis Strange finally come of age? Or in 2006, when Irwin is in his 60s and facing off against newcomers Scott Hoch and Fred Funk?
Irwin was never a spectacular player on the regular PGA Tour. Oh, he won 20 times, including three U.S. Opens. He was always good but never brilliant. He served notice something was up when won the Open and Buick Classic at age 45, then the Heritage Classic just shy of his 49th birthday.
Of course, when he turned 50, he was unstoppable. Then he won nine times in 97, seven times in 98. Last year he won four times. And this year ' when 11 men have won the first 11 tournaments ' he has a victory, two seconds and two thirds in nine outings.
Look at some of the legends ' Jack Nicklaus in his eighth season failed to win a tournament and finished 58th on the money list. Arnold Palmer won once and finished 17th. Lee Trevino? One win, 18th in money. Tom Watson is in only his fourth season, but even at that young age, he won once last season and finished eighth on the money list.
Maybe you noticed that, except for Trevino, those guys didnt play very often. But Irwin doesnt, either. He has a thriving course-design business that keeps him occupied for much of the season. He plays now more than he used to ' he got it around 27 times last year ' but that still is barely more than half the year.
This Champions Tour thing, though, has made him quite wealthy. Hes made $17.7 million in his eight years, after earning just six million in his 27 years on the regular tour. Undoubtedly, inflation explains most of that. But dont forget he now has won 37 Champions Tour events, as opposed to 20 on the regular tour.
'I don't have it any more,' Irwin said, trying to keep a straight face while discussing the millions he's won playing golf. 'It's that house in Arizona (which he moved into last year after many years of living in St. Louis.) You saw 'Money Pit?' I've got one.'
Hes one of the fittest 57-year-olds around, though. I beat myself silly, he says, and it seems unnecessary to add that he hears the chink-chink of coins until he goes silly, too.
Thirty years ago, I went out and pounded balls and I didn't have a clue what I was doing,' said Irwin, remembering back to when he first turned professional. I'd stand out on that practice tee before and after tournaments and hit balls and balls and balls.
Now I do it with some idea of improving an area - and not several areas at once, but an area, try to have a swing thought that's going to improve an area and that will have that domino effect.
I have more experience now. I know what I can do. I know what's best for me. I'm wrong sometimes, but for the most part I tend to make better decisions regarding my practice schedule, my playing schedule. And then my on-course management I think is just as good as it has ever been.
Someday he will slow down. But not for awhile yet. Hale Irwin is having too much fun. And making too much money.
'I have not lost my intensity for the game,' he said. 'I still love to play competively. I don't play socially. I enjoy the heat of the battle. I lose far more than I win, but I love the ability - or the opportunity - and I appreciate having the ability to try.'