Irwin began playing the Senior Tour in 1995, and by the end of 1997 he had rang up 13 wins ' nine in 97 alone. In 1998 he was still sizzling, reeling off seven victories and finishing second six times. And that was the year that he picked up again on his U.S. Open conquests, adding the U.S. Senior Open to an already glittering array of trophies.
Winning an Open takes a certain mentality, he was saying. Take Donald in 90 at Medinah. Donald never again was quite the same, after Irwin made a 40-foot putt on the 72nd green to tie him, then won it in 19 holes the following day.
I still feel badly for Mike Donald, Irwin said. He had that tournament won ' I say won, because obviously he didnt win ' but he had two really golden opportunities to win and he just couldnt step across the threshold.
Irwin seized the moment when it was there for the taking on the Senior Tour, too. He had a 15-foot putt at Riviera to win the Open over Vicente Fernandez, and he sank it.
I couldnt see any break in the putt, and I wanted to see a break, Irwin said. You just cant believe greens around here have straight putts.
It was Raymond Floyds tournament all the way, just like it had been Donalds tournament at Medinah. Floyd led each of the first three days. Irwin had to come back from an opening-round 77 just to make the cut. He had to sink a chip shot at 18 Saturday from 35 feet to stay within shouting distance ' three shots ' of Floyd.
You can dig your way out of a hole if you have a belief and a plan for going about it, said Irwin.
Irwin must have had a belief and a play on this day in 98. He birdied the 16th hole to finally get around Floyd. Fernandez, playing two groups ahead of Irwin, had fired a 68 to shoot a 285 total. Irwin missed a birdie putt at 17, falling to the ground in disbelief. But when fate afforded him a second chance for birdie on 18, Irwin did indeed step across the threshold. He drilled the putt dead-center, winning his fourth U.S. Open, and his first Senior Open.
He won it just like he had won the three previous Opens. You sort of keep it in sight, you know, he said, half joking, half serious. Dont hit it so far you cant find out where it is, but keep it right there in front of you so you know where to find it and kind of walk down the fairway. You manage yourself.
Irwin is 57 now, but he still won three times last year despite creeping up the age ladder. He did it despite a flourishing course-design business which consumes much of his time, and the joys of being a new grandfather.
But he prevails while others sit and spin their wheels because he had the proper life goals.
I think it just comes down to how you want to live your life, how you want to conduct yourself professionally out there ' not conduct as your personality, but how you want to spend your career, he said in a 1999 interview.
I played in 35 tournaments a year, I am the 30th leading money winner on tour. Are those acceptable standards, finishing in the top 10 three times? No, for the players that are achievers. They want nothing to do with tops. They want the top. They want to win.
Winning is what they talk about. Its not finishing high ' making a cut, getting a check, all that locker room talk. They talk about achieving at the highest standards.
Those are all things, Irwin was saying, that make an athlete a winner. There is a difference in being good, and being at the top. Irwin has tried throughout his career - even though it has not always been possible - to be a winner, just as he did at the 98 Senior Open.
That is what people respond to, he said. If you are comfortable in that zone (of being a winner), then yes, its a comfort zone. And if you are comfortable, you wont play to it. You just will not do it. Your mind will not let you do it.
Irwin still has his three regular Opens and the Senior Open, so apparently his mind his allowed him to succeed in this environment. And he says that he never has had any regrets since he decided to perform in this environment and in this sport.
Not a single one, he says. The greatest thing to me, its been the opportunity to meet the people I have met. I played some great golf courses and had some great events and been very successful and all that stuff, but its the people that, to me, have been fantastic.
Its been an education all into itself. Nothing in school, in a textbook anywhere, could teach you the kind of things that I have been to learn and forget as I have out here.