During last week's 58th PGA Seniors Championship, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Hale Irwin had to field so many questions about Tiger Woods that one might've thought that Woods had fast-forwarded to the Senior tour and was chasing Irwin with a bottle of Advil (the tournament's primary sponsor) in one hand and an AARP card in the other. Irwin handled the inquiries amicably, praising Woods for his historic win in the Masters, but finally had to smile and say, "What are you going to call me? Pussycat?"
Hardly. Since joining the Senior tour midway through the 1995 season, Irwin has devoured the opposition with a ferocity that has been downright Tiger-like. Last week on the Champion course at PGA National he roared to a seven-shot lead alter two rounds, removing any drama from the second Senior major of '97, then coasted to a Woodsian 12-shot victory. Irwin won so easily that, in retrospect, his most exciting moment may have come on Thursday when he saw a three-foot water moccasin trolling the lake alongside the 16th fairway. "That sucker was big," said Irwin, his eyes growing wide. "He was swimming along, having a good ol' time." Which is, of course, more or less what Irwin was doing while becoming the first player since Sam Snead in 1973 to successfully defend his title in the oldest Senior major. But more important, Irwin firmly established himself as a boy among old men. As Jack Nicklaus put it, "He's still in diapers on this tour. The rest of us this week were just a bunch of old guys out playing golf."
Irwin's arrival on the over-50 circuit was as fortuitously timed as Woods's on the regular Tour. The players who dominated the Senior tour in the '80s—Miller Barber, Bob Charles, Don January, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Chi Chi Rodriguez—are all over 60 and past their primes. Their successors, golfers such as Mike Hill, Nicklaus, Dave Stockton and Lee Trevino, seem to be on the downside now.
So who's left to challenge Irwin? Fifty-year-old Gil Morgan won the Tradition, this year's first major, with a 22-under score that beat Irwin by 16 shots, but he slipped to 15th last week, 17 strokes back. John Bland, seventh at PGA National, won three times last year when he was the tour's rookie of the year. Raymond Floyd's a young 54, but he played horribly last week and finished 35th, nine over par. Jim Colbert, 56, who beat out Irwin for the money title in 1996 at the last tournament of the year ( Colbert played in 32 events to Irwin's 23), was 32nd. David Graham, like Irwin, had two victories this season before the PGA Seniors but opened with a pair of 75s and ended up 11th. There doesn't seem to be anyone else capable of giving Irwin a fight.
Sound like Tiger's tale? Truth be told, Woods would do well to play this year's real majors as well as Irwin played last year's so-called majors on the Senior tour. In addition to winning the PGA Seniors, Irwin was runner-up in the Tradition, the U.S. Senior Open and the Ford Senior Players Championship. Overall, he finished 21 times in the top 10 in '96. This year, with three victories—he also won the MasterCard Championship and the LG Championship—before the calendar flips to May, there's no telling what Irwin might accomplish. "I think I'm swinging the club better than I did 20 years ago," he says, "but I'm not the same player. I have a harder time keeping my concentration, that intensity. There are other meaningful things in my life now. My design business is doing well. Your kids are always important, but as young adults you want to make sure you help them along. It's not simple the way it used to be."
Irwin was able to make golf look simple at the PGA Seniors, despite not lifting a club for more than a week beforehand. Ineligible for the Masters, Irwin instead checked out three of his course projects, in Prescott, Ariz., Wichita, Kans., and Tunica, Miss. He also spent several days relaxing with his wife in High Point, N.C., and at their home outside St. Louis. Then after Irwin arrived at Palm Beach Gardens last Tuesday, he couldn't practice much because the area had been drenched by rain earlier in the week. Not that it mattered.
The majors are among the few events in which the Seniors are required to play four rounds instead of three, and that works to the advantage of the younger players. Last Thursday the course was so soggy that the players were allowed to move their balls out of casual water. Bland, who shot the low round of the day, a five-under 67, said he took six such drops. Irwin didn't take a single one while shooting 69. "I don't like to touch the ball," he says. "A part of me says, I don't think this is right, so I err on the other side just so I know there was nothing questionable. On my third shot on the 3rd hole—only about 80 yards—there was terra sloppa probably a third the size of the ball hanging on it." Irwin wedged close and made birdie.
By Friday the course had dried, but the greens were so hard and fast that only three players, led by Irwin with a 65, broke 70. A birdie by Charles on the 18th put him in second and prevented Irwin from holding an eight-shot lead, which would have tied the tournament record set by Palmer in 1984. "Darn Lefty," joked Irwin. "You can always depend on him to screw things up." A par 72 kept Irwin seven up through the third round, and when he eagled the par-5 3rd hole on Sunday by holing a bunker shot, the only unanswered question was the final margin of his victory. Nicklaus birdied the last hole to finish in a tie for second with Dale Douglass at two under, but at no point did Irwin, who shot 68, waiver. "To be two shots behind after the first round and win by 12...well, I must've been doing a lot of good things," he said. "I would've hated to be chasing me the way I played today."
Over the rest of this season, as Irwin jumps between the Senior and the regular Tour—he plans to play in the BellSouth Classic, the U.S. Open and, if he qualifies, the PGA Championship—he intends to study Woods's game. "Everybody can learn something from another pro," he says.
Likewise, Tiger could learn something from the three-time Open champion. Heck, if everything goes right, he might even become the Hale Irwin of the regular Tour.