Jack Nicklaus's ball hit, hopped, rolled and dropped. When the 58-year-old Nicklaus, feeling chipper after his resurrection at Augusta, sank the nine-iron shot to eagle the 1st hole on the first day of last week's PGA Seniors' Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, the crowd roared and the gods seemed to smile on the Senior tour. The Golden Bear pumped his fist and did a little jig. I can win this thing, we interpreted his body language to mean.
What a dreamer. It was going to take more than an eagle or two (Nicklaus holed out from the fairway again in the second round) to break Hale Irwin's stranglehold on the PGA Seniors.
Irwin has won this tournament, first played in 1937 and the oldest of the Senior majors, all three times he has entered since turning 50 on June 3, 1995. Only Eddie Williams, who won three straight in the mid-1940s, has done as well in this event. Irwin has been so dominant that in each of his 12 rounds at the Champion Course at PGA National, his name has never sunk lower than second on the leader board. Last week he went 13 under par to win by seven strokes over runner-up Larry Nelson and eight over Gil Morgan. Irwin's margin of victory was the largest in a Senior major since he won this tournament by a dozen shots last year. "It was like two different tournaments going on," said Nelson, "seeing how well Hale would play and seeing who would finish second."
Morgan knew before the tournament began that Irwin was going to be a handful. "I played nine holes of a practice round with him on Wednesday, and he said it was his fourth practice round," Morgan recalled. "Right then I knew that Hale meant business. He was telling me how the wind had been different every day. I couldn't help thinking, Uh-oh."
To some, Irwin's performance served as a metaphor for the state of the Senior tour. His victory was predictable, a term not usually associated with golf. Either Irwin or Morgan has won five of the first nine official events of '98, and they split the first two majors. As an entry, Irwin-Morgan has made 14 starts and finished in the money—either win, place or show—seven times.
There are two schools of thought as to whether such a two-man game is good for the Senior tour. "Rivalries make sports great," says Nelson, who despite high expectations has not been able to make it a threesome. "Look at Nicklaus-[Lee] Trevino in the '70s. Did anyone ever get tired of that?" The other side holds: We knew Nicklaus-Trevino, Senator, and Irwin-Morgan is no Nicklaus-Trevino.
Great rivalries have edge. Ali and Frazier hated each other. When the Yankees played the Dodgers, Goose Gossage threw at Ron Cey's head. Of course, no one expects low blows and beanballs from golfers, but even Nicklaus and Trevino had their rubber snake.
Irwin, potentially, could bring a little heat to the party. An incident last Saturday was more accident than fit of pique, but we did see Irwin rip down a cup dispenser on the 13th tee after failing to birdie the 12th hole. One almost wishes that Morgan would get bent out of shape now and then, too.
The reality, though, is that the nascent Irwin-Morgan rivalry is in an amorphous state, conjuring up nothing but an unfortunate sense of redundancy to some fans. Perhaps the more Irwin and Morgan go head-to-head the more that situation is likely to change.
Plus, certain cold facts shouldn't be ignored when gauging the place of Irwin and Morgan on the golf continuum. The Senior tour used to be about the good old days, but when the money grew, the emphasis changed. Arnie's Army is no more than a sideshow these days. The fight for million-dollar purses and multiple tides by younger men like Irwin and Morgan is what the tour is all about. It's the competition that counts now, not the nostalgia.