Hale Irwin is the greatest player in Senior tour history. That's not news. But this year Irwin has added another honorific: the greatest senior Senior of all time. At the age of 57 Irwin has won four times in 2002, and he will be the leading money winner (for the third time) and have the lowest scoring average (for the fourth time in seven years). The voting for player of the year should have all the suspense of an Iraqi election.
Irwin is doing what nobody his age has ever done. Peter Thomson was 56 when he was the leading money winner in 1985—a nice accomplishment, sure, but back in those early days of the tour the talent pool was thinner than Miller Barber's hair. The only other player older than 53 to lead the money list was Jim Colbert, who in '96, at the age of 55, successfully defended his title by finishing a scant $12,000 ahead of Irwin, who played in nine fewer events. ( Colbert has finished better than 19th in earnings only once in the ensuing six seasons.)
"People always say you have a four-or five-year window on the Senior tour," says Jim Thorpe. "Hale has proven that to be wrong. He gives us hope. I'm 53, and now I think my best years are yet to come."
Irwin is beating steep odds. Before this season, 88% of Senior tournament winners were 55 or younger. "I've played some of the best golf of my entire career as I've gotten older," Irwin says. "Go figure that."
We did, and the numbers are staggering. Irwin has won $16.8 million as a Senior and, combined with his PGA Tour winnings, has $22.7 million in career earnings, second only to Tiger Woods. Since '96 Woods has 34 victories—the same number as Irwin. At this week's Senior Tour Championship at Gaillardia Golf and Country Club in Oklahoma City, Irwin can become the first Senior to rack up $3 million in a season if he finishes fourth or better. Irwin leads the tour in birdies per round (4.46) and putts per greens hit in regulation (1.71). "He's got the perfect game for this tour—down the middle, great inside of 150 yards, and he will not miss putts," says Gary McCord, who lost the Turtle Bay Championship to Irwin in a playoff three weeks ago.
Irwin has also picked up an additional 17 yards since joining the tour in 1995. "Isn't technology wonderful?" he jokes. It's more than that. Irwin has hit the gym with a fervor in recent years. "I do a lot of work behind the scenes," he says. "I've made no bones about it—a lot of Seniors are too lazy or unwilling or too undisciplined to do the things that will make them better. Hence, those of us who try can push our noses in front."
Irwin's competitive drive is legendary. In his quest to reclaim the money title, he played the RJR Championship last month rather than attend his induction into the sports hall of fame at Colorado, where he was an all-conference defensive back in football as well as a star golfer. Though Irwin appreciated the honor, he is still seeking a similar respect in pro golf circles. Despite having three U.S. Opens among his 20 regular Tour victories, he is rarely mentioned among the last century's greatest players. "As good as Hale was, he was never Number 1 on the PGA Tour," says fellow Senior Roger Maltbie. "He can be Number 1 in this arena; he enjoys it, and he's not ready to let it go."
Who's going to dethrone Irwin? Turning 50 over the next two years are, among others, Craig Stadler, Jerry Pate, Jay Haas and Peter Jacobsen, none of whom seem to concern the Senior tour's most relentless star. "I know I can compete at my age now as effectively as any 50-year-old," Irwin says. "Can I do it at 58 or 60 or 65? I don't know. But I don't accept the notion that I can't compete."