During his time on the PGA Tour, Hale Irwin had a reputation as a fierce competitor. It helped him to three U.S. Open titles but it also meant he was respected and sometimes feared by his peers.
Irwin shot a final round 69 at the Regions Tradition in Birmingham on Sunday, just a few days short of his 71st birthday. He then made the short trip to St. Augustine and the World Golf Hall of Fame to to see the collection of golf memorabilia and artifacts found in the Museum. The current record holder for Champions Tour victories with 45 had not been to World Golf Village in nearly 20 years.
I reminded him he’s been a member of the Hall of Fame for nearly 25 years and 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of his win in the NCAA Championship.
“You want to hear those numbers I guess,” he joked. “It’s better than the alternative.”
But you can tell now closer to the end of his career than the beginning, the 20-time winner on the PGA TOUR is appreciative but humbled by the Hall.
“Being a part of the greatest who’ve every played this game is pretty humbling,” he said reverently.
And the World Golf Village has transformed itself in Irwin’s eyes into a “must see” attraction for sports fans.
“It’s interactive, the displays are just fantastic. What people have put in here from their own collections! It’s amazing to see how these people have touched the game of golf or maybe more importantly how the game of golf has touched them.”
I snuck a peek at Irwin’s locker in the Hall where he has one of the first sets of clubs he ever played with as a kid when he was 4 years old.
“Those are very simple. They’re old. Archaic. It’s an old, old bag with cut off clubs I used as a little boy,” he said with a laugh. “But l think you have to get grounded every now and again and it takes me back to my parents, my dad, the little town I grew up in in southeast Kansas and how I got started.”
Those clubs are a far cry from the composite heads and solid golf balls that have changed the game dramatically. But Irwin says the top players of any era could compete across the board.
“Are the players at the top of the game now better than players before? No, they’re just playing in different eras. They have the heart of a champion. There’s more depth in the game but you look at Snead, Hogan, Sarazen, Palmer, Nicklaus, Player. They’d have been able to compete.”
Although Hale did admit when watching a PGA TOUR event these days it’s obvious the players themselves have changed.
“They’re all 6’2″, thin and look young!” he said with a chuckle.
In Irwin’s era on the TOUR players came in all shapes and sizes. But he stayed fit, thinking it was part of playing the game.
“”I’ve been in a lot of sports and I was a college football player and I thought that being in shape was the thing to do. It helped me. I think people now are understanding that when they see golfers they’re not just some guy who jumped up from the bar and went to play. They’re athletes. Most of them are good at something else too.”
On one hand technology has changed how the game is played but Irwin believes the idea hasn’t changed.
“The game is still played with the same idea, it’s just how you go about it. Everything is made to go high and fly far. We watched Jason Day hit that 2-iron (at THE PLAYERS) 308 yards. How is that possible?”
And while the top players are taking advantage of the technology boost in golf, Irwin agreed that the equipment allowing better play for the average player is also good for the game.
“People who are playing the game now might see some more immediate positive results with today’s equipment. That’s what people want to see in today’s society and that’s what you’re going to see.”
While he won three U.S. Opens, none were at Oakmont where this year’s Championship will be contested. Irwin is familiar with the layout and says it’ll take some guile, and brawn to win. I said with all the top players playing well it could be an exciting tournament to watch.
“It will be,” he said emphatically. “I’m going to go out on a branch here and say it’s going to be a veteran who wins this year. You can’t just go out there and bang it willy-nilly at Oakmont. It takes some knowledge of where you can hit it. Not that some of those young guys can’t do it. But I think somebody’s going to step out of the shadows of those young lions to put some heat on them.”