- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2001

TULSA, Okla. No one expects Hale Irwin to win this U.S. Open, even after his nostalgic 67 in the first round yesterday. But that doesn't mean we can't celebrate him anyway. What Irwin did at Southern Hills, bolting to the top of the leader board at a grandfatherly 56, is one of the more memorable geriatric feats in golf history much better, in my book, than shooting your age or getting a hole-in-one at 99.
Irwin, after all, plies his trade on the Senior Tour these days. He keeps company with the Allen Doyles and Bruce Fleishers of the world and plays in events like the Bruno's Memorial Classic (which he won in April). One week a year, though, he treads on Tiger's turf, and he usually fares pretty well. The competitive fire that helped make him a three-time Open champion still burns bright. In fact, he sounds a lot like the Jack Nicklaus of the late '90s when he says, "In my heart, I can still do this. My aim this week is not to be ceremonial."
He needn't worry. Ceremonial is 83-year-old Tommy Bolt, who has been taking bows this week for winning the Open here in '58. Irwin, it's clear, still has plenty of shots left in his bag as he reminded us last year at Pebble Beach (where he tied for 27th). Yesterday he was even better, burying Southern Hills in a Hale-storm of birdies.
Of course, this is Irwin's kind of golf. He has always been an Open-type player straight-hitting, resourceful, a grinder. (Indeed, he has never won any of the other majors.) "I enjoy golf when the golf course has a chance to bite back at the players," he said. "To me, that's fun… . Here [at Southern Hills], it's not just how far you hit the ball but how well you control it, how you manage your game. It puts the game of golf on a different stage. Instead of a birdie barrage, now you have to hit some real golf shots."
Irwin hit a bunch of them yesterday, none prettier than the low-flying 2-iron he struck on 18 that ducked under the trees, skipped up the hill and came to rest just two feet from the hole. That got him to 3-under and made him the sole leader (though South African Retief Goosen was also at 3-under through seven when the storms came in the afternoon). "I look at 18 [a lengthy 466 yards] as a par-5," he exulted, "so I just made a great eagle."
Loren Roberts, one of his playing partners in Round 1, marvels at Irwin's durability. "He's had a long career," he said, "[and] he's never been injured. I guess you could say he's genetically blessed."
Genetically blessed? A freak of nature is more like it. Irwin is the oldest Open champion ever he was 45 when he beat Mike Donald in a playoff at Medinah in '90 and recorded his last Tour victory at 48. He also was in contention in the Open at 48, sitting third after three rounds before dropping back with a final-day 78.
His athletic background probably has something to do with it. Irwin is the last player on the PGA Tour as near as anyone can determine to play major college football. He was an All-Big Eight defensive back for Colorado in the mid-'60s and once intercepted two passes in a game against Oklahoma. Don't make too much of that last accomplishment, though, he says modestly. "[The Sooners] couldn't throw. Their throws were called fumbles."
Baseball, he says, was his best sport, but his summers were so busy with work and golf and "social life" that he just couldn't find the time for it. At any rate, we're not talking about your average touring pro here. We're talking about a guy who, even now, looks like he could bench-press 200 pounds 10 or 15 times. There's no paunch, no battle weariness, no outward evidence of aging except when he doffs his cap and reveals his gray-streaked hair.
The man's a jock, through and through. And his devotion to fitness has enabled him to shoot a 67 in the first round of the Open. "Prior to last year or so, I was pretty strenuous in my workouts," he said, "and I kinda burned out a bit. But I'm going to get back into it and I'm still enjoying the carry-over effect [of all that sweaty toil].
"If you don't accept the words, 'I can't do it,' then you can extend your career. I [actually] hit the ball a little farther now than I used to. My iron play is still very crisp, and I don't think my putting has lost anything. Yeah, the players I'm competing against are a lot younger than I am, but I'll take experience over youth anytime, especially in these kinds of situations. The experience factor … it's priceless.
That said, Irwin isn't delusional about his chances here. "Along with the vitamins," he cracked, "you have to take a reality pill. I can't drive [the ball] with a lot of these guys, so I have to play to my strengths and not get caught up with that. Heck, 80 percent of them, I don't even know who they are. I have to look at the [name on their] bag."
Rest assured they know him, though. Only four men have won more U.S. Opens than Hale Irwin has. As he says, USGA events he also has captured two Senior Opens have defined him. And this Open, his 32nd, figures to give him even more definition and luster, no matter what happens the next three days.

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