When England’s Roger Chapman rolled in his winning putt at Harbor Shores to win the 73rd Senior PGA Championship it started the clock ticking on the 2013 edition to be played here in St. Louis at Bellerive Country Club. The oldest event in senior golf (the first was at Augusta National in 1937), the Senior PGA will put St. Louis back in the tournament business for the first time since the BMW event exited in 2008. Coincidentally, my very early pick to win in 2013, rookie Vijay Singh, walked out of Bellerive that Sunday in ‘08 with the $10 million Fed Ex prize locked up and said nary a word to the press.
Watching the less than dramatic finish in Michigan over the last weekend, I was reminded of another count down that is underway for 2013. It is virtually certain that when Hale Irwin completes play at Bellerive next year he will have made his last appearance inside the ropes in the city where he lived most of his professional life.
Admittedly I am prejudiced when it comes to writing about Irwin. He is the player I have spent the most time with in my years with KMOX. We spoke for the first time after round one of the US Open at Oakland Hills in 1985, and my last visit was at Congressional when Irwin was outside the ropes for the first time as he watched his son Steven compete.
I was greenside when Hale made the improbable putt at the 72 hole at the US Open at Medinah in 1990 and victory lapped the galleries. I walked all nineteen holes of the sudden death win over Mike Donald the next day and had the unique pleasure of holding the trophy for Hale afterwards while he conducted a little business. I sat greenside at Kiaweh when his par putt and Bernhard Langer’s miss concluded the most emotional Ryder Cup I have ever witnessed. I oddly remember the name of his first grandchild (Dillon) and had the pleasure of discovering what a delightful person his son Steve has become.
I am not impartial when it comes to Hale Irwin.
But let me suggest that when it comes to Hale Irwin, the golf professional, we may be looking at the greatest golf career in the history of the game. I know he doesn’t merit consideration for the greatest “player.” Nicklaus’s eighteen majors is still the gold standard. Bobby Jones Grand Slam is never to be equaled in the game. Sam Snead 82 wins on the PGA Tour is 62 ahead of Irwin’s 20. And Tiger Woods is still making plans to erase those names before he is finished.
But if you consider the second chance Tour – Senior or Champion – a measure of legitimacy when it comes to evaluating one’s body of work, Irwin’s breadth and depth may be unequaled.
Last year Irwin became only the twelfth player in the history of the PGA Tour to pass the 1000 mark for events played and as evidenced last week Irwin doesn’t just appear, he competes. His PGA Tour total finished out with 659 stops with twenty winners checks spread out over three decades. Irwin had trekked more 2200 rounds before he turned fifty and joined the Senior Tour.
Since 1995 he has added 386 more events to his total, and while Hale can make no claim to all-time on the PGA Tour, the Seniors have never seen a player of his caliber. His 45 wins after 50 are beyond imagination. Add to that 66 additional second and third place finishes and you have a player who against his age group had finished no worse than third over 100 times. (Throw in 207 top tens if you need more convincing.)
In 1997 he amassed ten wins (the same total Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmeer collected in their entire senior career), and in 24 Tournament appearances he was out of the top ten only five times. You can count the number of players on any tour in professional golf who have won ten times in the same year on one hand. Did I mention that as he turns 67 this week Irwin finished solo third at the Senior PGA with his last three rounds in the sixties. At Valhalla in the same event in 2011 he posted a fourth place finish, adding a tie for fourth at the US Senior Open.
A while back I authored the Irwin chapter in a book entitled The Golf’s Greatest Eighteen, and if you want to consider my greatest “career” characterization, just pare down that list. You can eliminate those players who because of the time they played had no chance for a senior run as Irwin has had. That still leaves you with Tom Watson, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Nick Faldo, Raymond Floyd, Seve Ballesteros, Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, Jack Nickalus, Lee Trevino and Tiger Woods.
From that group you can cross off Casper, Faldo, Norman and Ballesteros because they have virtually no after 50 presence. Floyd was good, but not Irwin good. Trevino ran hot early in his senior career, but was past the mark by his late fifties and has 16 fewer wins than Irwin. Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson had always played the senior events a little less regularly than Irwin and also faded in the gentrified ranks (combined their win total is eleven behind Irwin). Player has made it to the starting line 430 times as a senior but trails Irwin in wins by 26. We may never see a ‘senior” Tiger Woods and some suggest he is already there.
Irwin’s last win was five years ago in Hawaii, and I suspect his play on the greens makes the prospect of picking up number 46 diminished. But when the long time St. Louisan takes to the tee at Bellerive next year I think we may be seeing the sunset of a career unsurpassed for quality longevity, and I would hope that final walk up eighteen next year will evoke an ovation deserving of the accomplishment.