Five-Time USGA Champion Irwin Reaches Milestone 

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Hale Irwin's first major pro start came 42 years ago in Memphis and the five-time USGA champion will make No. 1,000 of his career in Lutz, Fla., on April 16 (John Mummert/USGA)

April 15, 2010

By Philip Howley

There wasn't much difference between Hale Irwin and the volunteers when he competed in his first event as a professional in 1968. At least the volunteers got to keep the shirts.

Irwin tied for 65th in the Memphis Pro Invitational. He didn't get a shirt or anything else for that matter. “No prize money,” said Irwin, who played in the 1966 U.S. Open as an amateur before turning pro. “If you made the cut, they only paid the top 50, so you got the pleasure of spending a week in Memphis and leaving without any money.”

Things have improved since, on and off the course. Over the past 42 years, Irwin has collected more than $25 million worth of paychecks on the 50-and-over Champion's Tour, on top of the $6 million he earned on the PGA Tour. Between the two circuits, he has won 65 times, claiming three U.S. Open championships (1974, 1979 and 1990) and two U.S. Senior Open titles (1998, 2000) along the way.

On Friday at the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am in Lutz, Fla., Irwin will tee off in the 1,000th event of his illustrious PGA

Key Hale Irwin Career Moments
First pro event (amateur): 1966 U.S. Open (Olympic Club)
First pro start: 1968 Memphis Pro Invitational (T-65/$0)
First pro paycheck: 1969 Cleveland Pro Invitational (T39/$457.41
First pro win: 1971 Sea Pines Heritage
U.S. Open titles: 1974 (Winged Foot); 1979 (Inverness); 1990 (Medinah)
U.S. Senior Open titles: 1998 (Riviera); 2000 (Saucon Valley)
Tour/Champions Tour dual careers. He becomes only the 11th player to reach that frequent-flyer milestone. Miller Barber remains the all-time leader in PGA Tour/Champion's Tour starts with 1,292.

Irwin can't tell you where the time went. “Here we are,” he said. “It just doesn't seem possible.”

After that momentous – and financially unrewarding – 1968 initiation, Irwin waited another year before realizing his first payday, finishing T-39 at the 1969 Cleveland Open Invitational. His winnings amounted to $457.41; his take-home pay was even less.

“The first check went right to my sponsors,” said Irwin, whose first PGA Tour win came at the 1971 Sea Pines Heritage. “I didn't get to see much of it. In them there days, you had to show either your own bank account or some bank account that you could make it with $20,000 over the course of a year. Now, imagine that. How much you think Phil (Mickelson) spent last week [at the Masters] in one week? 

“I still have a little ledger that I kept when I traveled that shows what the expenses were for the week.  If my expenses went over $300 or $350 for the week, it was getting pretty tight, pretty tight ... ”

As a result, Irwin spent more than a few nights in the seat of his Pontiac Bonneville, making ends meet, staying financially solvent and learning his craft. Along the way, the former University of Colorado football standout never let go of a piece of advice his father gave him, a proposal reinforced early in his career.

“(My father) said, 'Don't start something that you can't finish;' that's always been sort of the motto I've had,” said Irwin. “If you start it, see it through. I think that lesson came very clearly to me in 1976 at the Florida Citrus Open in Orlando. I think I had opened with 74 or 76, some not-very-good score. 

“I went to (tournament director) Wade Cagle and I said, 'Wade, how do you withdraw?' He said, 'Well, you've informed me. That's enough.' And I said, 'Okay.'

“I went into the locker room and I was tired. I was like, 'I'm gonna go home and see the family. I'm a U.S. Open winner. I can do these things.' Then I started taking my stuff out of the locker and something just didn't feel right ... I said, 'One more day, see it through, and then go home.'

“Well, I went out and shot 64, made the cut, and shot a pair of 66s on the weekend. Then I (won) a playoff to win the tournament. So that's why you see it through.”

Resilience and a formidable iron game have been hallmarks of Irwin's career. He won the 1974 Open at Winged Foot – nicknamed “The Massacre” for its difficult conditions – with a score of seven over par. In 1990, at age 45, he became the oldest U.S. Open winner by beating unheralded Mike Donald in a 19-hole playoff at Medinah, holing a cross-country putt at the 72nd hole and running around the green high-fiving spectators to pull even with Donald.

Irwin was 48 when he won the 1994 MCI Heritage Golf Classic, the last of his 20 PGA Tour victories. Two years later, he joined the Champions Tour and took golf by storm. He won at least one tournament in each of his first 11 seasons, collecting a record 44 victories over that time. In 2007, he won his 45th Champions Tour event at age 61. He won his first U.S. Senior Open in 1998 at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles and added a second two years later at Saucon Valley C.C. in Bethlehem, Pa. 

Now, 1,000 starts in, approaching a 65th birthday in June, he still remembers that week in Memphis and how it felt when he put his tee in the ground as a pro for the first time.

“I can remember being one Nervous Nelly,” Irwin said. “I was scared to death. In fact, I had never hit a person with a golf ball in my life, and I hit two that week. The first hole, second shot, [I] hit it over the green and hit a lady right in the butt. But there was a lot padding there’ [the shot] didn't hurt her. But ... I think it was on a Saturday, I hit it left on the last hole. I had to hit from under a tree and the ball went under the tree and skipped into some other trees.

“I'm walking up the fairway and here comes an ambulance across the fairway. I'm kind of looking, and a marshal said, 'Your ball hit a little girl in the eye.' Well, that just devastated me... The ball had skipped, skipped, and hit the girl... right on the bone just below the eye. But fortunately, it had skipped and it wasn't going with a lot of pace. Anyway, she came out the next day with a little bandage on her eye and I was so relieved to see her.”

Irwin remains thankful to those who came before him and who paved the road and established a tour for senior players that allowed him to extend a successful career. When he was sitting in that Bonneville back in the late 1960s, he never anticipated he might still be playing for pay 42 seasons later.

“It's been quite a ride, I'll have to say that,” Irwin said.

 Not many have covered the distance better than Hale Irwin.

Philip Howley is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on usga.org.

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