Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

Q & A with Hale Irwin

Hale Irwin thinks ahead. When he hit 40 he felt he had better think about another career, that time was running out on his biological clock on the PGA Tour. He didn’t even think about the Senior PGA Tour but now, at age 55 when this year’s Ford Senior Players Championship tees off at the Tournament Players Club of Michigan, Irwin finds himself with a flourishing golf course design business and, surprise!, the all-time money winner in professional golf.

Irwin’s career earnings of $16,104,053 (through May 7) included a Senior Tour record $10,185,253 with 25 victories since he turned 50 on June 3, 1945, and $5,918,800 with 20 victories on the regular Tour including the 1981 Buick Open at Warwick Hills. Irwin was Senior Tour Rookie of the Year in 1995 despite playing only half a season but he won twice in 11 starts. He was Senior Tour Player of the Year in 1997 and 1998 with his nine victories in 1997 tying the Senior Tour record set by Peter Thomson in 1985.

Irwin, who defends his Ford Senior Players title July 13-16 in Dearborn, talked from his Scottsdale, Ariz., office with Contibuting Editor Jack Berry of Michigan Golfer.

MG: What led you to think about designing courses when you still were an active member of the PGA Tour?

IRWIN: I was 40 and it was appropriate to look at something else. I didn’t know if my playing would be curtailed by a lack of effectiveness or a lack of desire. I didn’t know what the Senior Tour was then — when you’re 40, you’re not looking to be 50. There was time to devote to getting started in design, not as a lark but seriously, and if I didn’t like it I could turn away and put more time into playing. I was in St. Louis (his hometown) and the business just mushroomed.

MG: Some architects are known for their styles, like Pete Dye, and others, like Arnold Palmer, say they don’t want to be known for one style. What are your thoughts on design?

IRWIN: Everyone you talk to says “We like the old traditional courses.” I like those myself but you have to remember those old courses were built on really good sites. Talk about Tillinghast, McDonald, Mackenzie and the others and they went out and found golf sites that flowed with the land. Today we’re given land that isn’t conducive and we try to make it look like something. Flat land is flat land. You can’t drain wetlands anymore. The old style is hard to do now. However, if you have the site, the expertise, the desire and the money, you can do it. I’m more of an oldstyle designer instead of gaudy.

Every site is different, every job is different with different parameters and rather than throw stones, because we all live in glass houses, you have to look at what the designer was presented with and was asked to do.

Most of our courses have been in the private home owner category although we’ve done some that are open to the public and some resorts. What’s our design philosophy? We did a course in West Phoenix that’s par-62, a very short course, for kids. Then you think of elderly people, then all the others. People are happy with the course and we’ve had good reviews. There’s no ego on my side that you have to build a big course.

I come back to the premise that golf should be fun. Define your concept at the beginning and design to it.

MG: You’ve received a lot of praise for Cordillera, your course near Vail, Colo. Is that your most spectacular course?

IRWIN: We had a great benefit there — the Rocky Mountains. We had to try to understate the golf course; we couldn’t compete with God’s creation. There was 500 feet of elevation change on that site and a flat lie wasn’t available anywhere but on the tee. It was not an easy site and construction costs were high. You dug and hit solid rock. We tried to keep in mind that people would have sidehill, downhill and uphill lies. You might say the ball travels farther because of the altitude but first you’ve got to get it airborne — a dribbler still is a dribbler. You have to build a profile of the golfer who is going to play there. And we tried to provide people with views to enjoy the golf course

MG: How many courses have you designed?

IRWIN: We’ve finished 18 to 20 and have two under construction now, in Santa Fe and Reno. We’ll start a dizzingly number in the next couple of months, in the state of Washington, San Diego and St. Louis.

MG: How does that work with your playing schedule? You played 26 times last year, the most in your five years on the Senior Tour, including nine of the last 12 tournaments in an effort to win a third straight money title.

IRWIN: Twenty-six last year was more than I anticipated. I’m cutting back to 20-21 this year. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy playing but I don’t want to kill myself like I did at the end of last year. It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing but we’ve got some projects that are really outstanding.

MG: You won the Senior Tour money title twice and were runnerup twice in the four full seasons out there and between your Senior Tour and regular Tour earnings, you’ve won more than $16 million and are golf’s all-time money leader. You’ve won more than twice as much as Jack Nicklaus and won $4 million more than Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd. What do you think of that?

IRWIN: I think it’s awesome. But I don’t think it’s going to last very long because Tiger Woods is going to beat it (Woods had won $14,730,860 through May 7). It makes the likes of Jack Nicklaus’s career obscure and he’s the No. 1 golfer of all time. Go figure. But that’s our propensity to put a dollar figure out there. It’s a bad way of judging one’s game but it adds credibility to your career.

MG: Your career is underlined by victories on outstanding golf courses, United States Opens at Winged Foot, Inverness and Medinah, three times at Hilton Head, twice at Muirfield Village, Pebble Beach, the U.S. Senior Open at Riviera and three Senior PGA Championships. What has made you play so well on great courses?

IRWIN: I don’t know if it was the golf courses or it could have been my compatriots not up to the task and making me look better. I always tried to prepare myself, not to think of being a birdie machine but to play smart, don’t get upset if you don’t shoot 67 or 68. I think it’s a mindset of some players that they have to shoot in the 60s every round. But on some courses and in some tournaments, like the Open, par is a very, very good score. You have to have a lift and shift mentality, out of one style and into another.

MG: The rough in the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot was perhaps the most difficult since the 1951 Open at Oakland Hills and the United States Golf Association hasn’t had rough like that at Winged Foot since. You shot seven over par and won by two shots. Reflect on that.

IRWIN: In all the Opens I’ve played in, 27 to 30 of them, that was the most difficult venue I’ve played in when weather wasn’t a factor. When I got there I thought “Omigod!” I saw how fast the greens were, how narrow the fairways were and how deep the rough was and I decided to be happy with pars. And par would have won by seven shots. P.J. Boatwright (then in charge of Championship preparation for the USGA) acknowledged afterward that they got carried away.

The rough was so long it was brutal and they didn’t have a stimpmeter to measure the green speeds then — I think they used ice skates. I tried to put the ball on the front of every green so I’d have an uphill putt. I’d take a 30-foot uphill putt over a 15-foot downhill anytime.

MG: That was one of your greatest victories. What about greatest disappointment?

IRWIN: Winged Foot 10 years later, in 1984. A number of factors were in play and it was very emotional. I thought it would be great to win 10 years later at the same venue and, more than anything else, my father was dying of cancer then and I thought it would be wonderful to give him a victory so I made my own mountains to climb and I made it so big that I couldn’t get up that thing.

I led after the second and third rounds. On Saturday I played with Fuzzy Zoeller and we had a huge gallery and a lot of favoritism was shown to him and there was rambunctious behavior. We played together again on Sunday and I destroyed myself early with all the pressures I’d built up. (Bob Sommers, editor of the USGA Journal at the time and author of The U.S. Open, Golf’s Ultimate Challenge, described the Sunday gallery as “almost out of control.” Irwin shot 79 and Zoeller and Greg Norman tied with Zoeller winning the Monday playoff.)

MG: How about that whiffed 2-inch putt at the 1983 Royal Birkdale?

IRWIN: That wasn’t out of anger; it was just carelessness. The putter I used then — and I’ve just brought it back — had a flat back, like a Bullseye. I had a four-inch putt and I just stuck it in the ground left-handed. It was an unintended sword fight. It happened in the third round and to say I would have won is stretching it. I would’ve gotten into a playoff. I regret the carelessness. (Editor’s note: Irwin finished tied for second, one shot back of winner Tom Watson)

MG: Mentioning the British Open brings to mind playoffs in the majors. The British use a four hole, total stroke playoff while the United States Golf Association still goes with an 18 hole next day playoff and then, if there still is a tie, it goes to sudden death. And that’s the way it was when you beat Mike Donald at Medinah in 1990. Reflect on the playoff system for majors.

IRWIN: I’ve vacillated on that. In today’s marketplace, fans want to see the championship decided on Sunday and there’s television and everything that goes into everyone having to stay an extra day. An 18-hole playoff seems to be anticlimactic but I wouldn’t want to see a sudden death playoff although ultimately Mike and I came back to a one hole playoff. I think the British Open system is a good compromise.

MG: The 2-iron figured prominently on all three of your Open victories, a 2-iron second shot at the 18th at Winged Foot when you had a one shot lead to set up a par, a 2-iron to three feet for eagle on the par-5 13th at Inverness after watching Tom Weiskopf eagle it ahead of you from eight feet and then in the playoff at Medinah, two shots down with three to play, you hooked a 2-iron around overhanging branches from 210 yards to six feet for birdie. What is it with you and long irons?

IRWIN: I think of every iron as a scoring iron and I put in as much time with my 2-iron as with my 5-iron or pitching wedge. Obviously the dispersion pattern is a little greater with long irons and you have to work that into the equation. The trick is to hit it close and I look at my 2-iron and 3-iron as friends.

MG: You’ve also been a consistently good putter and no one would forget that 45-footer on the 18th at Medinah that set up the playoff. What are your thoughts on putting?

IRWIN: Putting is a state of mind. Right now I’m just not quite committed to the line, the stroke, as I was two years ago. I putted very well then and now I’m putting good. That’s a difference of one or two putts a round and that ends up 3-4 strokes at the end of the week and look at what that does to your results. Putting is very, very important and it’s something everyone can do — it doesn’t take a lot of strength. I have to get away from the mechanics now and try to simplify things. Just think of three elements: the putter, the ball, the hole.

MG: You finished second twice in three years and then blitzed TPC Michigan last year with a 64-65 finish. It seems it’s a good fit for you.

IRWIN: It’s a course you have to be very careful on. All of those early holes have water on the drive or second shot or both and there’s a double bogey opportunity everywhere. The greens aren’t that difficult once you get on them so you can attack them but you have to attack intelligently. I played really well over the weekend and the key was holing the 9-iron on the 11th (for eagle deuce). I hit a lot of really good shots, great irons and I putted well. And when I got ahead, I didn’t back off it, I didn’t play safe. I kept attacking but in a good way, not stupidly.

MG: Mentioning water brings to mind a tip you had in Senior Golfer magazine about drinking water on the course. How important is it?

IRWIN: Water sustains your thought processes better. I think all of society drinks more water now. It’s only been the last 5-10 years that it’s been available at every tee in tournament golf. Some of the nutritional drinks are good too but I don’t want them to get into my system and get me too jacked up — I’m already that. Drink water at every opportunity.

MG: We’ll close with the Ryder Cup. You played on five teams, all winners, with a 13-5-2 personal record. You made the 1991 team after a 10 year absence and that was the Kiawah Ryder Cup that came down to you and Bernhard Langer on the 18th green. Describe that.

IRWIN: It was very difficult. Both Langer and I knew the importance of our match and knew the importance of a wayward shot but someone was going to hit one on every hole on that course. I was just trying to hang in there and have him make the mistake and he was doing the same. We came to the last hole and I missed the green, chipped to 15-20 feet and missed it. (Langer conceded Irwin’s one foot bogey putt). It came down to him missing from six feet for par and we halved and won the cup by one point. Winning the cup was one of the biggest thrills of my career.

I regret that last year, the putt that Justin Leonard made that was one of the most resounding in history, unfortunately got trampled on. I didn’t like to see what went on (with players and others running on the green) but things may have happened that we aren’t privy to. No one knows exactly what goes on behind the scene and the European side’s slow play affected our guys in a negative way. But some great golf was played and that’s the way we should remember it.

Return to the Michigan Golfer July 2000 Issue Page
Return to the Michigan Golfer Home Page

You can contact us at clubhouse@webgolfer.com
Copyright© Great Lakes Sports Publications, Inc.