SAN FRANCISCO -- In a year of youthful excellence (Yani Tseng, Rory McIlroy) and middle-age resurgence (Darren Clarke), one of golf's seniors also has had a season worth celebrating.
Not someone new to the Champions Tour. Not someone who is just breaking in his AARP card. Not someone who still plays with the kids on occasion.
Someone who is eligible for Medicare.
Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Hale Irwin was fourth at the Senior PGA Championship at Valhalla shortly before his 66th birthday and fourth at the U.S. Senior Open at Inverness shortly after it. He was tied for the lead after 54 holes in the former, and he shot his age in third round of the latter. After only three top-10s in the previous three seasons, Irwin had seven in 2011. That gives him a record 205 in his astounding Champions Tour career, in which he has won 45 times, a golf mark Nelsonian in its invincibility.
A phenomenal campaign by a phenomenal golfer continues this week at TPC Harding Park. Irwin's solid 2011 play put him 26th on the Champions Tour money list and eligible for the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship. He is -- no surprise -- the oldest player, by three years, to ever make the 30-man field.
Despite the presence of Tom Lehman, John Cook, Fred Couples and Tom Watson (who, at 61, impressively snared the Senior PGA that slipped away from Irwin), don't be surprised if he contends against men who were in elementary school when he was an all-star defensive back for Colorado. Don't be flabbergasted if he wins, eclipsing Mike Fetchick, who has long held the record for oldest senior tour winner at age 63.
Irwin's beloved St. Louis Cardinals just showed what a long shot with a lot of heart can achieve. "Belief, simply belief in what they were doing," Irwin said. "It was an improbable journey, but they believed. People, in whatever walk of life, would be surprised if they just gave themselves a chance by believing in what they are."
Irwin was always tough. He still is. During an era in which golf swings get dissected like a lab frog, he relies on instinct and grit from a sport where guys wore eye black instead of white slacks.
"It was the athletic part that always has helped me succeed," Irwin said. "It wasn't that my golf skills were better than anybody else. At Winged Foot, when I won the U.S. Open in 1974, I sensed through the practice rounds that 80 percent of the field had given up already. That was right up my wheelhouse, from my football training. Eighty percent of the guys I played against were bigger, faster, meaner.
"But I was a fireplug out there," he continued. "Do I want to tackle a 230-pound guy who's running like a deer? Heavens no, no one in their right mind would. But there is something that drives me and compels me to stick my head in there and give it my best shot."
Irwin stopped being quite so hard on himself in 2011, because expecting so much hadn't produced results from 2008-2010 as he began to press. Even this season he was times perplexed by a mental conundrum. "Either I'm giving too much thought to a shot or situation, or not enough thought," Irwin said. "I think Valhalla was a good example of that: I got the lead, then in 30 minutes I made a double bogey and a bogey from the most opportune positions."
That double bogey-bogey combo at Nos. 6 and 7 put Irwin in a hole he couldn't recover from despite some outstanding shotmaking the rest of that Sunday afternoon, four lipouts not helping his cause and keeping him two shots out of the Watson-David Eger playoff.
"I left Valhalla feeling very good, but Sunday nights for me, at any tournament, are the most difficult," Irwin said. "I don't sleep well. I rehash everything in bed. The mind's still working. But that's a good sign. It means I care. If I quit caring, I think I'm going to jump off the merry-go-round pretty quickly."
For now the ride -- extended by good genes and a great outlook -- continues, enjoyable for Irwin, educational for the rest of us.
"People have to learn who they are -- you can't have somebody else telling you who you are," Irwin said. "And I would hope people could look at me, or anyone like me, and see someone who still believes in themselves, still chasing an elusive dream, a very pleasant dream that you don't want to ever end. People should always remember there is so much more inside of us than we know."
If Irwin had to tackle a 230-pound running back who runs like a deer today, he could still probably figure out a way to do it.
-- Bill Fields
Follow on Twitter: [@BillFields1