Irwin, 66, shoots his age, recalls Winged Foot in '74

May 25, 2012

(Photo by Getty Images)

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- When Hale Irwin got to the Senior PGA Championship this week and heard so much carping from his peers about the severe greens at Harbor Shores, it reminded him of a championship long ago.

"Well, it reminds me a lot of Winged Foot in '74," Irwin said. "There were a lot of disgruntled players in '74, and 70 percent of them were out of the tournament before the tournament even started."

The dogged Irwin, of course, survived Winged Foot's rigors in 1974 to win the first of his three U.S. Opens. Through two rounds of the Senior PGA, Irwin is in the thick of contention at age 66. He matched his age Friday in a remarkable ball-striking display that moved him to five-under 137, in third place, two shots behind Roger Chapman and John Cook.

"He played behind me and I knew he got off to a good start and it looked like he was making birdies on every hole," Cook said. "And I go, 'Oh my God, look at this, we're battling around there just trying to make pars and here's this 66-year-old just whipping our butts.'"

Irwin three-putted the par-5 ninth hole (his 18th) for his lone bogey of the day. He missed six birdie putts inside 15 feet on a day that could have truly been something to talk about. "I really didn't putt very well," Irwin said, "I just played very, very well."

Irwin's shotmaking was personified by a beautiful, cut 5-iron on his 11th hole, a 176-yard par 3, where his ball chased back to within five feet of a rear hole location. He has only had one top-10 finish this season on the Champions Tour (in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf with partner Ian Baker-Finch) but is inspired by the tougher challenges at the senior majors.

"These are exacting golf courses and they require exacting shots," Irwin said. "And that's the way it should be and why I think there are some of us that look so forward to these kind of events. And if I can do well in them, exel in them and have a chance the last day, then - I hate the term - that's what it's all about. That's why we continue doing what we do and continue trying to push that bar beyond where some people might stop. I just don't believe in that. It's just not in me to do that."

At Valhalla GC last year, Irwin made a spirited run at his fifth Senior PGA Championship, sharing the 54-hole lead before closing with a 73 to finish two shots out of the Tom Watson-David Eger playoff won by Watson. Now, with two rounds to play at Harbor Shores, Irwin is right back in the mix.

"He's such an inspiration," said Cook. "Hale just keeps getting it done."

-- Bill Fields