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Age no factor for Irwin; it's victories he counts

At 57 and in top shape, he destroys myth 55-plus golfers can't win.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2003

LUTZ -- He might not look like the defensive back who once played at the University of Colorado, but neither does Hale Irwin appear to be a man familiar with senior discounts and free checking. Not that he needs such perks.

Irwin can't stay with a speedy receiver anymore, but he can cover the flagsticks with golf shots on a regular basis.

That's why he won four tournaments and more than $3-million last year. That's why he's the Champions Tour's all-time victory leader with 36. That's why he will be considered among the favorites when the $1.6-million Verizon Classic begins Friday at the TPC of Tampa Bay.

This is a man who will soon celebrate his 58th birthday, an age when fame and fortune are supposed to be fleeting on what used to be called the Senior PGA Tour.

"I think there are a lot of things to be said for taking care of yourself," Irwin said. "Maybe I take better care of myself than some of the other players, maybe not. I have been blessed with the continuation of desire to excel as best I can, to continue playing the game at a level that is acceptable to me. I don't worry about the level of anybody else, and see what happens."

Last year, Irwin became the oldest player to win the Arnold Palmer Award, given to the leading money winner on the Champions Tour, while also having the lowest scoring average (68.93).

In addition to the victories, Irwin finished second six times. He was in the top 10 in 22 of 27 tournaments.

And he all but shattered the myth that players on the 50-and-older circuit better notch their victories in the first few seasons. Irwin has 10 wins since turning 55, the mythical barrier, including the U.S. Senior Open in 2000.

"He's the exception," said Champions Tour player Bruce Lietzke. "There is some deteriorating there in the middle 50s, it doesn't have to be right there at 55. (But) I think he may be like a Sam Snead. He's kind of a freak, like Sam Snead was a freak who continued to play great golf into his 50s and 60s.

"There continues to be a stigma about guys maintaining great play into their late 50s, and he's the only one who's done it."

Actually, it's rare. Only Bob Charles has a record similar to Irwin's after age 55. Charles won nine tournaments. Gary Player has notched four titles since turning 55 and is the second-oldest winner on the Champions Tour, capturing the 1998 Northville Long Island Classic at age 62. Mike Fetchick was 63 when he won the 1985 Hilton Head Seniors Invitational. Irwin almost seems insulted that age is an issue.

"When somebody says that to me, it's always like the challenge has been thrown out there," he said. "I don't like to believe that. Within reason, I know that I can compete at my age now as effectively as any 50-year-old. Now, can I do it at 60, 65? I don't know.

"When I started on the senior tour (in 1995), I gave no thought to my age. I don't accept those numbers as fact. The fact is I am 57 years old. But I don't accept the notion that you can't compete."

Irwin didn't need to make more history. As a three-time U.S. Open winner who won 20 PGA Tour titles, his legacy was secure.

He actually began his senior tour somewhat slowly, winning just twice in 1995 and 1996. Then he went on a tear, winning nine times in 1997 and seven more in 1998.

For six straight years, Irwin has won at least $2-million. A win this year would set a Champions record of at least one victory nine straight years. His total of 36 is seven more than Lee Trevino has.

"I doubt that any player will ever break his record for wins (on the Champions Tour) because it will be very hard for anyone to be that competitive for so long at such a high level," Champions Tour player Bob Murphy said. "That's what's so amazing about Hale."

Irwin said the key to his success has been an ability to adapt. When he played football, he wasn't the fastest or strongest, but learned how to deal with situations.

The same has been true in golf. When Irwin won the 1974 U.S. Open, he was far from becoming a Hall of Fame player. "I had to figure out a way to succeed," he said. "My effort was probably greater than other players."

That might still be the case, though he concedes age eventually will be an issue.

"As I get older, it's not going to make it any easier," he said. "You have to face facts. The facts are I'm not as young as I once was, although I think I can still play like I did six years ago. But will it get the same results? Probably not, only because that level I had then was so high.

"But there is no concession (to age). You got names here who are really good players. There's more of that caliber of player. Can you go out and expect to win nine times?

"There is a realism pill you have to take in the morning. The expectation is that I can still hit the shots and still play like I did last year."

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