Competitor Extraordinaire

‘Feherty’ interview features interesting tidbits from Colorado Sports Hall of Famer Hale Irwin
by Gary Baines

Fifty years ago next month, Hale Irwin made a major name for himself on the national golf stage by winning the NCAA individual title as a University of Colorado senior.

Twenty-five years ago, Irwin was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

So perhaps it was appropriate timing that an hour-long Q&A with Irwin has been airing this week on the Golf Channel. David Feherty, against whom Irwin played a Ryder Cup foursomes match at Kiawah Island in 1991, does the honors on his show, interviewing the Boulder High School and CU graduate on the Big Island in Hawaii. (The two are pictured together on site.)

There’s certainly plenty of notable material for a Q&A with Irwin, who will turn 72 in a few weeks. After all, here’s a guy who:

— Played both football and golf — two sports at odds in many respects — at the NCAA Division I level at CU, and excelled in both. In addition to being a national champion in golf, he was a two-time All-Big Eight defensive back in football, intercepting nine passes in the process.

— Remains the oldest winner ever of the U.S. Open as he was 45 when he claimed the trophy in 1990 after making it into the field via a special exemption from the USGA.

— Is one of just six players who has won at least three U.S. Opens, along with Jack Nicklaus (4), Ben Hogan (4), Bobby Jones (4), Willie Anderson (4) and Tiger Woods (3).

— Played in one of the most memorable and pressure-packed Ryder Cup matches of all time, against Bernhard Langer, culminating the “War on the Shore” at Kiawah Island.

— Owns the PGA Tour Champions record for victories with 45, a whopping 15 more than the No. 2 player on the list, Langer. That’s in addition to 20 wins on the PGA Tour.

— Won the 1974 U.S. Open — the so-called “Massacre at Winged Foot” — with a 7-over-par 287 total, the highest winning score relative to par at the championship since 1963.

— Won the 1984 Bing Crosby National Pro-Am after his final-round tee shot at No. 18 at Pebble Beach miraculously bounced off the rocks and up into the fairway after Irwin had hit a big hook that was headed for the Pacific Ocean. He went on to birdie the hole and beat Jim Nelford in a playoff.

— Lost the 1983 British Open by a shot to Tom Watson after whiffing a six-inch putt in the third round, when he tried to tap it in left-handed.

You get the idea. It’s been quite a ride.

In any case, here are some of the most interesting quotes from Irwin in his “Feherty” interview, which focused on almost 50 years of professional golf — 1,124 tournaments between the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions — and beyond. (Before turning pro, Irwin won a Colorado state high school title and five CGA championships):

— On his U.S. Open success, which includes wins in 1974, ’79 and ’90:

“As a young person, I practiced to win the U.S. Open. I played at the U.S. Open as an amateur in college (in 1966). I was fortunate enough to play out in California when (Billy) Casper beat (Arnold) Palmer at Olympic Club. I just felt like that was my destiny to go in that direction.”

— On winning the 1990 U.S. Open at age 45, punctuated by a 45-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, which led to a lap around the green high-fiving fans, then a playoff the next day which Irwin won:

“I was invited by the USGA (to compete in that U.S. Open); I didn’t otherwise qualify. My objective going in — my goal, if you wish — was not to make their pick look bad. (Regarding all the high-fiving after his 72nd-hole birdie) Maybe a bit uncharacteristic but there was so much happening and when that putt went in, knowing how much I put into it and hearing the roar from the gallery just energized me.”

— On the stretch run of his pivotal singles match against Langer at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Langer missed a 6-foot par putt on the final hole and the match was halved, giving the U.S. a 14 1/2-13 1/2 win over Europe, marking the first American victory in the event since 1983):

“It was hard to draw a breath because as a player you look over and you see your captain, then the next hole there’s one more team member, the next hole there’s another team member. Sure enough, you start counting noses and the entire team on both sides are out there watching, so you’ve got to figure this is important.”

“I tell people, the U.S. Open win in June of 1990 and the Ryder Cup win in September of ’91, I had two of the biggest highs one could ever have in their career. I was fortunate that I had two of those.”

— On Irwin’s reputation for being an intense competitor:

“I didn’t really ‘out-talent’ people. My effort was at least equal to, or greater than, the opposing team or the opposing players. I felt like if I went beyond what I expected, that’s all I could do. I always set that bar relatively high for myself. For me to go out and perform at something less — less effort … Now I may not play well, but it wouldn’t be for a lack of effort. I wanted to say, ‘You may beat me, you may out-talent me, but you won’t out-try me.'”

— On a turning point in his athletic career at CU:

“It wasn’t predestined that I was going to be a golfer, though I thought about it for a long, long time. … So I played football (at CU) — freshmen couldn’t play on the varsity then — and my sophomore season I hurt my shoulder and after the eighth game, I thought, ‘Maybe this is not for me.’ I considered giving it up. My father once told me — and probably the best advice he ever gave — was, ‘Once you start something, see it to the finish.’ I could just feel him on my shoulder telling me that. And my football career turned around. And I think my golf game really improved because of that.”

— On being successful in college at both football and golf, two markedly different sports in many respects:

“The hardest transition I had was taking the intensity of what was football — the violence, the chaos, the physical confrontation — and try to temper that down and go play this sedate game called golf. The mental preparations are similar, the effort is similar, but the physical part of it is so different. If you get upset at football you just go hit somebody that’s bigger than you, and oh boy is that over quickly. But in golf, you have to learn to accept and move on. That was the hardest part for me is to make that transition. In retrospect it’s probably something I did as best I could, but maybe could have done better. But at the same time, it’s also spurred me on. I don’t apologize for it to anyone because it’s what I did that I thought made me a better player.”

— On the influence of his parents, the late Hale Sr., and Mame:

“The parents I had were very, very loving. They were part of that great generation that had gone through the Depression, they had gone through two (World) Wars. There was nothing that wasn’t downright basic and good with those people, and that’s where I think the effort that was instilled in me came from — my mom and dad. They didn’t have anything, but they made something out of their lives. They made things work.”

— On whiffing the 6-inch putt in round 3 of the 1983 British Open that cost him a spot in what would have been a playoff with Watson:

“Even when I look at it on the replay, it doesn’t look like a stroke, but it was a stroke. … I get around to losing by a shot (the next day). Did it bother me? No. I learned a lesson. You lose an opportunity but you gain the experience. Each has its merits. I don’t think I’ve been quite as awkwardly stupid, at least with left-handed putts, since.”

— On one tournament in which his father’s advice paid major dividends:

“In 1976, I was playing a tournament in Orlando, and I opened with 74. It was a bad round and I had never withdrawn from a tournament (but) I thought it was time to go. I could feel my father’s spirit: Don’t start something you can’t finish. (I thought) ‘OK, OK. I’ll miss the cut and go home tomorrow night.’ I made all the arrangements and go out and shoot 64. Now I make the cut. I back it up with two 66s on the weekend. I ended up tying Kermit Zarley for the tournament lead. We play two holes in the dark, have to come back the next day and I win on the fourth hole (of a playoff). It shows going from nearly withdrawing to winning the tournament (to) never give up, never give up.”

2017-05-11T13:05:28+00:00 May 11th, 2017|