Memorial tournament honor fitting for Irwin, who deserves place among top 35 golfers of all time
by Gary Baines
Years ago, I wrote a column for the newspaper for which I worked at the time, the Daily Camera in Boulder, weighing in on where Hale Irwin ranked among golf’s GOAT list.
Which is to say, among the greatest players of all time?
I couldn’t readily locate the column amid my stacks of papers and clips, and since this was published in the days prior to just about everything in newspapers being archived on the internet, it’s not there either.
But to the best of my recollection, I think I put Irwin among the top 25 or so golfers of all time — at that time. Since a few greats have had the meat of their careers since then — Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh among them — that would move the former University of Colorado golf and football standout down the list a few notches.
The reason this comes to mind now is that Irwin will be the 2018 honoree at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial tournament this coming week in Dublin, Ohio. Then the AJGA Hale Irwin Colorado Junior will be contested at Walnut Creek Golf Preserve in Westminster June 5-7, and he’ll compete in the U.S. Senior Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs June 28-July 1. So it seems an opportune time to fully appreciate the career of the best golfer ever to grow up in Colorado.
When it was announced last year that Irwin would be honored at the upcoming Memorial, Nicklaus himself, who tops that GOAT list in many people’s minds, said, “Hale was truly one of the great golfers and athletes we ever had playing on the PGA Tour. He was a terrific golfer. He always had tremendous integrity. He’s been a terrific family man. Hale has always been one of the purest strikers of the golf ball. You knew when you got to a difficult golf course that Hale Irwin was going to be there somewhere. He was probably the best senior player we’ve ever had on the PGA Tour Champions.”
Despite his stellar record as a player, Irwin was pleasantly surprised to become a Memorial honoree, a group which includes many of the top players in history.
“I have a hard time putting myself in that category with the greats of the past, so I am absolutely delighted.” he said last year.
But Irwin’s golf resume reinforces what a talented player and fierce competitor he’s been. Here are the bullet-point highlights:
— Winner of 20 PGA Tour titles.
— Three U.S. Open victories, a total surpassed only by Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson, with four each.
— He remains the oldest winner of the U.S. Open (45 in 1990).
— Winner of a record 45 titles on PGA Tour Champions, with seven senior majors, including two U.S. Senior Opens.
— Competed on five U.S. Ryder Cup teams.
— Captained the first U.S. team in the President’s Cup, in 1994, and also competed on that team.
— Was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1992.
— Capped his amateur career by winning the NCAA individual title in 1967 while at CU, where he was also an All-Big Eight defensive back in football.
When Irwin received the Nicholson Award in Colorado in 2012, he noted that also growing up playing football paid dividends in golf.
“I looked at every golf course as a football field,” he said then. “It was me or them. I say that somewhat jokingly because the thing I had more of than the other fellas was effort. I point back to the football background. Look at me — I was a little guy even then, and I wasn’t terribly fast. So I had to read keys and be in position and play technically better than the next guy. Then I had to play over my weight. I had to hit harder. All that effort is what you could take to the golf course. So when you got to Winged Foot or those hard courses — where others guys might let up because they thought it was too hard — that was right up my alley.”
Besides all his golf success on a national and international scale, Irwin put together quite an amateur record in the eight or so years he lived in Colorado as a young man. He won three consecutive CGA Amateurs (1963-65), one CGA Match Play (1966), one CGA Junior Match Play (1962) and one boys state high school title while at Boulder High (1963). (At left are Irwin’s three CGA Stroke Play trophies, currently housed in the CGA offices The CGA Stroke Play is now called the CGA Amateur.)
And now, even though Irwin will turn 73 next Sunday, fellow competitors still talk about him. Unsolicited at a U.S. Senior Open event earlier this month, two-time champion Kenny Perry said, “Hale Irwin, he’s a freak. It’s unreal how incredible that man is. He’s 70-something years old and still beats his age every time he goes and tees it up.”
That’s an exaggeration, but Irwin has shot his age — or better — more than 30 times while competing on PGA Tour Champions, a truly remarkable feat.
So now we get back to where Irwin ranks among the greatest golfers of all time. It’s a matter of opinion to a certain extent, of course, and comparing eras is difficult. But looking at the players who own the most PGA Tour wins and the most majors, the top international golfers and the best amateurs ever — and throwing in his incredbile senior record — I still believe Irwin is easily in the top 35 on golf’s GOAT list.
For what it’s worth, these are the players I would put ahead of him, roughly in order:
Pretty heady company indeed.