Originally created 11/20/02

At 57, it was a Hale of a year



The Senior PGA Tour used to be the only league in sports where it paid to be a rookie, and not just because the 50-and-older circuit doesn't have a cut.

Advantage has always gone to the youngsters, players who no longer have the power or desire to compete with Tiger Woods & Co. on the PGA Tour, but still have plenty of game to clean up on shorter courses and against guys who ride carts.

Going into this year, 88 percent of the winners were no older than 55.

Hale Irwin has never put too much stock in numbers - especially those on his birth certificate.

"I don't give a whole lot of credence to your birthdays," Irwin said, the tone turning combative when his age - 57 - was brought up. "You quit counting them after a while. You enjoy what you've got. Do what you can with it and don't get hung up on the numbers."

Try these numbers on for size.

At an age when most golfers become ceremonial players, Irwin won four times and was the first player on the senior circuit to earn more than $3 million in one year.

He led the senior tour in 17 statistical categories, including the ones that matter - money ($3,028,304), scoring average (68.93) and top 10s (22). He also had more rounds in the 60s than any other player (50), and finished all 27 of his tournaments under par.

And by the sound of it, Irwin is just getting started.

"That level of achievement, and what comes with that, is hard to put aside," Irwin said. "It's part of your life, part of your system, and there's no drug quite like that. And that's why I think it's hard to stop.

"Once you realize that maybe you can't do it any more, then I think your success level just plummets."

No one has told Irwin he shouldn't be winning as much at 57.

Or maybe he's just not listening.

"I'll show you how to do it, and you show me why you can't," he said.

Ben Crenshaw was a senior rookie this year. He finished 71st on the money list.

Tom Kite and Tom Watson are still in their "prime" on the senior tour. Kite, 52, won three times and was fourth on the money list, with just more than half the amount Irwin won. Watson, 53, won only the season-ending Tour Championship.

The next wave of rookies includes Craig Stadler and Jerry Pate. A couple of years away are Curtis Strange and Greg Norman.

At this rate, Irwin will be waiting when they get there.

He already has won 36 times on the Senior PGA Tour, breaking the record (29) set by Lee Trevino. More impressive is that Irwin continues to perform at a high level each year. This was the sixth straight season he won at least three tournaments.

What's the secret?

Irwin stays in excellent shape, for starters. He remains a great ball-striker, which carried him to three U.S. Open titles. His putting has improved.

What separates him from players his age - most of them several years younger - is a fire that amazingly has not burned out after 35 consecutive seasons playing at least 17 tournaments a year.

"Great players don't accept mediocrity," Irwin said. "I'm not labeling myself a great player. I think I'm still learning the game. But I do not accept mediocrity."

He will accept a challenge, even one as daunting as Bethpage Black.

Irwin was critical of fellow senior Bruce Fleisher for pulling out of the U.S. Open. Fleisher, the reigning U.S. Senior Open champion, took one look at the Black and figured he had no business playing.

Irwin refused to believe he didn't belong, even after his first-round 82.

"At least I got my licks in," he said.

Irwin has made the cut in four of the eight U.S. Opens he has played since turning 50. He had two rounds in the 60s at Pebble Beach in 2000 and finished in a tie for 27th. Woods was the only other player to break 70 more than once that week.

Irwin is competitive to the point of being prickly, and Jim Thorpe criticized him this year for being cocky, suggesting that Irwin was taking himself too seriously.

"We put cheese in his locker to go with his whining," Thorpe said. "Every shot, he thinks, he's supposed to beat you."

Thorpe later apologized and Irwin said all was forgiven. Still, he referred to Thorpe's criticism last week at the UBS Warburg Cup, where Irwin was one of only four players to break par on the final day (the others were all under 50 years old).

"That label of being a competitor, some people may think of that as something that's not good," Irwin said. "I look at it as something I'm very proud of. If I'm on your team, I will go to battle until the cows come home. It's not in me to give in. I lose frequently enough, but it won't be from a lack of effort."

He won enough this year to have another season for the ages.