Interview With Hale Irwin, 3-time U.S. Open Champ

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We start off the new year with an interview of Hale Irwin, one of the leading golfers of all time. A multi-talented athlete in high school, Irwin played college football and even caught the eye of the NFL before deciding to pursue professional golf in 1968. He won the U.S. Open championship three times and then aged like fine wine with the PGA Tour Champions. Irwin holds the all-time winning record for professional golfers over the age of 50. Today, he is also active in designing award-winning golf courses around the country. Sports History Magazine caught up with the veteran athlete whose wisdom and experience around professional golf span more than half a century.

Most people don't know that in high school you were a multi-tool athlete, exceling in football, baseball and golf. Did you ever imagine that golf would be your destiny?  Since I was a young boy golf has always been one of my favorite activities. As a mid-teenager I had hopes that I could play in the U.S. Open someday, but never did I imagine that it would be a dream come true experience. A lot of things go into “destiny”, and I was lucky to have many of those things go my way.

At the University of Colorado where you attended, you played defensive back on the football team and also won the NCAA Division I golf championship. How does a football player transfer brute skills into a delicate game like golf?  Golf and football certainly require a different set of skills. The one crossover that does prevail throughout sport, perhaps life, is the willingness to be disciplined in your decision making and stay true to your heart. There are no shortcuts to success in any walk of life. Success doesn’t come looking for you. A person has to go out and make it happen on their own, exemplified by any person that we define as successful.

Did you get calls from the NFL or any other sports leagues before you decided to become a professional golfer?  When I finished college football I received 8-10 letters of interest from various NFL teams with the St. Louis Cardinals football club following up with a second letter to see if I would be interested in meeting with their scout. By then, I had had enough of football, especially with my golf skills becoming better and my interest in a career in golf increasing.

The 1974 U.S. Open was your first victory at a major but you also shot a +7, one of the highest scores ever to win a tournament. Do you remember why that game was so difficult?  The 1974 U.S. Open was played at Winged Foot in New York. By any standard, that is a marvelous and difficult golf course. But the USGA had prepared the course to very exacting conditions. The fairways were narrow and bordered by very dense and long rough grasses. The greens were very quick, even for those times. All in all, it has been the most difficult golf course that I have ever played without weather being an issue.

You won three U.S. Opens and tied for 2nd at the British Open in 1983. That missed opportunity was marred by a 2-inch whiff that could have sent you into a playoff with Tom Watson. If you have any career disappointments, is that one of the biggest?  Well, the 2” whiff was really more like 6”! The greatest disappointment was that I was very careless at a time that I should have been more focused. I don’t recommend going to hole out a putt of any length left-handed while still moving when you have a right-handed putter! This was on the Saturday round, and really didn’t manifest itself until the finish on Sunday. Sometimes doing something like this brings a greater awareness of the magnitude of each and every effort to do the right things.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s you played in a field of legendary golfers such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, and many others. Are there any players that you admired most?  My career has been blessed with the opportunity to play with and become friends with some of golf’s greatest players and people, both men and women. The magnetism of Arnold Palmer was unbelievable, and the focus and skills of Jack Nicklaus were awesome. Gary Player brought tremendous effort, and Tom Watson showed us what the future was going to be with his talents. Nancy Lopez and Annika Sorenstam were two of the LPGA’s greatest stars and wonderful women. It is impossible to pick out just one of the players of the past that was more distinctive than another. But the one person that I did admire more than any other was my father who taught me so many things that were more of life skills than athletic ones.

Did you have any particular strategies that you embraced that worked best for you?  My efforts to have a successful outcome when playing were to keep things simple. Rather than trying something that was not comfortable nor natural, forsaking what I could do best given the situation, was a recipe for a bad result. Hence, I played with a determined grit that often was better than the miraculous shot that one hopes to hit.

You also played all over the world and won tournaments on every continent. What are some of your favorite golf courses?  Some of my favorite courses are the ones on which I won a tournament! Royal Melbourne in Australia, Muirfield in Scotland, Cypress Point in Pebble Beach, Pinehurst in North Carolina, Winged Foot in NY, or any of the golf courses from days of yore which have a more traditional design are always fun and interesting to play.

You hold the record for most wins in Champions Tour history, so it seems that you aged and improved on the golf course like fine wine. What do you attribute that to?  One can only hope to be born with good genetics, but I think that is only one of the ingredients to my success. My willingness to put in the time, both physically and mentally, to be the best that I can be without compromising my spirit and beliefs is a fundamental ingredient, as well. My father once told me to never start something that I couldn’t finish, and that has been a directional mainstay throughout my career.  

Besides the big money that rolled into the game, how has the sport of golf changed in the past 40-50 years in terms of the training, the strategy, the competition?   Without question it is my opinion that the equipment that is now being used in today’s game has been the greatest influence in how the game is played, in how players are taught, and in how they prepare. Strength and distance have won out over shot-making and finesse. The best in the game are now harder to identify because of the forgiveness built into much of the equipment that we now have available in today’s game which allows those with, perhaps, lesser skills to stay in the mix near the top.

Your son is a professional golfer too. What advice do you give him when he's out there battling a tough field?  My son was once upon a time a professional but got his amateur status reinstated about 20 years ago. As I would tell anyone that is in a tough condition, you can’t do what you can’t do! Stay with what you can do well and naturally, don’t make the mistakes that others might make, and stay focused and confident.

Today, you're still touring professionally but you're also designing award-winning golf courses around the country. What special features can players expect on your greens?  My design philosophy is rather simple—design courses that people can enjoy! I’ve seen too many ego-designed courses that miss the mark in providing an enjoyable and entertaining experience. Designing a golf course that is difficult to play is really rather simple. But designing one that brings out the fun of playing is far more challenging. My green designs are basically fit to the existing contours of the land. There need not be elephant mounds in a green complex to make it interesting. Subtle hints and minimal contours are often the most difficult to navigate. Designing in more than necessary is often counterproductive. But then again mystery is part of the fun!

Other Enjoyable Articles:   Pebble Beach at 100, The Case for Babe Didrikson, Pro Golf Takes Off

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