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As Bernhard Langer closes in on his record of 45 PGA Tour Champions victories, Hale Irwin doesn’t sound overly possessive.
But there is a hint of regret in the 75-year-old’s voice, a touch of disappointment. Not because he feels as if the machine-like Langer will eventually pass him, but rather that he wishes he could have competed more in the twilight of his career.
Hampered by a foot injury that would require three to six months of rehab if he underwent surgery, Irwin has played in three tournaments in 2020, the same number in 2019, and hasn’t competed in more than eight since 2015.
“I probably could have played a little bit longer, more effectively had I wanted to,” Irwin said last week. “But things developed off the golf course that gave me opportunities to do other things. If you’re going to play competitive golf, that’s what you do. If you don’t do that wholeheartedly and with more attention than I was giving it, then you’re not going to play as well.
“Of course, someone like me that is highly competitive, I don’t like to accept something less than what I’m capable of. It was frustrating and I was tired of getting frustrated, so I just kind of stepped out of the arena and let those guys bang heads.”
Irwin returns to Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, this week for the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship, but he won’t be competing in the $3 million event. Instead, Irwin will join Andy North, Tom Kite, Hal Sutton, Larry Nelson and Gary Koch in the Westfield Legends Pro-Am on Thursday morning at Westfield Country Club.
“I may have to withdraw, that’s too strong a field,” Irwin joked. He was speaking from Denver, where he was celebrating his son’s birthday.
Langer, who turns 63 on Aug. 27, has totaled 41 victories and will be among the favorites in the Bridgestone field. No. 2 in the Charles Schwab Cup rankings with five top 10s in six events this year, Langer has one victory in 2020, that in the Cologuard Classic in Tucson, Arizona, on March 1. He has won at least once for 14 consecutive years and has triumphed eight times at age 60 or older.
Irwin’s last victory came in 2007, but he has shot his age or better 44 times on the Champions Tour, well ahead of Gary Player, second on that list with 30. Among Irwin’s recent highlights was a first-round 67 in the PURE Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach in September 2018.
“The body and the mind, you take just a little bit of a hesitant step and the field just goes right by you. That’s kind of what I’ve done the last couple years,” Irwin said.
He said he has a “bunion net” on the outside of his left foot, where the bone toward the end of his little toe separated. It changed his swing pattern and affected his distance.
“The putting is still good, the short game is still good. I still drive the ball accurately,” Irwin said. “I’m 75, do I really want to get my foot operated on? Is it going to work? You just don’t know.”
Hale Irwin lines up a putt on the first hole during the final round of the Senior PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., Sunday, May 29, 2011.
Although COVID-19 protocols may prevent Irwin from hitting a shot at Firestone on this visit, he has fond memories of Akron, where he started to play in the American Golf Classic, which followed the Rubber City Open.
“Coming back reminds me of the very first time I was in Akron. It was such a well-run event, it was so much fun to play,” he said. “They were one of the first tournaments that actually had hospitality that would help players find housing and those kinds of things that we take for granted today. The city embraced it. It’s such a great golf environment.
“You had a really good golf course, you had really attentive crowds, it wasn’t a country club it was a golf club, so you kind of had that atmosphere. For me, it fit hand and glove.”
Family lured Irwin away from competitive golf after his design work dried up between 2007-09. But he plays in outings and said he has gotten more involved in non-golf-related businesses.
Irwin and his wife, Sally, have four grandchildren — “the light of my life right now,” he said — who range in age from 19 to nearly 5. His daughter lives in the Phoenix area near Irwin’s home in Paradise Valley with her two boys, his son in Denver has two girls. The Irwins have also kept their home in St. Louis, where they lived for many years.
Hale Irwin is shown with his trophy after winning the U.S. Open Championship title at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., June 16, 1974. Irwin defeated Forrest Fezler with a score of 287. (AP Photo)
“I’m happy, let’s put it that way. I miss playing, I don’t miss the travel and all the other stuff that goes with that,” Irwin said. “There’s always a part of me that will stay tuned to the competitive arena of golf because that was my life for so many years.”
That means Irwin will be watching if Langer catches or passes his victory record.
“It’s his to make or break,” Irwin said. “Have to give the man credit, he’s played extremely well through his later years. I had my run at it.
“If Bernhard makes it, I’ll applaud him. If he doesn’t, he gave it a great try. Nothing I can do about it, just wake up every morning and bless the sunrise.”