NO MORE MR. ICE GUY Open celebration opens new side of Hale Irwin

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For more than 20 years, the perception of Hale Irwin was that of a boring, mechanical, uptight guy who looked as if he'd be more comfortable behind a desk reading computer printouts than among the rich and famous of professional golf, hitting pinpoint 5-irons and making 40-foot putts.

There were the black, bookwormish glasses that Irwin wore when he came out on tour in 1968. There was the boy-it-hurts-to-smile look that became part of Irwin's dour on-course persona, even as he was winning two U.S. Open championships and earning a reputation as one of the best players in the world.

"I didn't have blond hair, I wasn't from Australia and I didn't hav my shirttail hanging out of my pants," Irwin said recently. "There were a lot of images out there, but I didn't fit any of them. My game was methodical. I didn't have that glamorous reputation behind me. I was starting from scratch. I didn't fit the mold of what a professional golfer was supposed to be. My personality sat on the back shelf."

It sat there until the final regulation hole of last year's U.S. Open at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago. A winding, 60-foot birdie putt would put Irwin into a playoff with Mike Donald and ultimately lead to victory. The celebration that followed the putt would forever change Irwin's image.

No more Mr. Ice Guy.

"I think the spontaneity of it was what was people were surprised by, with the visibility of an event like that," said Irwin, who danced around the green, putter aloft, doubled back to give high fives to the gallery and then blew a kiss to those in the bleachers behind the green. "I wasn't planning on making a 60-foot putt for birdie. It just happened."

Irwin's wife, Sally, said later that day: "I think it shocked a lot of people. I wasn't surprised, because that's the way Hale is at home. Not that he goes around high-fiving the neighbors. He's a fun guy. At the same time, he is a very competitive person and an ex-football player. I think that side of him just came out."

"It was a flashback for me," said Eddie Crowder, Irwin's football coach during his days as an all-Big Eight safety at Colorado. "I saw him do that a lot when he made an interception, or when he made a big hit. From what I know about him, Hale has always been a very serious person, but he has a fun side to him. Golf just restrained that part of his personality."

Irwin's celebration and his third U.S. Open victory (he beat Donald in a 19-hole playoff the next day) will be talked about quite often this week, when he defends his historic championship at Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. The tournament is scheduled to begin Thursday.

The victory last year made Irwin, 45 at the time, the oldest Open champion and put him in a select group of golfers who have won three or more Opens. But Medinah did more than that for Irwin; it rejuvenated a flagging career and made him as popular with the fans as he was respected by his peers.

"What transpired last year was a lot of emotional buildup," said Irwin, whose last victory before the Open was in 1985 at the Memorial Tournament and whose next one came a week later, along with the high fives, in the Buick Classic. "It was going from being a non-factor for a couple of years to suddenly having a chance. I was thinking, 'How many opportunities am I going to have left? Can I still do it?' "

It had been a steady decline for Irwin, a top-10 player seven times between 1973 and 1981 who had won 17 tour events and more than $3 million by the time he reached 40. By 1986, when he had fallen to No. 128 on the money list, Irwin was spending nearly as much time working on designing golf courses as he was trying to conquer them.

But as a waning economy forced Irwin to abandon some of his projects, it also made him change his professional priorities. At last year's Players Championship, Irwin took part in a psychological analysis given to members of the tour. The answers he received were pretty much what he expected.

"I've always felt comfortable with myself, and it proved 'u everything I thought," said Irwin. "Not that this was a springboard, but it was another piece of the puzzle. It showed that I am the club selector, not the caddie, on the golf course. It showed that I am flexible, but intent on doing it my way."

While many figured Irwin was just getting his game ready for th Senior Tour, he had other ideas. He didn't blame his slide on a faulty swing, or a premature case of the yips. It had more to do with what Irwin did better than just about anybody else on tour: think about, and execute, the next shot.

"I had not lost my game, I had lost my concentration," said Irwin, who is eighth in all-time tour earnings at close to $4.4 million. "I was careless to the point of utter stupidity at times. It's not a revolutionary thing. Maybe it was a revelation. It's not like I had to have a swing change. My mental game plan changed some. It wasn't a quantum leap into the unknown. It was getting the car on the road."

With the engine revved at full throttle. Perhaps the part of Irwin's game that other players most admired, the part that helped him gain a reputation for being hard-nosed and sometimes a bit hard-you-know-what, was his competitiveness.

It all went back to his days as a football player at Colorado. Crowder said Irwin, despite weighing only 170 pounds, was one of the most ferocious players he coached. "He was lethal," said Crowder, now marketing director for The International, a late-summer PGA stop. "He became known as a hard hitter. When he would take on some 220-pound running back, his mother and I would cringe, because we didn't want anything to hurt his career as a golfer."

Said fellow pro Lanny Wadkins, a tour regular since 1971, "I admire the heck out of Hale. He's a true fighter. We all try to react a certain way, and Hale's tendency is to get mad at himself. I think there's a couple of players who have been misunderstood a bit over the years, and Hale is one of them."

One of the bigger misunderstandings involving Irwin came during the final round of the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Having won there a decade before and staying in contention the first three days, Irwin entered the last round with a one-shot lead over Fuzzy Zoeller.

Paired with Zoeller, one of the loosest and most popular players on tour, Irwin appeared to get increasingly frustrated with the boisterous crowd and blew up with a final-round 75. In the locker room afterward, Irwin seemed as disgusted with the behavior of the fans as he was with his performance.

"I could see the headlines about me winning Opens 10 years apart, on the same course, and I think I put a lot of pressure on myself," said Irwin. "But something I never said at the time was that my father was dying of cancer, and I wanted to win it for him. It was a bit more than I could handle. The face of the mountain was a bit too sheer."

Now, Irwin will try to climb another mountain. This week, he has a chance to join legends Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus as the Open's only four-time winners. His game is in better shape than it was going into Medinah, with successive finishes last month of fourth, third and second before taking a recent two-week break.

Did Irwin do anything special to prepare for his defense?

"I've been working on my back flips," he said jokingly.

Oh, what a kidder.

Hale Irwin, by the numbers

, Year by year on the PGA tour

Yr.. .. .. ..Money.. .. ..Rank.. ..Wins

68.. .. .. .$9,093.. .. .. 117.. .. ..0

69.. .. .. $18,571.. .. .. .88.. .. ..0

70.. .. .. $46,870.. .. .. .49.. .. ..0

71.. .. .. $99,463.. .. .. .13.. .. ..1

72.. .. ..$111,513.. .. .. .13.. .. ..0

.. ..$130,388.. .. .. ..7.. .. ..1

.. ..$152,529.. .. .. ..7.. .. ..1

.. ..$203,380.. .. .. ..4.. .. ..2

.. ..$252,718.. .. .. ..3.. .. ..2

.. ..$221,456.. .. .. ..4.. .. ..3

.. ..$191,666.. .. .. ..7.. .. ..0

.. ..$154,168.. .. .. .19.. .. ..1

.. ..$109,810.. .. .. .38.. .. ..0

.. ..$276,499.. .. .. ..7.. .. ..2

.. ..$173,719.. .. .. .19.. .. ..1

.. ..$232,567.. .. .. .13.. .. ..1

.. ..$183,384.. .. .. .31.. .. ..1

.. ..$195,007.. .. .. .31.. .. ..1

.. ...$59,983.. .. .. 128.. .. ..0

.. ..$100,825.. .. .. .96.. .. ..0

.. ..$164,996.. .. .. .72.. .. ..0

.. ..$150,977.. .. .. .93.. .. ..0

.. ..$838,249.. .. .. ..6.. .. ..2

.. ..$332,076.. .. .. .14.. .. ..0

Totals: 24 years, $4,399,154 in earnings, 19 victories

Year by year in the U.S. Open

Yr.. ..Fin.. .. ..Site

66.. ..T61*.. .. .Olympic

71.. ..T19.. .. ..Merion

72.. ..T36.. .. ..Pebble Beach

73.. ..T20.. .. ..Oakmont

74.. ..Won.. .. ..Winged Foot

75.. ..T3.. .. .. Medinah

76.. ..T26.. .. ..Atlanta Athletic

77.. ..T41.. .. ..Southern Hills

78.. ..T4.. .. ...Cherry Hills

79.. ..Won.. .. ..Inverness

80.. ..T8.. .. .. Baltusrol

81.. ..T58.. .. ..Merion

82.. ..T39.. .. ..Pebble Beach

83.. ..T39.. .. ..Oakmont

84.. ..6.. .. .. .Winged Foot

85.. ..14.. .. .. Oakland Hills

86.. ..MC.. .. .. Shinnecock Hills

87.. ..MC.. .. .. Olympic

88.. . T17.. .. ..The Country Club

89.. ..T54.. .. ..Oak Hill

90.. ..Won.. .. ..Medinah

*--Amateur.. .. MC-Missed Cut

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