He won the U.S. Open as recently as five years ago, becoming the oldest player in history to do so. He won a regulation PGA Tour event last year, giving him 20 for his career.
Now, Hale Irwin is starting out on a new adventure: the Senior Tour. Having come of age earlier this month -- he turned 50 on June 3 -- Irwin says he isn't sure about how he will approach his new venture.
Will he be the steely-eyed, no-nonsense guy who barely cracked a smile for most of his 28-year career on the regular tour? Or will he be just one of the good, older boys in what has become a lucrative golf afterlife?
"If you try to be something you're not capable of or don't stay true to the values you hold dear, you end up in bad shape," Irwin said last week from Atlanta, where he was competing in his second Senior Tour event. "You end up doing and saying things that you might regret. I don't have a certain persona I'm trying to achieve, but you can't live in that competitive shell all the time. If you do, you're going to go nuts."
Irwin obviously is adjusting well to his new digs: He finished fourth in his Senior Tour debut two weeks ago in Nashville, Tenn., and second Sunday at the Atlanta stop. Now comes his first major championship: the 16th U.S. Senior Open, scheduled to begin Thursday at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.
Irwin will be one of the favorites -- if not the favorite -- to win. He won three U.S. Opens on the regular tour, and his game always has been suited to the more traditional-type courses. He is fitter than many 30-year-old players, having kept his weight about the same (175) as it was during his career as an All-Big Eight defensive back at Colorado.
"Hale Irwin is obviously a great player," Arnold Palmer said during an appearance and a practice round at Congressional Saturday. "He will be the odds-on favorite to win the championship. He's just 50. He's still competitive on the regular tour. That in itself is a tremendous advantage."
That also has created a bit of a quandary for Irwin. After winning the MCI Heritage Classic last year and finishing 10th on the PGA Tour money list with more than $814,000, Irwin had set his goal of qualifying for this year's Ryder Cup team. But a slow start that included only two top-10 finishes in his first nine events left Irwin far down the money list.
As his 50th birthday approached, Irwin seemed to be even more distracted. He missed two straight cuts, finished tied for 29th at Memorial, then missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Now, it seems, Irwin likely will forgo some of his usual stops on the PGA Tour and concentrate on the Senior Tour. But he's doing it with a sense of caution.
Asked for his first impressions of Senior competition, Irwin said: "The easiest thing to do is to say I'm not really sure. It's hard to come up with an accurate feeling after only a couple of weeks. It's a different environment. It's like having two friends with different personalities. You like them both, but each is different."
A format that usually includes schmoozing through two pro-am days, then playing three rounds in the tournament instead of four the first adjustment a Senior Tour rookie such as Irwin has to face. There is also the matter of getting accustomed to new courses, nearly all of which are considerably shorter and easier than those played on the PGA Tour.
But Irwin faces another challenge only a handful of others have had before.
He is expected to win just about every time he tees it up.
"I can sense that," said Irwin. "Whenever you're the new kid on the block, especially if you have credentials more illustrious than others, you'll be looked upon as the fastest gun. Brian Barnes, a very good British player, has the same birthday as I do and came out at the same time. But he doesn't have the same credentials. It takes some getting used to, unless you're a player like a Jack Nicklaus who's had those expectations their entire career."
Irwin's arrival on the Senior Tour comes at a time when the 17-year-old circuit is starting to build toward the future, searching for more big names from the regular tour to give its fields the kind of star quality that will continue to draw a who's who of corporate sponsors. Palmer, around whom the tour was built, is 65 and slowing down competitively. Nicklaus is 55 and, though still a threat among the seniors, more involved in building golf courses than playing them.
"Hale is going to mean a lot to the Senior Tour," said Ray Floyd, the tour's dominant player. "I think, for obvious reasons, the Senior Tour has been very successful because of the support of the players, the good players coming over. For every [former Senior Open champion] Larry Laoretti and [Tom] Wargo that makes the tour great and gives everybody rays of hope, you need every Irwin and [Tom] Weiskopf and [Lee] Trevino."
Irwin is not going to evoke any sympathy for the decision he's facing: whether to forge ahead with a full-time schedule on the Senior Tour or continue with one that includes appearances on both tours. By this time next year, he likely will be playing with the seniors a majority of the time and, like Floyd, going back to the regular tour for a handful of events, including the majors.
"It's not like I'm looking at a terrible selection," he said. "It's not death by hanging or lethal injection. But I want to decide. Part of the problem in my game has been the indecision."
16TH SENIOR OPEN
Where: Congressional Country Club, Bethesda
When: Practice rounds through tomorrow; 72 holes, Thursday through Sunday; in case of tie at end of regulation, an 18-hole playoff will be held Monday.
Who: 156 of the world's best 50-and-over golfers, including Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Ray Floyd, Gary Player, Hale Irwin, Lee Trevino, defending champion Simon Hobday.
Purse: $1 million, including a first prize of $175,000.
Tickets: Individual tickets are $18 for practice rounds and $30 for regular rounds. Season and grounds, $110; clubhouse and grounds, $175; daily ticket book, $225. All packages include parking; season and daily also include official program. For more information, call (301) 469-2305.
TV: Thursday and Friday: ESPN, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday: channels 11 and 4, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.