Nick Faldo says, "He's the best ballstriker I ever saw," referring not to Hogan, Nicklaus or Woods but to Hale Irwin, he of 65 PGA and Champions Tour wins. "I once saw him hit a one-yard draw. On purpose!" Irwin's reply "That's nice of Nick, but that was back when you could really move the Balata ball..." is typical Irwin, the model of Midwestern modesty. If he's understated about his game, Irwin is an overachiever when it comes to our national championship, which he's won three times. "The U.S. Open brought out the best in me, excited me, really suited my game," he says. "I loved it, just like I loved playing for my country [in the Ryder Cup]." Twenty years after his last Open win, at age 45, the native Kansan reflects on his Open prowess, his old man and why today's young pros just don't get it.
GM: The final round of the U.S. Open always falls on Father's Day. What lessons did you learn from your dad, Hale Sr.?
Irwin: Two big things. My dad was not a conversationalist. He dispensed wisdom, not words. He lived through wars and the Depression, when deeds meant more than words. But he told me, "Learn to speak," because he couldn't talk that well. He felt inadequate about that. But his actions spoke volumes. The other lesson: "Don't start something you can't finish." That stayed with me. I remember playing the Florida Citrus Open in Orlando in '76. I opened with a 74, which was high for that course. I was tired. I'd played a lot. I told an official I wanted to withdraw, went in to clean out my locker, and it felt ... wrong. I could hear my dad: "Don't do it." I kept playing and figured if I missed the cut, at least I hadn't quit. I shot a second-round 64, then two 66's on the weekend and won a four-hole playoff. I went from withdrawing to winning. That put a nail in the quit coffin dead and buried. You never give up.
Were you and your dad close?
I can still hear his car coming up the driveway. A hug and kiss, and grab the baseball to play catch. Wow, it's amazing you asked about him. I had a dream last night that he came back to see me play, and I never dream about my dad. Maybe he knew we'd be talking. I don't believe in coincidences. Things happen for a reason.
Growing up in Kansas, you taught yourself to play on a 9-holer with sand greens. But you loved football, too.
I was 9 or 10 playing on a neighbor's yard against kids bigger and older than me. I'd go home with a bloody nose, my mom would clean it, and I'd go right back out to play more. That's how you learn by competing with bigger, stronger kids. By testing yourself.
Your family moved to Colorado. Though you were a fine golfer, you received a football scholarship not bad for a skinny kid who looked like an insurance salesman.
My mom and dad didn't have money, and no one came knocking on the door with a golf scholarship, so I played football. I wasn't big. It was like a pebble hitting a mountain. But hit that mountain enough and it comes down.
Did you talk trash on the football field?
Not really, because I always wanted an edge. Disrespecting opponents makes them grow in their own eyes. Don't add fuel to the fire. But when I was disrespected, I let guys know.
Speaking of brutality, let's talk 'The Massacre at Winged Foot' your first U.S. Open win, in 1974. You won at 7-over-par. Is that the hardest setup you've ever seen?
Yes. I remember grabbing that rye-grass rough. It was 15 inches long. And on the greens, you wanted a 30-footer uphill over a 10-footer above the hole. Jack Nicklaus, the greatest player ever, putted off the first green! The players moaned about how hard it was, and I thought, Well, there goes about three-quarters of the field. I just tried to make pars which felt like birdies and accept some bogeys.
How would today's pros do on that setup, with modern equipment?
Something over-par still wins. They hit it farther [today], but you still have to hit the fairway, and you're not reaching the green from the rough.
Ten years later, the Open was back at Winged Foot. You led entering Sunday, trying to win it for your father, who was on his deathbed with prostate cancer. How badly did you want it?
It was 10 years later on the same course, so there was a romance to it. I shot 69 on Saturday and called my mom. She said Dad wouldn't last much longer. I went out Sunday to win it for him. But I had built this huge mountain, too big to climb. I shot a 79. I played with [eventual champion] Fuzzy Zoeller. I won't say hostile, but the crowd was for him. I felt I was letting my dad down, I wanted it so badly. He died one or two weeks later.
Did you two grow closer in the months leading up to his death?
My dad opened up like I'd never seen. He told stories about being a young man 19, 20 in the Depression. How he left Oklahoma for Seattle with the clothes on his back and hopped trains, knocked on doors, worked mines, walked ridge lines. He called it "being a bum." He was with two other young guys. Lord knows what they went through; people look to hurt young kids. Ask yourself, "Could I set out with nothing in my pocket no money, no car, no cell phone and make it from Oklahoma to Seattle?" It's amazing what his generation endured.
I couldn't find this golf course without the GPS.
That's my point. We're soft today.
Was your dad in your thoughts at Medinah?
Absolutely. I hadn't won since 1985. From '86-'89 I played horrible, distracted golf. I'd started a design company. I put golf second. So in the winter of '89, I said to myself, "You're approaching 45. Let's make 1990 special. The time is now." My game was fine, but my mind was confused. I'd forgotten how to think like a winner. Good things started happening. Quality shots. Better focus. Two weeks before Medinah, I had a dream that I won. Again, there are no coincidences.