By Travis Puterbaugh, Curator
It seems almost impossible to conceive that a three-time U.S. Open champion and 20-time winner on the PGA TOUR might be overshadowed by his achievements on another tour. Yet such is the legacy of Hale Irwin that here we are, a full 14 years after his last win on the PGA TOUR Champions, still staring up in the record books to the golfer widely regarded as the greatest player of all time on that circuit.
After closing out his PGA TOUR career in 1994 with career win number 20 at the MCI Heritage Golf Classic – the site of his first win on the TOUR in 1971 – Irwin joined the PGA TOUR Champions full-time when he turned 50 years old in 1995. His first season started with a bang and offered a preview of what would come over the next decade plus.
In his debut at the Bellsouth Senior Classic at Opryland in late July, Irwin finished T4 and earned the first $59,400 of his $27,148,515 career Champions Tour winnings. Aided by a tournament-best 9-under 63 in the second round, Irwin claimed his first win just four starts later at the Ameritech Senior Open, a decisive seven-shot victory over Kermit Zarley, a win in which his 21-under-par 195 eclipsed the tournament record by five shots.
He captured his second tournament of the year on the first day of October at the Vantage Championship, another decisive victory and a bogey-free tournament which resulted in a four-stroke win over Dave Stockton. Remarkably, the $225,000 winner’s prize equaled the largest amount he had won for any tournament to that point in his playing career.
Irwin earned the PGA TOUR Champions 1995 Rookie of the Year honors for his two victories, in addition to posting a 68.85 scoring average, earning 11 Top 10 finishes, and placing 10th on the money list ($799,175) despite only playing in 12 tournaments. This was only the beginning of a dominant run which would span the next decade.
He followed up his debut season with two more victories in 1996, including his first Major win: the PGA Seniors’ Championship, which he would win in three consecutive years (1996-1998). By the end of the decade, Irwin had accumulated 25 victories. In just four full seasons of competition, he moved into sole possession of second place in career-wins on the PGA TOUR Champions, just four wins behind the all-time leader, Lee Trevino (29).
Irwin would pass Trevino in 2001 at the Siebel Classic in Silicon Valley, his 30th victory in only 135 starts on the PGA TOUR Champions, a remarkable 22% winning percentage. Over his next 150+ starts, Irwin would add a final Major Championship in 2004 to bring to his career total to seven, and would win 15 more tournaments, adding to an already decorated career as a three-time Player of the Year, a four-time Byron Nelson Award recipient for Lowest Scoring Average, and two-time winner of the season-long Charles Schwab Cup.
His final victory would come in the first event of the 2007 season, the MasterCard Championship at Hualalai, where he tied his career-low on tour with a 10-under 62 in the second round en route to a five-stroke win over Tom Kite. It would be his seventh all-time win in Hawaii as a member of the PGA TOUR Champions and marked the 13th time he won the same event at least twice. Irwin even broke a personal-best, as his 23-under-par total of 193 marked his lowest score in a 54-hole event on the tour. As dominantly as he played that weekend, few might have imagined that would be his final time winning a tournament.
Still, along the way during his PGA TOUR Champions career, Irwin shot his age or better 39 times. He nearly won the 2012 Senior PGA Championship, just a few days shy of his 67th birthday, finishing in a tie for third place, three shots behind winner Roger Chapman. Then in September 2018 – possibly rejuvenated by the waters of Carmel Bay – Irwin shot an opening round 5-under 67 at the PURE Insurance Championship in Pebble Beach. For his multitude of achievements, Irwin occasionally wonders if he left more wins and accomplishments out on the golf course.
“I probably could have played a little bit longer, more effectively had I wanted to,” Irwin said of his remarkable career. “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.”
Today, his status as the “GOAT” and holder of the PGA TOUR Champions record of 45 career wins faces serious challenge from Bernhard Langer, an outstanding player in his own right who has the record for most Major Championships on tour with 11, has completed the career Senior Grand Slam, and has already won 41 times on the Champions Tour.
“It’s his to make or break,” Irwin says of Langer. “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.” The two will be forever linked in the minds of golf fans for their epic match which decided the Ryder Cup in 1991, and they stand shoulder-to-should as the two most dominant players in the history of the PGA TOUR Champions. The age-defying Langer – who at 63 years old finished T29 at the Masters in November 2020 – could equal or surpass Irwin sometime in the next year or two should he continue with his winning ways. Whether he remains in first place, or is eventually overtaken by Langer, there will never be any disputing Irwin’s legacy in PGA TOUR Champions history.