News & Opinion

U.S. Open memories tug at Hale Irwin, all fanfare aside

Hale Irwin wins 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot
Hale Irwin emerges as the last man standing at the famous 1974 ‘Massacre at Winged Foot,’ the 1st of his 3 U.S. Open victories.

Lone survivor of the 1974 ‘Massacre at Winged Foot,’ the 1st of his 3 Open titles, longs for the galleries that won’t be attending next week in New York, but there will be an even bigger loss, he notes

What happened on that sultry day in the suburbs of Chicago never could happen next week in New York. That’s the part that is truly hard for Hale Irwin to comprehend.

The U.S. Open Championship that he famously captured three times has been moved from its traditional June mooring to a dissimilar September slot. Moreover, nothing is “open” about it. Qualifying has been jettisoned, the field is appointed and the ropes will refrain no one.

As the pandemic persists and precautions prevail, there will be no need for concessions or corporate hospitality, no patrons to call on them. Spectators will not be allowed on the grounds next week at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Hale Irwin celebrates forcing a playoff in 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah
Hale Irwin prances around the 18th green at Medinah after sinking an improbable putt to force a playoff in the 1990 U.S. Open, which he eventually would win.

Thirty years ago, Irwin drained an improbable putt on the 72nd hole at Medinah Country Club and, at age 45, put himself in position to become the oldest player to win the national championship. When the 45-footer dropped, he lost all inhibition, all sense of comportment and a normally contained demeanor. He ran around the green, slapped high fives, blew kisses with both hands and embraced the exploding gallery of fans.

It never could happen at this U.S. Open; there won’t be any gallery. And if there were, in these virus-vetting times, the last thing one could do is high-five or blow kisses. A socially distanced fist pump might be the best for which one could hope.

Before COVID-19 captured the country, Irwin was scheduled to participate in a number of championship-related functions in New York. After all, he won his first U.S. Open there, the unforgettable “Massacre at Winged Foot” in 1974. He nearly did it again in 1984 at Winged Foot, before falling on a Sunday 79. But all nostalgia and celebratory appearances have been shelved.

“I find it very disheartening,” said Irwin, whose son, Steve, a fine amateur, qualified into the 2011 U.S. Open. “I often call it our ‘National Open’ and to call it “open” now is a misnomer. How do you have a U.S. Open in New York, one of the hot spots in our game, and have no people out there?

“It’s going to be really, really odd. The USGA, I’m sure, and all of the golfers around the world are just agonizing over this. You get so much energy from the galleries and the crowds and the cheering. It just seems so misplaced.”

Speaking of misplaced, Irwin is confident that, “somewhere,” he still has the pad of yellow paper. The paper that contains the notes and personal accounting he made in 1990, the accounting that changed his life and provided this championship with one of its defining moments.

“I know it’s around somewhere,” Irwin said. “I’d love to see it again.”

In the days preceding the 1990 PGA Tour season, Irwin sat down with that same pad. Almost five years had passed since his last PGA Tour victory, the 1985 Memorial. Ten years had passed since his second U.S. Open victory, at Inverness in 1979. Over the previous four-plus seasons, a man with 17 PGA Tour wins, 41 top-3s and 141 top-10s had no wins and seven top-10s.

During the same period of time, he had started a course-design business, a pursuit which he thoroughly enjoyed and one that was occupying much of his focus and time. So, before another PGA Tour season unfolded, Irwin sat down with the pad and a pen, and reflected.

“I was still hitting the golf shots; that wasn’t a problem,” he said, recalling the moment. “I wrote down all that stuff, all the things I could remember about the tournaments I won. And what I couldn’t remember about a particular tournament, I would set it aside and come back to it. Anyway, it got me thinking about playing again, how to go out and become the player that I hopefully was before.

“And I could feel once the season got started, there was a little more bounce to my step… I felt closer to what I was trying to accomplish as a player. So as the season went on, I could feel it coming together.”

What came together never has been undone. Just days after his 45th birthday in 1990, Irwin slapped a 31 on Medinah’s backside, made the bomb on 18 and wound up tied with Mike Donald for the U.S. Open hardware. In today’s world, the knot would have been addressed immediately with a two-hole playoff.

But in the days of yore, when men were men and playoffs were playoffs, the championship went to a Monday showdown.

When the day arrived, the nervous combatants were not especially sharp. With three holes to play, the 34-year-old Donald was 1 over par and two shots better. The old geezer finally was standing down, or was he?

The unrelenting Irwin birdied 16 with a sensational 2-iron, and with two to play, the difference was one. At 18, Donald still led by one when he hooked his drive into the trees. When his 18-foot putt narrowly failed to save par, the playoff went to sudden death, the first in U.S. Open history.

On the first hole, Donald’s wedge settled 25 feet shy of the flag, and Irwin’s approach was within 10 feet. Donald’s long putt veered wide right. Irwin’s turned into the hole, and he was a U.S. Open champion for a third time.

But he wasn’t done. The yellow pad kept producing, and his career soared into a second stage. Six days later, exhausted but still exhilarated, Irwin edged Paul Azinger to win the Buick Classic, the first man since Billy Casper (1966) to follow a U.S. Open victory by winning the next tournament. Irwin would win one more PGA Tour event, at age 48, and then dominate the Senior Tour (now Champions Tour), becoming the career victory leader, with 45.

Now 75, Irwin still competes occasionally, continues his design business, and is involved in a new multimedia digital project, entitled Keeler1930. His playing career has dwindled to the occasional stage. That said, he enjoys reminiscing about his successes. The game has changed: the physicality of it, the financials of it, the manner of it. He is not particularly surprised, these many years later, that he remains the oldest winner of a U.S. Open.

“I mean, it’s just slam it, and chase it, and hit another wedge, and make a putt,” Irwin said. “Physically, the way they swing at the ball now, with the pressure and the leverage they’re putting on joints, I don’t know if they are physically going to be there at 45.

“There’s talent there, but I don’t know if the interest level will be there. It’s almost like it’s a short-term thing. The kids are going to go out there and, whatever it takes for 10 years, they’re going to do it. By the time they’re 35 years old, they might not have it anymore. Add another 10 years to that, you’re 45, and I don’t know.”

What Irwin does know is that somewhere, in his desk, in a closet, in the attic, that yellow pad of paper still exists.

“I know I didn’t throw it out,” he said. "I’ve looked all over, and I cannot find it. But I’d love to see what’s on there. One of these days, I will.”

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.