By CHRIS JENKINS
HAVEN, Wis. – After making senior golf his personal playground for a decade, this was bound to happen to Hale Irwin.
Over the past few years, an influx of younger players – “younger,” of course, being a relative term – have made the jump from the PGA Tour to the Champions Tour, raising the bar for the players who were already there.
And at age 62, Irwin admits he's looking for more balance in his personal life, and that might have taken the edge off his game.
“I love playing, I love the competition, I really, really do enjoy that,” Irwin said Tuesday, during a break from practice for this week's U.S. Senior Open at Whistling Straits. “But at the same time, there's a point in time where you just, at least temporarily, want to stop and smell the roses a little bit. I think that takes away just a little bit of that competitive edge.”
Irwin won 44 times on the Champions Tour between 1995 and 2005, making him by far the biggest winner in the tour's history. But after going winless in 2006 and finishing outside of the top 10 in prize money, Irwin rededicated himself to fitness over the winter.
“I think it's shown this year,” Irwin said. “The harder I work, the luckier I get. My wife is going to make me work out this afternoon, so no rest for the weary.”
Irwin rediscovered his winning ways at the MasterCard Championship in January. And he's happy with the way he's playing right now, giving him what he hopes is a realistic shot at his third career U.S. Senior Open title.
“I don't feel like my game is far off,” said Irwin, who won the U.S. Senior Open in 1998 and 2000. “I don't like to say that I'm ever playing as well as I can play, but my game is close to doing what I want it to.”
Irwin knows he'll have tough competition this year, noting the recent arrivals of accomplished PGA Tour players such as Jay Haas and Mark O'Meara on the Champions Tour.
“Those guys all bring great personalities, they bring great credentials,” Irwin said. “It moves the bar up for the rest of us.”
Irwin says he has spent the past decade watching senior golf evolve from an exhibition-style “parade floating down main street” to a “very exacting and competitive arena in which to play golf.” At the same time, he knows he's slowing down a little bit.
“As you get older, things start falling apart,” Irwin said. “Whether it be physically, you just can't compete the way you once did because of strength or injury or whatever it may be, or it could just be interest. Most of us have been at this thing for 35, 40 or 45 years. Sometimes, you don't mind a little deep breath.”
Irwin doesn't hide the fact that as he gets older, he is making more space in his life for things that are “more meaningful” than golf.
“It could be business, it could be family, it could be just 'Hey, I'm tired.' Who knows? I don't know what it is,” Irwin said. “But there are just other things that happen.
“Rather than trying to raise your kids, now you're sort of taking care of grandkids on occasion. It's just the quality of life that you have that you want to take advantage of. Things that lie in front of you aren't necessarily 10 years out – they may be 10 days out, right there in front of you.”
But despite facing better competition at the same time he's looking to make more time for his personal life, don't think for a second that Irwin is considering retirement.
“Retire? What is that?” Irwin says with a smile.
Irwin remembers watching golf icons such as Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus struggle to come to terms with the end of their careers, and seems resigned to the fact that the same thing might happen to him.
“You've had success, and it's had great impact, positive impact on your life,” Irwin said. “How do you kind of turn away from that? I think that's the hard part.”
Irwin might not be winning like he was three or four years ago, but he still gets a charge out of competing.
“And that's hard to turn away from,” Irwin said. “So I don't know if retirement really is in my near future at all.”