On Monday, Hale Irwin was scheduled to play in a charity golf event at Warwick Country Club in Rhode Island -- not exactly a glamour site or the most prestigious event of his long career.
Irwin could've blown 'em off, gone home and admired his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated. At 45, he could've claimed he was exhausted after becoming the oldest man ever to win back-to-back titles on the main golf circuit. After what he did in the U.S. Open at Medinah, then the Buick Classic at Westchester Country Club, nobody would have squawked.
After all, Irwin had played nine of the tensest rounds of golf of his life in the previous 11 days. At Medinah, he had to shoot 67 on Sunday with a 45-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff. Then, on Monday, he had to birdie the 14th, 16th and 19th holes to come from behind and beat Mike Donald.
Finally, Sunday at Westchester, he needed a 67 to keep budding superstar Paul Azinger at bay, and shot 66. "It's hard to follow up any win," Azinger said. "I can't imagine what it takes to follow up an Open victory."
Almost nobody can. Only one man in PGA history had followed a major tournament victory with a win the next week -- Billy Casper after his 1966 U.S. Open triumph.
If Irwin wanted to claim even further fatigue, he could point back to the Kemper Open at Avenel, the tournament where he caught fire with a Saturday 65 and finished third. Irwin missed a three-way playoff by one shot when his birdie putts at the 71st and 72nd holes each missed the lip "by a quarter of an inch." Yes, that was this month too.
Instead of ducking out on charity, Irwin showed up in the tiniest state, led his team to a win and tied for low round with a three-under-par 66.
What a contrast to many other sports, especially tennis, where you can't get a brat like Andre Agassi to show up unless you pay a healthy guarantee.
Old athletes are almost always nice athletes. The classic quip is, "He learned to say hello just when it was time to say goodbye." In golf, the Irwins, Ray Floyds and Jack Nicklauses knew how to say hello when they were in their primes. But they do it even more graciously now. That's why we don't want 'em to say goodbye.
Sports needs their example -- their playfulness, their easy showmanship, their gritty persistence and their mature blending of a will-to-win with a peace-in-defeat. Sports needs sportsmen who are also gentlemen. It is possible.
Irwin has been probably one of the least appreciated athletic stars of the last 25 years. His 19 tour wins compare favorably with Gary Player (22) and Floyd (21). In his prime, Irwin finished in the top 20 on the money list in 12 of 13 years from 1971 to 1983. Once, he made the cut in 86 straight events -- the all-time record.
That Irwin image, of a somewhat dull consistency, has probably now been erased forever by one moment of gleeful joy. Until a month ago, Irwin was headed toward golf history as the smart, decent, analytical guy who lived like he hit a 1-iron -- straight as an arrow.
Now he's the guy who runs around the 18th green slapping hands with fans. Then runs around the pressroom slapping hands with reporters, yelling, "Who says 45 is old?" Now he's the middle-aged hero who blows kisses to the crowd. He's the guy who sinks the U.S. Open-winning birdie in sudden death, then scoops up his wife and kids. Now he's the guy who fulfills his responsibility to the Buick Classic out of a sense of duty -- then makes a hole-in-one the first day. And wins the darn tournament. Talk about giving yourself a facelift.
Wouldn't it be nice if every athlete were allowed to leave his final memory after he was actually old enough to have grown into being himself. The few who can are the lucky ones. Now, Nolan Ryan gets to go out with a nimbus of affection around him. George Foreman, even if Mike Tyson knocks him silly, seems like kind of a funny old pug, not a menacing meanie. "The only reason people say I've been beating stiffs," said Foreman last week, "is because it's true." And the glower turns to a grin.
Nothing beats the right fadeout. Nicklaus will always be winning the '86 Masters with his son as his caddie and Ted Williams's last swing will always be a home run. Sure, it's sentimental. But take it.
Irwin may have needed an exemption from the USGA, a dispensation from rain- softened Medinah and a reprieve on the 90th hole from Mike Donald to win his third Open, but he did grab the heavyweight title of his sport when nobody outside his family even knew he still played the game. The man had been a rumor for five years.
Irwin has been colorful and quotable in victory, but, as yet, has not had time or opportunity to be introspective. That's a shame because "smart" has always been Irwin's long suit. He's a good quipster. But he's a Hall of Fame ruminator. Let's listen to what he said several years ago about golfers in general. And apply his words to him.
"Golf is the 'only-est' sport," Irwin once said. "You're completely alone with every conceivable opportunity to defeat yourself. Golf brings out your assets and liabilities as a person. The longer you play, the more certain you are that a man's performance is the outward manifestation of who, in his heart, he really thinks he is."
Lots of people got to see Irwin, as he sees himself, at Medinah. Television cameras and reporters showed up that Sunday, on the run, to watch Greg Norman, who'd just shot 32 on the front nine. They stayed to watch Irwin, playing head-to-head with Norman, shoot 31 on the back and pass the Shark with five birdies in eight holes.
If that day tested Irwin's belief in his own historical stature, the next day revealed his trademark: stubborn guts.
"What really matters is resiliency," Irwin said years ago. "On the last nine holes of the Masters or the U.S. Open, there's going to come at least one point when you want to throw yourself in the nearest trash can and disappear. You know you can't hide. It's like you're walking down the fairway naked. The gallery knows what you've done, every other player knows and, worst of all, you know. That's when you find out if you're a competitor."
The thousands who walked with Irwin during the playoff saw him strip himself naked with four early bogeys -- including a 4-wood shot that went nine yards. Then slowly, he somehow pulled himself together, until, finally, he put enough pressure on Donald to make him waver just enough.
Now, like those other rare athletes who have had the good luck to save their greatest day for last, Irwin gets to leave his game fully clothed. In fact, at the moment, he almost seems to have a kingly robe about him.