Hale Irwin admits he was a little worried when he got Tracey Stewart’s voicemail. The reality of being 74 years old is that news from friends you haven’t heard from in a while isn’t always good. On the other hand, and on a more positive note, he thought that maybe she wanted him to play in an outing. When the two finally talked, though, Irwin says he was “flabbergasted” to find out he had been chosen to win the 2019 Payne Stewart Award. “It caught me absolutely off balance.” The award was given to recognize Irwin’s character, sportsmanship and charity work, particularly with the St. Louis Children’s Hospital where the Center for Pediatric Hematology and Oncology bears his name.
Irwin, who won 20 PGA TOUR events, including three U.S. Opens, and a record 45 times on PGA TOUR Champions, has stepped back from competitive golf because of a foot problem. He and his wife, Sally, have had time to do things they might not have otherwise, though, like going to Wimbledon with Jack and Barbara Nicklaus and sitting in the Royal Box.
Q: You must be awfully proud of the work you’ve done with the St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Did any of the kids make an impression on you?
IRWIN: Every one of them. Every month or two, I would go down there and see how things are going because it did two things for me. It made me feel better about what we were doing to kind of see the results of our endeavors. But it also brought me back to square one. Seeing these kids and how ill they were made me just so thankful for what I have and sort of reasserted what I needed to do in my life.
I went up to the preemie ward one time and saw this little-bitty baby that, oh my goodness, fit right in the palm of your hand and was in an incubator. Fast forward, this child became fully developed, just fine, but how in the world that happened is just beyond me. And I was down in the emergency room once and I heard this wailing. I went around the corner and this mother had just at that moment lost her child to SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome]. So, you get sadness, you get the happiness.
I always seemed to find myself drawn to the kids with the cancer, you know, that have the hair loss. If they were ambulating at all, they were pushing a gurney with drips. These are kids that could not go out on the playground and run and throw a ball or fall down on the dirt or play on the swings. So that always kind of made me sad.
Q: You were a talented athlete in a variety of sports and played football at Colorado. Did you always know that golf was your future?
IRWIN: Nope. I still don’t know. Let’s put it this way. When I grew up in this little town in southeast Kansas called Baxter Springs, the golf course that we had available there was a little nine-holer with sand greens. It was baseball country. Mickey Mantle was from Commerce, Oklahoma, which was just across the line, perhaps 10, 15 miles away. The real influence in that area was baseball. I was a good baseball player. In fact, that’s probably the best sport of all the sports I’ve played. But you need at least eight other guys to play, and another team of at least nine other guys before it’s really baseball.
My father traveled as a salesman for Ingersoll Rand throughout the Ozarks … but he’d come home periodically and go out with a couple of his friends and play a little golf. And he’d take some old clubs, saw them off, make them shorter, wrap the shaft in electrical tape, and those were my clubs, the three or four that I had. … I liked golf because I could do it myself. While I still played all those other sports, it’s just something that I kept coming back to, and that sort of extended well into my life. So, when I’m getting ready to be a graduating senior in college, I’m thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ I’ve got three choices. One of which is to take my marketing degree and go into the business world and get in the interview line and try to land a job working 8 to 5 and maybe be bored to tears. The Vietnam War was in full force. I could go into the military. The third one was to pursue golf. So, we know where I ended up.
Q: Of those three U.S. Open wins, was there one that stood out?
IRWIN: No. The first one at Winged Foot in ’74 was so difficult and so rewarding. It was my third win as a professional. But I felt that my game had advanced and become sophisticated enough to take care of those kinds of situations. Now the one in ’79, at Inverness, I’d had some really good years that had sort of reaffirmed that I could play on the international stage and win at the big events. And then the one in ’90 at Medinah really kind of came after a five-year hiatus where I really didn’t play well. I had won the Memorial [in 1983] and I started my design company shortly thereafter. A lot of the efforts that it took to play, I kind of redistributed that out into the design company. I was still hitting good golf shots, but I wasn’t in it. I didn’t have the application of the mind. I was too split with what I was doing.
And at the tail end of the ’89 season before ’90 got started, I just sat down, talked to myself. I wrote down a few things about as a player what I used to think about when I was winning and I’d go back to that periodically and think about it again and sort of redistributed my thoughts and got them back on point with the playing because the design work was going well…. It got me back to thinking like a pro and I could feel my game coming around even prior to the Open win in ’90. So, I think the first one was proving I could do it. The last one was proving I still could do it. And the middle one was … It was sort of the reaffirmation that I was still one of those recognized players.
Q: So, do you miss the competition?
IRWIN: Absolutely. No doubt. There’s no way that you can ever stem that ‘want’ to get up there and compete and be successful once you’ve done it and you realize how much fun it is.
Q: What would people be most surprised to find out about you?
IRWIN: I’ve been asked that question before and I do a lousy job answering it. I don’t know. I don’t think I live my life trying to leave a lasting impression on somebody else that they can put in words. … For my family, I hope it’s being a good father. Or my friends it would be a friend that will always be there for them if they need it. To a stranger, hopefully it will be being receptive to them.
And of course, there are any number of ways I’d love to paint myself, but I don’t go around each day thinking, okay, how am I going to go impress somebody else, so they remember me. That’s not who and what I am. I want to live my life the right way and hopefully people remember—like this Payne Stewart Award. Maybe they remember—not me getting the award, but what the award means and the monies that Southern Company is donating to my wife and me to distribute in the community. That’s what I hope they remember: that we cared about other people.
This article first appeared in the PGA TOUR December 2019-May 2020 issue, which can be read here.