Earlier this week Hale Irwin, one of the legends of the game of golf, was honored as the 2019 recipient of the Payne Stewart Award Presented by Southern Company.
Along with a Hall of Fame career, Irwin will be celebrated at the annual ceremony in conjunction with the Tour Championship, for being a professional golfer who has had “exceptional character, sportsmanship and an unwavering commitment to charitable impact.”
While playing, Irwin won more than 90 events worldwide. He had a career that stretched over five decades on both the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions, where his record of 45 all-time wins still stands.
Irwin, now 74 years old, along with his wife Sallie and grandson Dylan, recently stopped by the Sports Illustrated offices to talk with SI.com’s Ryan Asselta. He was his usual candid self about the award, the impact he’s had on people on and off the course and whether the future of the PGA and PGA Champions Tours are in good hands.
Ryan Asselta: You’ve won plenty of awards and honors over your career. Where does the Payne Stewart Award rank for you?
Hale Irwin: Oh, it has a special connotation, obviously. The fact that it’s not a performance award or a low-scoring award or money title award, is special. It’s something that is more significant, I think in a sense that it’s an accomplishment of something broader than just your profession. It really is inclusive of everything that I’ve done in my life. Now, do I do it perfectly? No. Far from it, but I try to do the best I can with what I’ve got.
RA: The award, in Payne Stewart’s name, is “Presented annually by the Tour to a professional golfer who best exemplifies Stewart’s steadfast values of character, charity and sportsmanship.” I want to ask you about character. How important was that to you over your career? And were you aware of always trying to play with character and conduct yourself with character?
HI: Well, probably not as much as I should’ve been. (LAUGH). I say that simply from a competitive perspective. The competitive nature is very strong in me. And at times, that may be viewed as too strong, but in my opinion, trying your best at all times is not bad.
I’d rather see somebody that’s out there trying all the time, and never giving in. I’ve always thought that character is giving your opponent his due when it’s due. I think it’s recognizing that there’re other players out there that are equally, if not better than you.
RA: How well did you know Payne Stewart?
HI: I guess about as well as you can know Payne. He was a character. We’re talking character, Payne was (LAUGH) a character. And we all loved him for that. Payne grew into being the man that we all came to know him as.
I think when he started out, he was a little… I won’t say he was a loose cannon, but he was finding his way, as we all do. I think Payne really hit his stride when he married Tracey. Tracey was a very strong influence.
RA: When remembering Payne, what memory sticks out?
HI: After he won his second U.S. Open championship, we were in a locker room, and coincidentally it was just the two of us in a secluded area. I had won multiple Open championships and I said to him “How’s it feel to be a member of the multi-Open championship club?” And he got that little, silly grin on his face. And said, “S– “I like it.” (LAUGH) I was being complimentary and sort of like “Welcome to the club, Payne.”
One other funny story was from the Ryder Cup at Kiawah. We had just squeaked by the Europeans to win.
Payne and I were walking together back to the hotel, and out of the corner of my eye, I see Payne, and he just goes up in the air! And I’m like “what in the world?” Well, what had happened was Ian Woosnam had come up behind him. And Ian is a very a short man. Very strong. Very stocky. He’s got his head between Payne’s legs, just lifted up on his shoulders.(LAUGH).
That’s one of the lasting visuals I have of Payne. Up there on Woosnam’s shoulders! (LAUGH)
RA: Charity is also a big component of the Payne Stewart award. When it comes to today’s PGA Tour…Is the tour in good hands right now?
HI: I think that the tour is very cognizant and very focused on the charitable aspect of what they are doing. Collectively, it’s an enormous effort. The tour and the players generate enormous sums of money.
As long as these players understand that their value in their community is not by how many tournaments they won, or how much money they won. It’s what did they do with their lives? And how does it affect others in a positive way. If there are players, younger players, that are not giving back, I would think that they owe it to themselves to do so. Be selfish and do it for yourself.
RA: Your PGA TOUR career stretched for 23 years and then another 25 years on the PGA Tour Champions What was the biggest key to your longevity?
HI: I’m lucky in that I’ve been relatively healthy as far as major injuries go. I think I’ve always wanted to learn. I’ve always kept an open mind about how to approach playing the game. How the game can affect you, not only physically, but also mentally. And to this day, I have more golf dreams than I ever wanted to dream. (LAUGH) And they’re not all good ones, by the way. (LAUGH)
I’ve always looked at other players’ swings, whether they are an amateur or a pro, and just say, “What is good about that? What is not? What can I incorporate? Why did he hit that shot? Or was that a mistake? And if it was a mistake and it ended up well, well, maybe you should try and hit that mistake more often.”
I just tried to learn. And learn from everybody. It didn’t have to be the best in the game, or the best teacher. I’ve never had a teacher. It can be from anyone. We could go play right now and I would try to learn something.
RA: You’ve had 90 victories over your career worldwide. Which one do you cherish the most?
HI: It’s impossible to pick one. I might go back to the age of 14, the first tournament I ever won as a junior. I grew up in a baseball community, in a little southeast Kansas town. Mickey Mantle grew up about 15 miles away from where I did. I was probably a better baseball player than most anything ever. But when I figured out I could do golf on an individual basis, that’s what kind of peaked my imagination. When I was 14, we moved to Colorado and my mom entered me in a little junior golf tournament. And I won it! I had so much fun and that what really started it for me. I had immediate results.
My first win as a professional was special. I felt I had arrived. I had played well enough to win at Harbor Town, which was a pretty darn hard golf course back in the day. And I’d beaten some really good players.
People say, “Which of your three Opens?” No way because you can’t pick one. They’re all under different circumstances, different courses. Just different.
RA: How about today’s tour players…Are they stronger than the players in your generation?
HI: I think they’re stronger when it comes to physical strength, but I don’t think they’re stronger mentally. I think some of the players of my generation were very strong-minded, very strong-willed individuals. Now, is today’s player a better player? Well, they can hit the ball farther, but that also comes from the equipment. It’s all like the chicken and the egg, which came first?
RA: How about the PGA Tour Champions? You had the most wins all-time on the champion’s tour. A few legends of the current PGA Tour are approaching 50. Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson are nearing 50, but haven’t shown a ton of interest in playing on the PGA Tour Champions. Can the Tour survive without the marquis names playing?
HI: No. My fear is that there’s so much money in the game now and these players like Vijay Singh, came out and rapidly found out that, “Hey, these guys can still play.” And didn’t win right away. We’re seeing that with Retief Goosen. He just won his first one. I hope they don’t get discouraged, but I think it’s going to be more about whether they want to have a competitive difference in their lives. Do they want to compete?
They’re going to have enough money. Phil’s got enough money. He’s not going to have to worry about that. But do they want to play? Do they want to add to the game of golf? Do they want to continue on this legacy? That’s what I hope they do. I can see Phil and Ernie wanting to keep on playing. When Tiger turns 50, will he be healthy enough to do it? And will he have the want? Beause when you lose the want to, you lose your game.