Irwin 'checks all the boxes' as a Payne Stewart Award winner
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Written by Helen Ross @Helen_PGATOUR
One of Hale Irwin’s favorite memories of Payne Stewart happened at the 1991 Ryder Cup.
The Americans had just won a hotly contested 14.5-13.5 victory over the Europeans on Kiawah Island in what became known as the “War by the Shore.” The closing ceremonies were over, and the two teams had just gotten off the busses at their hotel.
“We were just walking along, talking,” Irwin said. “This is the evening, mind you. Out of the corner of my eye, (Payne) went straight up into the air like something had snatched him.”
Irwin soon realized that Ian Woosnam, the burly 5-foot-4 Welshman, had come up behind Stewart, put his head between the happy-go-lucky American’s legs and lifted him onto his shoulders and off the ground.
“Fit right in with Payne's personality,” Irwin recalled in a recent telephone interview. “Now, would Ian have done that to me? Probably not. He was sort of a like soul, if you wish.
“That's what I remember Payne as; that kind of a personality. Someone that people really enjoyed being around. He loved to have fun and he enjoyed life.”
Irwin certainly wasn’t as flamboyant as Stewart – with the notable exception of that spirited and spontaneous run he made high-fiving fans around the 18th green at Medinah after draining a 60-footer for birdie to tie Mike Donald for the lead at the 1990 U.S. Open.
But Irwin, who went on to win his third U.S. Open in a playoff the next day, shares the same kind of character, commitment to charity, respect for the game and sportsmanship displayed by Stewart, who died in a plane crash on Oct. 25, 1999. That’s why he will formally receive the Payne Stewart Award at a reception Tuesday night in Atlanta held in conjunction with this week’s TOUR Championship.
Irwin wasn’t available when Stewart’s wife, Tracey, called to tell him that he had been selected. When he got the message to call her back, he thought she might want to ask him to play in a charity outing. Or perhaps she was calling to tell him that a mutual friend was ill, or worse.
When he found out the real reason, Irwin was “flabbergasted.”
“I've done a little bit of background on the recipients of this award in the past,” he said. “They all have tremendous pedigrees as far as what they've done in the game, but maybe more importantly what they've done outside the game itself in taking care of not only their own but others that have needed that helping hand.”
Irwin fits in with the crowd that includes Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Tom Watson and Gary Player – to name a few -- perfectly.
Like Stewart, he is a three-time major champion and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Irwin was one of the game’s most dogged competitors, winning 20 times on the PGA TOUR, a phenomenal 45 more on PGA TOUR Champions and another 17 events internationally.
Off the golf course, Irwin made a strong commitment to the St. Louis Children’s Hospital, hosting a charity pro-am to benefit the facility in his adopted hometown for 25 years. The event eventually raised enough money to build a center for pediatric hematology and oncology that fittingly was named in Irwin’s honor.
The way Jay Haas, a St. Louis native who won the 2004 Payne Stewart Award, sees it, Tuesday night’s recognition is long overdue.
“I think that he's one that kind of slipped through the cracks maybe in this award,” Haas said. “He's certainly deserving and has been for a long time. And I know from my days as a younger player, he was one of the first guys that I knew of that really put his heart and soul into charitable organizations and certainly did some great work with the St Louis Children's Hospital.
“He seems to check all the boxes of what the Payne Stewart Award is all about. And I’ve been a huge supporter of him for quite a few years and … I'll never feel like his equal, I guess. So, he's in his rightful place there with that award and I'm really happy for him.”
David Toms, who won the 2011 Payne Stewart Award, is essentially a generation younger than Irwin. But he has gotten to know the man who won the 1967 NCAA golf title and was a two-time All-Big Eight selection as a defensive back at Colorado better since joining PGA TOUR Champions.
“I've actually gotten to play with him a couple times since I've turned 50,” Toms said. “So, obviously, a guy that I always looked up to his career; the results that he's had along the way. And I like the way he's always a very determined player -- not that he was a grinder, but he never really gave in to the golf course. He was always fighting and that was probably his football mentality that he had.”
Haas noted that while the 74-year-old Irwin’s last PGA TOUR Champions win came more than a decade ago, the competitive spirit never waned.
“I think that's been a good example for me in my career watching him -- somebody who had been to the mountain and, but yet still wanted it,” said the 65-year old Hass. “There are so many people I think that get there and kind of go, okay, well I've done that. I don't want to put that effort into it anymore.
“But that was never the case with him.”
Irwin has played just three events this year – actually bettering his age in three different rounds in two stroke-play events – but no tournaments since April. He’s dealing with a tailor’s bunion on the little toe of his left foot and while 90 percent of the time it doesn’t bother him, it makes executing a golf swing and getting out on the left side of his foot problematic.
“So, it's kind of affected the way I play, the way I swing, consequently the way I play and how I look at shots,” Irwin said. “I've played now 51 years. I had 50 years of experience playing one way and now trying to play the next 50 with this is a little more daunting than I originally thought.”
The layoff has allowed Irwin and his wife Sally, an avid tennis player, the luxury of spending more time with their four grandchildren. The couple also went to Wimbledon with Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, even sitting in the Royal Box one day with the Duke of Kent and members of the European Ryder Cup team.
“The experience was just as good as, maybe better than, we hoped it to be,” Irwin said. “And spending time with Jack and Barbara, although we've spent a lot of time with through the years, done a lot of things with, this was one of those special moments. We had a really good time.”
Those kinds of pleasure trips, which were few and far between when Irwin was in his prime, may become more frequent now. Irwin says he “absolutely” misses the competition, but he doesn’t know if he’ll play any more this year. He also understands that, at 74, his days of contending likely are gone.
“Just like Tom Watson just announced, he didn't have the tools in the toolbox anymore,” Irwin said. “Well, my toolbox got lost in the garage several years ago. And I've been looking for the darn thing ever since, but it's just gone.”
Maybe so. But he plans to savor Tuesday night and think of his friend.
Players congratulate Hale Irwin on Payne Stewart Award