BARON SEKIYA / WEST HAWAII TODAY
Hale Irwin blasted out of a greenside bunker on No. 11 yesterday on his way to winning the MasterCard Championship.
Irwin unchallenged at Hualalai
His 45th victory on the Champions Tour gives him a shot at a sweep through Hawaii
HUALALAI, Hawaii » Hale Irwin isn't ready to ride around in a golf cart for fun just yet.
After going winless last year for the first time since he joined the senior set in 1995, Irwin ended any doubts that retirement was on his mind with a victory yesterday in the $1.7 million MasterCard Championship at Hualalai.
With birdies on three of the first four holes, Irwin established a five-shot lead and was never seriously threatened as he fired a 7-under 65 to finish the event at 23-under 193. He didn't flirt with the 54-hole record set by Loren Roberts last year, but then again, he didn't have to as his closest competitors couldn't put together one of those stellar rounds needed to track him down.
"I didn't want to look at a leaderboard, because when you look at a board you start saying I have a five-shot lead, but if I do this, then it's a four-shot lead, but if they do this and I do that, to heck with it," Irwin said. "If you don't make birdies on this course they're all going to pass you. I had that great front nine. I went out in 4 under and I birdied 10, and all of a sudden I'm 8 under par, so I know I've got the lead, I just don't know by how much.
"I asked my wife at the 18th, 'Do I have the lead?' Dumb question. She said three, maybe four, so I figured I could get to the house. It was kind of surprising to know I had extended the lead to six. I usually am (somebody who watches the boards), but in this case, I just wanted to stick with the plan. I knew if I could get off to a good start, two things. It's good for me and demoralizing to the other guys."
Jim Thorpe and Tom Kite tried to keep it from being a runaway. Kite fired a 5-under 67 and Thorpe managed a 6-under 66 to finish five shots behind Irwin at 18-under 198. Thorpe ended the 2006 campaign with a win at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship and had visions of beginning 2007 the same way.
Kite was sitting in second, just three shots back at the start of the day, but Irwin's magic here in Hawaii is unmatched.
"Hale was magical on the greens," Kite said of Irwin, who had only 24 putts. "Starting out with a three-shot lead, we needed to put a little pressure on him. I wasn't as sharp today as I had been the first two days, especially on the front nine. I needed to put some heat on him and I didn't do it. So he built up a nice cushion there.
"Gee, I shot 18 under. I know the golf course is easy, but 18 under is pretty low. Hard to complain about that. I'm very pleased with the way this thing started. I really did a lot of things in the offseason to get in shape and work on my swing. I love the way I'm swinging right now."
It just wasn't enough to catch Irwin, who won his 30th tournament when holding or sharing the lead entering the final round. His 45th Champions Tour victory came at a familiar spot, as he continues to do well in the island chain.
It was the second MasterCard victory for Irwin, with the first coming here in the inaugural year at Hualalai Golf Club in 1997. It's possible Irwin will match Roberts' feat of a year ago of winning both events in Hawaii, but he's not going to think about that until later in the week.
Roberts snapped Irwin's five-tournament win streak at the Turtle Bay Championship last year as Irwin finished back in the pack. But considering how well Irwin likes the Arnold Palmer-designed course on the North Shore of Oahu, he'd have to be this week's favorite to make it 2-for-2 in the islands.
Irwin has now won nine official events in the 50th state, with the first coming in 1981 at the United Airlines Hawaiian Open. He also has three Senior Skins titles in his trophy case to give him $4.2 million in prize money just in Hawaii.
"He's an expensive dude," Irwin said, when somebody told him the tax man in Hawaii loved him. "What I had hoped to accomplish I accomplished in a big way this week. The major concern from last year was my short game, specifically my putting. Not getting the ball in the hole as often as I needed to. I made a few minor changes, but in many respects major with the results."
That would be an understatement. Irwin one-putted 13 greens in the final round as the conditions were perfect for the third consecutive day. Most of the players in this 41-man winners-only field had their way with the Jack Nicklaus-designed course. The only two golfers who didn't finish in the red were Lanny and Bobby Wadkins. Even 71-year-old Gary Player almost managed to shoot his age for a third straight day, something that served as an inspiration for Irwin. Player settled for a 73.
In all, 24 golfers landed in the 60s yesterday, the fewest of any of the three rounds. The scoring average yesterday was 68.927. For the week, it was 68.715, which isn't bad for guys 50 and over, no matter what golf course you're on.
At 61, Irwin doesn't know how many wins he still has in his bag. When told this was his 45th win on the Champions Tour, he quickly interjected, "And still counting, I hope.
"I don't want to belittle that number, but that's not the way I think. I can still play. Whether there's a 46th out there or a 56th, I don't know. But all I know is I have 45. I used to think a few years ago, can I get to 50? Who knows? I still have five to go. That's a big five.
"I only had six to go starting last year. It's a big step, but it's one of those things that helps define what I need to do. I think it's all shown that there's life in my golf game as witnessed this week. There's still a fire in my belly to do that. Maybe that's more important than anything else. Rather than saying, 'Gosh, I'm closer to 62 than I am to 61, I better start slowing down. I don't accept that."