Irwin gets a grip on game
The old dog learns a new trick and may be better than ever
Hale Irwin didn't just pick up his clubs the week before the MasterCard Championship in Hualalai and decide he would beat a winners-only field by five shots come Sunday.
It didn't start at the end of the 2006 season when he played in the Del Webb Father/Son Challenge where he and his son, Steve, finished fifth. No, it was at the Scottish Open last July where a young Swede named Johan Edfors gave a valuable lesson to one of the game's legends.
It was there that Irwin received a putting tip that helped him find his way back home to the winner's circle all these months later.
"I played the first two rounds with him and he ended up winning the tournament," Irwin said. "He had a very distinct putting grip. He had a complete left hand on the club, then he triple overlapped with his right hand over his left with his thumbs going down the shaft.
"The only two fingers touching the club on his right hand were his forefinger and his thumb. He had 29 one-putts over the first 36 holes. He shot 65, 68 and I thought I might have to try that. I have fiddled with it since then. I haven't putted that way, just practice putting and it really helped rotate your shoulders and that really was where I was going off. I was using too much hands.
"I had various grips from that, fiddling around; like my son is using a variation of it right now. I practice that because it makes me feel my shoulders rotate. I then kind of got back to my old grip, the one I've been using, but it makes me more aware of rotating my shoulders. Part of golf, to me, is to have a continued learning curve.
"As long as I've been around and in as many tournaments that I have played, you still feel like there's something out there that you can still learn. If I turn my back on Johan I might not have been willing to try it. You pick up little things that might help."
Once he began to see hope in his short game again, it didn't matter that he was shutout on the Champions Tour for the first time since he joined in 1995. The process that had left him 0-for-2006 needed time to mature before Irwin would hoist a trophy once again.
Irwin also went back into the gym to get the old muscles up and running with flex appeal. Imagine The Tin Man, if you will, and how many squirts of oil were needed to keep those joints free and easy.
It's not that Irwin didn't prepare properly for 2006, it's just that he had to prepare differently this year in order to keep up with the younger crowd that included Jay Haas and Loren Roberts. He described it after his 10-under 62 on Saturday as a pinch of this and a dash of that; not to get too technical, but what he got was an adjustment and it worked marvels with his game.
"It was a disappointing year in that I didn't make it the kind of year like 2005 by any stretch of the imagination," Irwin said. "I was only in a couple of tournaments. I just felt that my game wasn't adequate enough to play at the level of Jay and Loren."
Irwin's commitment in the gym is made more difficult still with a faulty back that could go out on him at a swing's notice. He knows the back is bad, everybody in the 50-and-older set has something wrong with them from years of doing the same thing a thousand times a day. Irwin can't even practice putting that much or his back tightens on him as a friendly reminder.
But with this new grip came a new feel for the game. When you have putted more times than you've written your name, your mind's eye can play it for you well enough. This new grip and motion that came with it taught Irwin a valuable lesson that led to only 75 putts over 54 holes, including 13 one-putts on Sunday to seal the deal as Roberts, Tom Kite and Jim Thorpe looked on.
They all said on Saturday that Irwin would be a winner on Sunday. A three-shot lead that was bolstered with three birdies over the first four holes ended any drama. All you could do was sit back and watch this 61-year-old maestro conduct a winning Champions Tour event for a record 45th time.
Sure, it came in Hawaii, where he was won nine official events and three Senior Skins outings for a tidy sum of $4.2 million. And he still has his favorite tournament on Friday, the Turtle Bay Championship, a place where he has won four times before in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2005.
"I'm not going to do anything on Monday or Tuesday," Irwin said. "I'm not going to touch a club. I'm going to go over on Wednesday and get ready and see what happens. Over there, you've got to adjust the flight of your ball when you hit it in that wind. I'm just going to take it a week at a time and see how many categories of the game I can improve."
Coming into Friday's first full-field event of 2007, Irwin is first in putting and driving accuracy on the Champions Tour. Last year, he was 21st in scoring (70.74) and 10th in greens in regulation (72.39 percent). It was the only category Irwin managed a top-10 finish, something he plans to change in the coming campaign.
"I feel good about my game right now," Irwin said. "It feels right for the first time in a while. I decided I need to put '06 away. Put it to the side and move forward."