Hale Irwin is arguably the most well-known golf figure associated with the state of Colorado.
And why not? He attended high school (Boulder HS) and college (University of Colorado) in the state. He won a state high school tournament, an NCAA individual golf title 50 years ago this month, and five CGA state championships in the 1960s. And he was quite a football player to boot, being twice named an All-Big Eight defensive back.
And in a professional golf tour career that's spanned 49 years, he's won 20 times on the PGA Tour, including three U.S. Opens. In fact, he remains the oldest person to win a U.S. Open after earning the title at age 45 in 1990. Then after turning 50, he's won a record 45 times on PGA Tour Champions, 13 more than second-place Bernhard Langer.
On Sunday, Irwin returned to his old stomping grounds to conduct a junior clinic leading up to the AJGA tournament that bears his name. The AJGA Hale Irwin Colorado Junior by Transamerica will be held Tuesday through Thursday at Walnut Creek Golf Preserve in Westminster. That's where about 125 junior golfers and their families asked questions of the World Golf Hall of Famer and he imparted some wisdom -- both related to golf and in general.
He also met with the current group that makes up the Hale Irwin Elite Player Program that's based at CGA-owned CommonGround Golf Course. (Irwin's son, Steve, serves on the CGA volunteer board of governors and was the CGA Player of the Year in 2004.)
Before Irwin held his clinic, coloradogolf.org had a chance to chat with Colorado golf's favorite son. Here's the Q&A from Sunday, the day Irwin was named one of the honorees of the 2018 Memorial Tournament that Jack Nicklaus hosts (Irwin won the Memorial twice and finished second twice in playoffs there). He turned 72 on Saturday.
Q: Compare your junior golf experience to what these kids have had.
HI: It was wildly different. The junior program back when I was a junior was sort of hit and miss. There weren't very many tournaments -- nothing organized like the AJGA or The First Tees, nothing near like that. So I think these kids are enjoying the fruits of a lot of years of people being concerned about their development and how golf can help influence their lives in a very positive way, whether they become professional (golfers) or not. And frankly I hope many of them don't. But I do think golf will lead them in a direction that is very, very positive. Some of the best people that I've ever met have been involved with golf in some way, shape or form through all these years.
Back to your original question: The excitement is no different (than when Irwin was a teenager); the levels of success are vastly different. These kids are probably far better than what we as juniors used to be. You could count on maybe two hands the number of kids that played effective junior golf in the state of Colorado. Now just in that room (at Walnut Creek Golf Preserve on Sunday afternoon), you had 20 kids that are extremely good. The success of these programs is of particular importance to all kids out there that can look to golf as a life-maker.
Q: Is there anything to be said for the way you did it, which was self-taught almost completely?
HI: There wasn't anything available when I was a kid. There were some teachers around, but not like we have today. The equipment availability ... The golf course availability just wasn't there. How could I, in Boulder, go down to Cherry Hills, for instance, and ever play? I couldn't. You bring up a good point. Sometimes it's best to go out and learn the hard way. The school of hard knocks is really a good school to graduate from. But at the same time, I'm not saying this (the way it's done now) is wrong, but I think there's a good blend. These kids are challenged, as they should be. It's just a different world in which we live. I don't know if one's right and one's wrong, but I have a hard time not encouraging these kids to learn on their own. I think it's very important that they learn who they are and what they can do at an early age so they'll know what to do later on in life.
Q: This month 50 years ago you won the NCAA title (while a CU golfer). Twenty-five years ago, you went into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Aside from people like me asking you questions about it, do you ever sit back and take stock of your career?
HI: On occasion, I suppose, simply because I probably use it more to prove a point to somebody else. I'm not trying to prove a point to me. Actually, I'm not trying to prove a point, I'm trying to show a point -- to show what you can do coming from let's say the background from which I came, which was not all golf-oriented. You know the history. Am I proud of that? Absolutely. You mentioned the NCAA. I was just talking to a couple of guys up at Muirfield Village (where the Memorial was concluding on Sunday) a few days ago about that. Yeah, I'm very proud of that. I'm very proud that it kind of put Colorado golf on the map, so to speak. I don't look at it as boastful. I look at it to learn from it. Use that (so) maybe these kids can learn from an example that you don't have to live in Florida, you don't have to live in Arizona, you don't have to live in California to have golf and be successful at it. It can come from anywhere. While I'm proud of those points, I don't dwell on them because I'd rather use those as a discussion point to leapfrog others ahead in their successes.
Q: The golfer that won the CoBank Colorado Senior Open the other day was Jeff Gallagher. Unsolicited, he said, 'Boy, I've made it through about 20 years on various tours.' But he brought up Tom Watson and you, and he marveled at the longevity you've had (as tour players). What's been the key to that, other than maybe good genes?
HI: I don't really know. My parents (Hale Sr. and Mame Irwin) were of that great generation. They had great qualities instilled in them through the hard times. They went through two world wars, the Great Depression. They grew up in Oklahoma; they had the Dust Bowl. They didn't have anything. They taught me the value of having something. What I think I was able to carry forward was that discipline to take on the task and see it through. One of the things my dad taught me long ago was, 'Don't start something you can't finish.' As I look back on his life, that's exactly what he did: He finished things off regardless of how monumental the task may be. I think that was one of the things that got me through football (at CU). Was that something I should have done? It was the only thing that was in front of me. Did I want to play? Well, I enjoyed it. I had great friends and I still love those teammates with whom I played. But I looked at it more as, 'That's how I worked my way through school to play the ultimate game, which became golf.' But I learned a lot along the way. The tasks are not easy to be successful. That level of success is not given to everybody. You have to kind of earn it. Sometimes the hard way is the best way to do it.
Q: Given what Bernhard Langer has done in the last few weeks (two wins in senior majors, giving him 32 total Champions victories, which leaves him 13 behind Irwin), do you think he has a shot at your Champions career victory record?
HI: The way he's going, he'll do it this year (laugh). Bernhard is playing very well; there's no doubt about it. If he does, he does. There's nothing I can do about it except play better myself. The best golf I played in my life was when I was 52 and 53 years old so you can have success later in life, and Bernhard is playing very, very well right now. I have a hard time answering that question. Others say, 'No, I don't think it's possible.' I don't think he's going to win enough tournaments this year, and then next year he'll be 61 (in August, 2018). All I can say is, there comes a time where your performance level does start deteriorating relatively rapidly. Not that he's there yet. I think he's still got a couple more years in front of him, but there are some really good players out there and their games will start kicking in. He seems to be peaking right now at the best possible opportunity. But we need somebody to step up and give him that challenge. But every time that happens, he rises to the challenge. I would applaud (him breaking the record) because I know hard it is to get there. If he were to do it, I'd be the first man to shake his hand.
Three More Coloradans Qualify for Hale Irwin Colorado Junior: Prior to Irwin's clinic on Sunday, a qualifying tournament was held for the AJGA Hale Irwin Colorado Junior by Transamerica, and 10 juniors were added to the field, including three Coloradans.
Qualifying on Sunday were six boys: Ryan Liao of Littleton (71), Darren Edwards of Loveland (73), Hayes Haydon of Austin, Texas (73), Justin Hopkins of Danville, Calif. (74), Isaak Ramsey of Peoria, Ill. (74), Charlie Hillis of Lincoln, Neb. (74), Bridger Tenney of Evergreen (75) and Matthew Adams of Los Altos, Calif. (75).
Two girls also qualified: Noelle Song of Stevenson Ranch, Calif. (75) and Trussy Li of China and Diamond Bar, Calif. (76).
After a Junior-Am Fundraising Tournament and practice rounds on Monday, the 54-hole tournament will begin Tuesday for boys and girls competitors age 12-19.
Among the top Colorado boys in the field are three NCAA Division I letter-of intent-signees: Griffin Barela of Lakewood (University of Wisconsin), Trevor Olkowski of Grand Junction (University of Colorado) and Daniel Pearson of Longmont (University of Nebraska), though Pearson will be competing in 36-hole U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying on Monday. Also in the boys field are 2016 3A state champion Oliver Jack of Denver, 4A winner Luke Trujillo of Colorado Springs, 5A champ Kyle Pearson (5A) and Davis Bryant of Aurora, a 2015 U.S. Junior Amateur qualifier and 2016 Colorado Junior America's Cup team member.
On the girls side, two recent winners of state high school titles are entered: Hailey Schalk of Erie (3A) and Lauren Lehigh of Loveland (4A). Also planning to compete is Charlotte Hillary of Cherry Hills Village, winner of the 2016 JGAC Junior Tour Championship.
In all, 96 players will be in the field.
For more information on the AJGA Hale Irwin Colorado Junior by Transamerica, CLICK HERE.