Could the expectations for Hale Irwin be any higher? In his first three Senior PGA Tour events of 1998, he finished second, fourth and fifth, but the experts kept asking him if his focus was straying.
That might be the price to be paid for winning nine tournaments in 1997, but after Irwin's round Sunday those questions should fade away, at least for a few weeks.
Irwin shot nine-under-par 62 to win the Toshiba Senior Classic at Newport Beach Country Club. Irwin, who started the day five shots out of the lead, broke the course record by two strokes and raced past 11 golfers to win the $165,000 first-place check.
It was his 14th victory on the senior tour and amazingly the 31st time in 62 senior events that he has finished in the top three. Clearly, he is beyond dominant at this level.
When Irwin began his round with birdies on five of the first seven holes, his move up the leader board seemed inevitable. Overheard near the 18th green, a tournament volunteer said of Irwin, "He should have to carry a 20-pound pack on his back or something."
It's doubtful even that would have held him back Sunday. His finish was as strong as his start, with three birdies in the final four holes and four in the final six.
"I think it can be safely said that this is one of my more memorable final rounds on either tour," Irwin said. "Any time you can go out and make 10 birdies and throw in that one bogey just to make it interesting, you're doing something very, very well.
"In my case I drove the ball OK, I hit some really good irons and I just putted exceptionally well, and that tends to get the job done."
Irwin gave credit to his son, Steve, for advice that helped him take only 23 putts, five fewer than runner-up Hubert Green, who started Sunday with a one-stroke lead largely because of his own deft short game. Green finished a stroke behind at 201 for the three rounds. Mike McCullough, a co-leader after the first round, tied Jay Sigel for third at 204.
Green, playing four groups behind Irwin and shooting for his first victory since the 1985 PGA Championship, hung tough for most of the afternoon. Irwin kept pushing, but Green had birdies on the par-four 12th and the par-three 13th to keep pace.
But Green missed birdie chances on No. 15, an easy par-five that he birdied Friday and Saturday, and 16, missing putts badly. The first was fairly long--about 18 feet--but the second was an eight-footer that didn't come close.
"I didn't feel at all comfortable over those putts," Green said. "I just wasn't sure of the break. That's just a case of great architecture and really bad golf."
Even so, he still was in position to force a playoff with Irwin, needing a birdie on one of the last two holes. But a bogey on the par-three 17th, made his eventual birdie on 18moot.
The 17th, which plays 190 yards over a lake, could have been Irwin's downfall. The pin was on the left edge away from the water, but he pushed his tee shot a bit right and it landed on the green with five feet to spare.
Then the ball started rolling . . . right off the green. It went through the fringe and headed down an incline toward the water. From the tee, Irwin couldn't see the ball but was relieved to hear cheers from the spectators near the green.
The ball had been stopped by the teeth of a rake lying outside the bunker. Irwin movedthe rake, chipped up and made a six-footer for par.
"Fate intervened," he said. "That was one of those movable obstructions that happened to be in the right spot at the right time.
"Equally shocking to me was the fact that the ball wasn't on the green. I didn't feel like I hit that bad a shot."
It was a satisfying finish to a busy week for Irwin. After playing Monday and Tuesday in the Senior Slam in Cabo San Lucas, he filmed a golf club commercial Wednesday. He played in the pro-am Thursday and somehow worked rounds of 70 and 68 around business meetings with potential clients of his golf course design company Friday and Saturday.
The schedule didn't allow any time for practice. Irwin said he didn't hit at the range after any round.
"It can get a little busy but those are positive busy things," he said. "There is only 100% of you to give and I expected there would be some lack of quality play initially because I have so many things going on.
"But I think that it is turning around, and I can feel some momentum starting to carry."
That's not good news for the rest of the senior tour.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Senior Classic Top Finishers
At Newport Beach CC--Par 71
Hale Irwin: 70-68-62--200 -13
Hubert Green: 67-66-68--201 -12
Jay Sigel: 68-69-67--204 -9
Mike McCullough: 66-70-68--204 -9
Larry Nelson: 71-70-65--206 -7
Dave Eichelberger: 69-71-66--206 -7
David Graham: 67-71-68--206 -7
J.C.Snead: 66-71-69--206 -7
Gil Morgan: 68-69-69--206 -7
COMPLETE SCORES C16