Hale Irwin was one of the best golfers throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, eventually amassing 20 PGA Tour wins and 3 major championships throughout his long career. It is his last major victory at the 1990 U.S. Open that has proved to be the defining moment of his career and provided one of the U.S. Open’s best finishes. Irwin spent his childhood in Kansas and Colorado, eventually becoming a star athlete at Boulder High School in both golf and football. Irwin was such a good athlete that when he attended the University of Colorado on an athletic scholarship he was both an all-conference defensive back and the winner of the NCAA Division I Championship.
Irwin decided to pursue golf professionally in 1968 and his decision paid off as he began amassing victories and top-10 finishes. He won his first major at 29 when he scored an impressive 7 under at the 1974 U.S. Open. However, after 17 PGA Tour wins and 2 majors, Irwin found himself needing a special exemption from the USGA simply to play the 1990 U.S. Open. He was without a win in 5 years and entering the twilight of his career at 45. Still, his status as a former champion was enough for the USGA to give him the special invite and set in motions a memorable weekend at Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago.
Irwin played solid, if unspectacular, golf throughout the first 54 holes and entered the final round 4 strokes behind leaders Mike Donald and Billy Ray Brown in a tie for 20th. It is safe to say no one saw Irwin as a contender heading into the final day despite his past pedigree. However, Irwin sank a string of birdies on holes 11-14 to tie the lead going into the finishing holes.
But the best was still to come. Irwin set up on the 18th hole with the ball a full 45 feet from the hole. With the crowd expecting Irwin to lay up a putt for par with the tricky sloping green, Irwin instead went for it. He later said that he felt he needed to be 8 under to stand a chance of winning the tournament, and with the soggy conditions slowing down the greens Irwin was able to sink his putt. It elicited a wild reaction from the crowd, which Irwin amplified when he took off on a “victory lap” around the gallery giving high-5s to the eager fans. The only problem was that there were golfers who still had to finish their rounds. In the end it was Mike Donald, a Tour veteran and nearly-man with 1 Tour victory to his name, who would finish the round tied with Irwin to force a playoff.
The Playoff Win
The U.S. Open maintained an 18 hole playoff until 2018, meaning Irwin and Donald had another full day of golf ahead of them. While the format was once standard, it is now seen as a grueling end to a tournament where golfers have already played 72 holes in 4 days. Irwin and Donald teed off on Monday and stayed fairly even, with Donald maintaining a slight edge. Heading into the closing 3 holes, Donald had a 2-stroke lead over Irwin. Irwin shrank the deficit with a birdie on the 16th hole but was still 1 stroke behind on the final hole. Irwin could not repeat his heroics and had to settle for par. With Donald only needing par to win the tournament, he succumbed to pressure and instead saw his par putt roll narrowly past the hole and settled for a bogey. For the first time in the history of the U.S. Open, the tournament would be decided with a sudden-death playoff. Perhaps this final bogey broke Donald’s resolve, as he was left pondering “what if” as Irwin took the title with a birdie on the first sudden-death playoff hole.
The win cemented Irwin’s legacy in the game as he became one of only 6 golfers to manage 3 or more U.S. Open wins, including such legends as Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods. Irwin also became the oldest U.S. Open champion at 45 years and 15 days. He would win his 20th and final PGA Tour win at the MCI Golf Classic in 1994. After graduating to the PGA Champions Tour (formerly the Senior Tour), Irwin would amass 45 wins (including 7 Senior Majors) in 12 years on the 50 and older Tour, the most ever on the Tour. He has since been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.