This is the 25th Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. And for the 25th time Hale Irwin will be in Ka’upulehu-Kona, Hawaii, to tee it up.
It’s only the latest accomplishment for Irwin, the winningest player in PGA TOUR Champions history with 45 victories. Two of them came at Hualalai, in 1997 and 2007. He won 20 PGA TOUR titles and three U.S. Opens, enough to earn him a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame even before he began his dominant run on the Champions Tour.
Irwin, 75, has played in only a handful of events each year since he turned 70. As recently as 2017 he finished T28 at the MEC in a field of 47.
“It doesn’t feel like 25 years, honestly,” Irwin said on Tuesday. “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful trip. It’s a journey I’d do again in a second although it has taken 25 years. My wife and I first came here in 1997 and have looked forward to every year, and if we ever have a chance to come back we’ll look forward to it just as much.”
How much longer will Irwin play even a handful of events? Is there another trip to Hawaii in the tank?
“That’s a tough question,” Irwin said. “I’ll come back to as many as the good Lord allows me. I don’t know how many that will be. Certainly we’re nearing the end, but we’ve had a spectacular relationship with state of Hawaii as far as playing goes. How much longer my career goes I’m unwilling to say and don’t know.
“I don’t play at the skill level I once did and that makes it hard. A little frustration might set in. At the end of the day I have to look back and be realistic and what can I expect for tomorrow. We’ll just see.”
Few players have been hailed for their competitive spirit as much as Irwin. In his prime he was a grinder, a bulldog. That’s how a player wins three U.S. Opens. Here’s the list of others with at least three wins in that particular major: Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
That’s the kind of company Irwin always has kept on the golf course. He’s paired with another all-time great, Tom Watson, for the first round at the MEC. There are 146 years on Earth between them, with 59 PGA TOUR victories and 59 PGA TOUR Champions victories.
“When you’re around the great players – Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino — you share a philosophy of achieving to be great,” Irwin said. “Some of us get there more readily than others. Some achieve more than others. But you all have the same strength of heart, the want to excellent. When you’re around Tom … he still plays very good golf. It’s illuminating, it’s exciting. You feel a lot younger.”
Watson, 71, has been able to turn back the clock in his advancing years on occasion. In 2019 he tied for 10th at the MEC. He also finished T17 at the U.S. Senior Open that year.
Perhaps paired together they can inspire each other to achieve greatness one more time.
“I have a goal this week … a lot of people say go have fun and shoot your age. 75? You know what that gets you? That gets you the first tee time the next day,” Irwin said. “My goals will be tempered by what I can really do. It’s a difficult course. There are new greens, new grasses that will play much differently. There’s more contour in the greens. Scoring is going to be difficult. If I shoot around par that will be reasonable. I’ll be happy about that.”