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Fame & Fortune
Hale Irwin
Hale Irwin
College football star chose career busting par, not heads.
Celebrity interview

Cautious, but shoots for pin if time's right

Had the ball bounced differently, Hale Irwin might have had a shorter, infinitely more painful career dragging down wide receivers in the NFL instead of swinging his way to the top of the PGA leader board.

In 1967, the two-time All-Big Eight safety at the University of Colorado had to choose between busting heads and breaking par for a living. Rather than flip a coin, Irwin made himself a wager: If he could win a national amateur golf tournament, he'd chase the white ball. If not, his Sundays would soon be far worse than "a good walk spoiled."

That spring, he won the NCAA Championship, turned in his helmet and never looked back. Three years later, he won the Heritage Classic at Sea Pines. It was the first of 65 career tournament championships that included three U.S. Opens, the first (1974) and last (1990) a remarkable 16 years apart, both on one of golf's most intimidating courses, Winged Foot. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1992.

Sixth on golf's all-time career money list with earnings exceeding $30 million, Irwin is the only one of the six not still active on the PGA Tour. Instead, at a fit 62, he currently ranks second behind Jay Haas on the Champions Tour, where his 45 career titles leave everyone else in the dust (Lee Trevino is second with 15). In fact, Irwin seems to defy nature by getting better -- he won 19 of those 45 titles since he turned 55.

The Joplin, Mo., native now lives in Phoenix, where he oversees Hale Irwin International, a golf course design company.

Not surprisingly for a former Academic All-American, Irwin is a student of the financial game. In money as in golf, he invests the same way he plays: smartly, but with a keen eye for opportunity.

Bankrate: You are one of those rare guys on the tour who could have played another professional sport.

Hale Irwin: Well, that's being pretty generous with the facts because the other sport you're referring to is a pretty violent and short-lived way to make a living.

Bankrate: Was pro football ever a serious consideration?

Irwin: I suppose it was. I had made a goal for myself: If I was going to turn pro (golfing), I wanted to win a major amateur event: not an in-state event like the Colorado state amateur but something that had some national recognition. I never got to play in the U.S. Amateur because it was always football season. So, as a football scholarship player, certainly that was part of my future, perhaps. I didn't want it to be but I had to prove to myself that I could make it on the tour, or at least think I could make it, by competing with my contemporaries at their level. So, when I won the NCAA golf tournament, I felt that was goal enough. It was a sign that you are going to live longer than a couple years; you're not going to have to go through all that stuff to try to make a living.

Next: "I tried to be a sponge."
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