Breakfast with a Champion
March 14, 2012
By Mark Williams, PGA TOUR Staff
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.—The stage was set. The special guests arrived. The ham and eggs were hot, and the annual Allergan Foundation Breakfast with a Champion was underway in the ballroom of the hotel adjacent to Newport Beach Country Club, host of this week’s Toshiba Classic on the Champions Tour. The “champion” for this edition of the annual breakfast was World Golf Hall of Fame member Hale Irwin.
The subjects Irwin discussed were wide and varied. He spoke of his experiences as a Monday qualifier in the early days of the TOUR to winning multiple U.S. Opens, advice from his dad, how football and golf are connected, U.S. Presidents and how cutting grass with a scythe as a youngster helped develop his golf swing.
Before Irwin took the stage, the audience of almost 500 who had paid $120 each to attend, were greeted by Mark Simons, president and CEO of Toshiba America Information Systems, who spoke about the Mary and Dick Allen Diabetes Center at Hoag Hospital, the primary beneficiary of the tournament.
Simons awarded $10,000 and a Toshiba laptop computer to each of the Toshiba Classic Scholarship winners—Drew Gleason of Mission Viejo High School and Paul Tadross of Newport Harbor High School—before inviting the young men to address the large audience.
Gleason, the team captain of his school’s water polo team and a drama student who played the Mad Hatter in the school production of “Alice in Wonderland,” has his sights set high on the college he will attend. “I’ve heard back from Notre Dame, USC and Boston College, all positive, but I really want to go to Brown University for a biology major and business minor,” he said.
Tadross, who wants to attend University of California-Berkeley and has volunteered more than 170 hours at Hoag, told a story about a college friend who was injured after being hit by a drunk driver while crossing the road. Tadross started a foundation to raise money to assist his friend and improve road-safety conditions in and around his school.
“Seeing the transformation of my friend’s health and the improving health of the patients at Hoag while I was volunteering has been the most rewarding thing,” said Tadross.
When Toshiba Classic Chairman Emeritus Hank Adler introduced Irwin, the Champions Tour’s all-time victories leader expressed how fortunate he and his fellow Champions Tour professionals are to have outstanding events like the Toshiba Classic on their schedules.
“Whether you are involved directly or indirectly you should be proud of what you do in your community,” Irwin told the audience.
He also encouraged everyone in the room to thank a volunteer at the tournament this week and then spoke about how playing college football at Colorado helped him win his first U.S. Open, in 1974, at Winged Foot Golf Club.
“I always had to do extra work to succeed in football because I was small,” he said. “I heard the guys in the locker room complaining how difficult [Winged Foot] was. I figured I had 70 percent of them beaten before we started. I’d won twice before. I knew what it took to win. I made sure I focused on each and every shot as the course was so difficult. I remember celebrating with Dale and Joyce Douglass afterward by ordering room service at our hotel. You never know if you’ll have that chance again, so you relish it.”
Irwin, who has earned more than $1,200 per hole he has played in his Champions Tour career, talked about practicing his swing with a scythe while cutting grass at the public course where he grew up in Joplin, Mo. In eighth grade, Irwin wrote a paper about wanting to be a golf professional when he grew up. His football scholarship, he decided, was a way to get through college. His first concern when he injured his pinkie finger during a football game was not how he was going to throw the ball, but how was he going to hold a club.
“Being at the bottom of the pile in a football game, I wasn’t so sure this was the game for me,” he said. “My dad always told me, ‘Don’t start something you can’t finish’, and I guess I started something when I wrote that paper in eighth grade.
“And by the way, Drew and Paul,” Irwin noted, “congratulations on your scholarships. It’s the start of something special for you both. And if you’re still wondering what a scythe is, look it up.”
The audience applauded, and just like that, the generation gap seemed to disappear.
Asked to comment on his success in the U.S. Open, the three-time major winner had a succinct answer.
“I always practiced to win the U.S. Open when I was a kid,” he said. “I couldn’t get in the Masters, the British Open was over there (in the British Isles), and the PGA (Championship), well I wasn’t a professional. But I could always play in the U.S. Open.”
Irwin’s third U.S. Open victory came in 1990 at Medinah Country Club, site of this year’s Ryder Cup, when he famously high-fived everyone in the gallery after holing a 45-footer on the final hole.
“I’d made four birdies in a row on the back nine and thought if I could make one more I’d have a chance,” he said. “When I made that putt, it was my way of saying thank you for volunteering. I was in love with everybody. It was an emotional release.”
Twenty-one years later Irwin is still thanking volunteers and encouraging others to do the same.
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