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Three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin has football to thank

The champion golfer looks at each round with a football-born mindset.

U.S. Senior Open Championship - Round One Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Search any Top-10 list of U.S. Open moments and you’ll find an infamous celebration made by a former Buffs cornerback. Despite having won the event in 1974 and 1979, Hale Irwin needed a special exemption just to get into the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah Country Club. Four strokes back of leaders Mike Donald and Billy Ray Brown entering Sunday, Irwin capped off a final round 67 with one of the best putts in U.S. Open History.

That putt was good enough to land him in an 18-hole playoff with Mike Donald the following day. The 45-year old would need a 19th hole before finally outlasting Donald to become the oldest winner in U.S. Open history. This year marks the 27th anniversary of Irwin’s historic win at Medinah. Twenty-seven years prior to that, an 18-year old Hale Irwin stepped foot on Colorado’s Boulder campus for the first time…on a football scholarship.

“When I was in high school I was a reasonable golfer,” he told Golf Channel’s David Feherty in a sit down last month. “There were no college golf coaches knocking at the door, so I was going nowhere with that.”

Long before CU’s #MoneyGang was even conceived, Hale Irwin roamed the defensive backfield for the Buffs. Arguably the best two-sport athlete in CU history, he began his career as a quarterback. But after a shoulder injury derailed his sophomore season, Irwin moved to defensive back. It’s in the secondary where he excelled. Known for his relentless effort, Irwin was a two-time all-Big Eight selection in 1965 and ’66, recording nine interceptions. In 1989, he was named to Colorado’s 25-member All-Century Football Team.

“The positions I played in football, being a quarterback and a defensive back, you had to kind of have a little independent thinking”

It’s that independent thinking on the gridiron that led Irwin to succeed on the golf course. After claiming medalist honors at the 1967 NCAA Championships, (the ONLY individual title by a Colorado golfer to this day) Irwin turned pro in 1968 and began to make his mark in golf.

From his first PGA Tour win at the 1971 Sea Pines Heritage Classic (now known as the RBC Heritage) to his senior circuit victory at the 2007 Mastercard Championship at Hualalai, Irwin’s career accolades are plentiful.

- 87 wins as a Professional

- 20 PGA Tour victories

- 45 PGA Tour Champions wins (most all-time)

- One of only five golfers to win official tournaments on all six continents on which golf is played.

- 1992 World Golf Hall of Fame inductee

But his greatest accomplishments in the sport remain his U.S. Open titles. From Winged Foot in 1974, Inverness in 1979 and Medinah in 1990, Irwin is one of only six golfers to have won three or more U.S. Opens.

4-time U.S. Open Champion Jack Nicklaus once said “A difficult golf course eliminates a lot of players. The US Open flag eliminates a lot of players. Some players just weren’t meant to win the US Open. Quite often, a lot of them know it.”

In 2012, Hale Irwin was asked the following question by a reporter at an awards dinner in Denver:

Q: Winning three U.S. Opens and a pair of U.S. Senior Opens shows you thrived on the most difficult courses. Why so?

A: I looked at every golf course as a football field; It was me or them. I say that somewhat jokingly because, the thing I had was effort. With my football background, I was even a little guy back then. I had good football speed, but I didn’t have flat-out speed. So I had to read my keys, be in good position. I had to play technically better than the next guy, and I had to play over my weight. All that effort is what I could take to the golf course.

Hale Irwin was meant to win the U.S. Open.

And his lessons learned on the gridiron might just be the reason why.