Hale Irwin knows more than most what it takes to claim golf’s toughest major – he won it three times, in 1974, 1979 and 1990. He lets us in on his secrets

It’s golf’s ultimate torture – an event that puts every aspect of your game in a vice and squeezes until something breaks. Few players have truly known how to handle the combination of ultra-fast greens, ball-swallowing rough and a course that’s generally perched on the edge of insanity. Hale Irwin is one of that select number. The 74-year-old Ryder Cup hero won three US Opens in 1974, 1979 and 1990 and finished in the top 20 on a further 10 occasions. It takes a special player to thrive when they’re being pushed to the limit so we asked Irwin to reveal the secrets that helped him come out on top…

Prepare yourself for an ordeal

I think we all go through the motions of hitting golf balls and we’ve done that thousands and thousands of times but we don’t often play some of the world’s toughest golf courses, under the most extreme conditions. So you have to ready yourself mentally to go out and know that a par is going to be a very good score.

At Winged Foot in ‘74 it was so difficult that I thought ‘a par is going to be like a birdie. Rejoice in that. There are going to be lots of bogeys. You are going to make them. A birdie is an absolute bonus.’

Those are the kinds of things you have to go through and, as far as I am concerned, you stabilise your game.

Choose what to worry about

The thing about any preparation for a big event is that you can’t worry about the weather conditions but you worry about the conditions under which you are playing – hole locations, tees placements. How is it going to affect your game? How am I going to affect a positive influence on my round by how I prepare, by how I play this hole? It’s literally one shot at a time.

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Put the ball in the fairway and under the hole

I’ve never played rough as difficult as what was at Winged Foot. The greens were quite difficult. My whole approach was: in the fairway and under the hole. That was very simply it.

I didn’t care where the flag was located. I wanted to be under the hole. 

Focus on what you’re doing, not how everyone else is playing

I won after 91 holes at Medinah and that was another interesting event. The course wasn’t playing as difficult as it could have because it wasn’t prepared that way – but Medinah is an awfully difficult course anyway.

My position was that I was invited to play by the USGA and so I wanted to have a good week for my own self-confidence. Going into the last round I was paired with Greg Norman and we were perhaps an hour ahead of the leaders.

I got to the 11th tee and I was one shot out of the top 15 and that got you in to the following year’s tournament. I just set my goal. I wanted to play one under from here in.

I forgot about Greg. I tried to forget about everything and just focus on that. Well, to cut a long story short, I birdied the next four holes in a row. 

I kept changing my goal – from top 15, to top 10, to top five. Now, what can happen if I make one more? That’s why the big putt at 18 was so big. It made me the leader in the clubhouse and it tied me with those guys coming in.

They had some difficult holes to play – not to say they couldn’t play them well – but it’s a different pressure when you are playing at the back like that.

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Hale Irwin’s US Open triumphs

1974 – Winged Foot

A tournament so notorious for the difficulty of the course it became known as the ‘Massacre of Winged Foot’. Not a single player managed to break par in the opening round and Irwin’s winning total of +7 is the tournament’s highest since 1963. It was Tom Watson who led going into the final round – ahead of Irwin by a shot – but he dropped six shots on the back nine. Irwin bogeyed 15 and 16 but had enough in hand to hold off Forrest Fezler by two shots and win his first US Open.

1979 – Inverness

Going into the final round of the US Open with a three-shot lead, Irwin could afford to shoot 75 – even double-bogeying the penultimate hole and dropping another shot at the last – and still claim his second US Open. Jerry Pate and Gary Player were in with a chance but only Irwin’s late drama made the result look close. They were still two shots adrift. Irwin did the damage over the first three days with rounds of 74, 68 and 67.

1990 – Medinah

At the age of 45, Irwin became the oldest ever US Open victor following an 18-hole play-off and sudden death. That he had managed to get into an extra day at all was remarkable. Playing ahead of the leaders, he sunk a 45-footer for birdie on the final green and ended up in a showdown with Mike Donald. It looked unlikely that he would prevail in the play-off, with Donald holding a two-stroke lead with three to play. Donald missed an 18-footer for par at the last, though, to win and Irwin struck with a birdie as sudden death came into force.

Hale Irwin was speaking to Steve Carroll at the Berenberg Gary Player Invitational at Wentworth.