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A realistic number for Irwin

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

The 56-year-old, first-round leader says age is just a number.

So here's the one that best describes Hale Irwin's chance of winning the U.S. Open again:

Zero.

There is no nice way to say this. Irwin is a three-time winner of the national championship, and he's also the oldest winner ever, a trick he turned in 1990 at age 45. But look back at the golfers who've won since then, and it becomes apparent that for card-carrying AARP members, the Open is a shut case.

When Tiger Woods won last year, by a record 15 shots, he was 24. The year before that, the late Payne Stewart won at age 42. Split the difference between those two, and that's the average age of the man who hoists the trophy on those steamy Sundays in June.

''You need to have that deep-rooted belief that you can,'' Irwin said, ''yet at the same time, along with those vitamin pills, you have to take the reality pill. And you have to be realistic about what you can do and what you can't.

''I cannot drive the ball with Tiger. I can't drive the ball with many of these guys. But I can certainly put it into positions where I can play.''

Irwin did that with just enough precision Thursday to shoot 67 and be drawn into a game of what-if. He hit eight of 14 fairways and 11 of 18 greens -- both middling numbers -- but needed only 27 putts. Maybe he should have been content just beating his playing partners -- Fred Funk, whose 45th birthday was Thursday, and Loren Roberts, whose 46th is just 10 days away. But Irwin's mind was already jumping ahead.

What if he stays hot with the putter, and somehow bumps up the percentages of fairways and greens hit?

''There's always the hopes and the expectations and sometimes the reality,'' he said. ''And what you do is hope they all sort of meet somewhere in the middle.''

But Irwin's recent form in the Open suggests the meeting will take place much lower than that.

Last year at Pebble Beach, he shot a 68 in the opening round and took himself out of contention with rounds of 78 and 81 the next two days. In 1994, he was in third place heading into Sunday and wound up signing for 78, sliding all the way down to a tie for 18th. In the 21 Opens before his last win, he missed two cuts; he's missed that many in the 11 years since.

The point is not to knock Irwin, but to keep the rest of us from joining this exercise in self-delusion. Tales that begin this way almost always end with a broken heart. Irwin knew enough to stop short of predicting a win, but it wasn't hard to figure out which way he was leaning.

''I feel confident about what I'm able to do. Whether or not I can do it, I don't know,'' Irwin said. ''My purpose here this week is not to be ceremonial. It's to be competitive.''

If those words carry an echo, it's because they should. Those were the words Jack Nicklaus used to rationalize his playing at the major championships long after he had a real chance to win them. And if you're looking to chastise somebody for toying with our emotions, blame Jack. When he came out of nowhere to steal the Masters at age 46, he took the cap off our imagination.

Yet every time Nicklaus' name turned up on the leaderboard at a major championship for the next 15 years, logic went home with a headache. Then common sense took the rest of the weekend off. Unfortunately, his golf game followed it right out the door.

Expect the same to happen to Irwin. He's a former standout defensive back at Colorado, as tough and fierce a competitor as they come. He can play with the young and the flat-bellied anytime -- but only for a round or two. Slogging up and down the terrain at Southern Hills will wear down his muscles or his nerves or his resolve sometime before the finish line is in sight.

Believing in themselves was how Irwin, and especially Nicklaus, won the biggest tournaments on the toughest venues. The frightening thing is how quickly they get the rest of us make the leap of faith, on evidence as scant as a scintillating first round.

''Who knows what tomorrow may bring? I don't know that,'' Irwin said. ''But I think there's a point where you say, 'Yes I can' in your heart, and another point where you say, 'Maybe I'm a little bit over my head.'

''But at this point in time,'' he added, ''I don't think I'm over my head.''

For one day, at least, this was the Hale Irwin of old. But by the time the weekend rolls around, he's more likely to be just an older and wiser Hale Irwin.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at: jlitke@ap.org



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