Special invitee Hale Irwin became the oldest U.S, Open champion by beating Mike Donald on the 19th playoff hole
June 24, 1990

Three weeks ago, 45-year-old Hale Irwin, who hadn't won a tournament in five years, dreamed he won his third U.S. Open. He dreamed it in spite of having needed a special exemption even to play the Open this year on the historic No. 3 course of the Medinah Country Club near Chicago. He told his wife, Sally, about his dream, and then he kept his lip buttoned until he went out and lived the dream in such an improbable way that he tempted us to believe greater forces were at work than competitive juice and a swing that was steel under pressure. "I don't remember anything specific about the dream," said Irwin. "Just that it was an ordeal—like this was."

The real-life version took 91 holes: the regulation 72 and, on Monday, an 18-hole playoff plus the first sudden-death playoff hole in U.S. Open history, which Irwin birdied from eight feet out. The playoff wasn't pretty. On a blustery day, both Irwin and 34-year-old Mike Donald, until his gritty performance last week a little-known pro from Hollywood, Fla., shot two-over-par 74s. Donald, who has won one tournament in 11 years on the Tour, opened the door to sudden death by bogeying the 90th hole. But if pretty golf were required to win the U.S. Open, one of the glamour boys would have been around to accept the most cherished trophy in golf, instead of the durable Irwin, who became the oldest man ever to win the championship.

Monday's playoff wouldn't have been possible or necessary (choose one) had it not been for the shot that will make every golf highlight film for the next 20 years, the Hale Mary of a putt that, ultimately, will define the 1990 Open. Irwin's monster 45-foot birdie on the 72nd hole on Sunday sent him into a weaving, high-stepping, high-fiving gallop around the 18th green. A former All-Big Eight defensive back for Colorado, Irwin duplicated his gambol in the press tent—stopping short of blowing reporters the two-hand kiss he had laid on the cheering throng in the grandstand—just to prove that "45's not old." He further amazed the assemblage by admitting he was actually trying to make the putt, which was four times as long as anything he had sunk all week. "I figured I had to get to eight under to have a chance," he said. "I told myself I was due."

Due? Because he had missed makable 10-footers on 16 and 17? Irwin could have stroked 50 balls from the spot where his seven-iron stopped on the 18th green and not sniffed the bottom of the hole. But he stroked only one, rolling the ball over the hump in the center of the green so that it broke in a sweeping curve five feet to the left before trickling off the downslope and settling into the center of the cup, as he put it, "as sweet as a baby's kiss." Said Irwin, "In my 22 years of pro golf I've never made a putt like that to win, or to give me a chance to win, a tournament."

Taking it all in at greenside was, naturally, Greg Norman, who has had a Shark's eye view of just about every dramatic golf shot in a major championship since, well—wasn't he paired with Gene Sarazen when Sarazen made his double eagle at the Masters? Golfers ought to offer their first-born child to play with Norman on Sunday. "That putt won Hale Irwin the U.S. Open, I guarantee you that," predicted Norman afterward, relieved, no doubt, that for once the heroics hadn't come at his expense.

The Great White Flag had done himself in by bogeying the par-5 14th and the par-3 17th, after one of his patented Sunday shark attacks had taken him from two under to seven under with five holes to play. However, just when the media pilot fish had gathered to see if Norman could finish off one of these final-round charges and spectators had begun screaming for a Norman kill, a funny thing happened. The steely, competitive Irwin caught the scent of blood.

After going out in 36, Irwin made the turn six shots behind Donald, who was holding steady—to everyone's amazement—at nine under. Irwin wasn't even on the leader board. But four straight birdies, on 11, 12, 13 and 14, put an end to that, as Irwin, judging the swirling winds perfectly, covered the flags with his irons. He credited Norman. "He's such a force in the game that you have to feed a little off him," said Irwin. "That sounds odd, feeding off a shark." Irwin's magical putt on 18 gave him a spectacular 31 on the back side and a five-under-par 67, the low score for the day.

Low rounds and feeding frenzies characterized the 90th U.S. Open. The monster that was Medinah No. 3—7,195 supposedly treacherous, tree-lined yards-played so benignly that after 36 holes the course might have been renamed Madonna No. 3. In last Thursday's opening round, a record 39 subpar scores were fired. Forty-seven more players blitzed par on Friday, and, in all, 124 subpar rounds were shot during the tournament, nearly twice the previous record of 64 set at The Country Club in 1988. Twenty-eight players beat par, 17 more than ever before.

This Open was a far cry from what had been expected. In the two previous ones held at Medinah, in 1949 and '75, the best scores had been two over and three over par, respectively. After '75 the back nine of No. 3 was redesigned and, supposedly, made tougher.

Then the kinder and gentler folks of the USGA got involved in setting up the new, improved Medinah for the Open. The red flag should have gone up when even Seve Ballesteros, he of the wayward driver, described the setup of the course as "very fair." The primary rough, which was five inches long in 1975, was shortened to four inches. The fringe surrounding the greens was cut to 1¾ inches rather than two. And when the golfers started howling that the second green, a 180-yard par 3 that slopes steeply from back to front, was too severe, P.J. Boatwright Jr., the rules and competitions director of the USGA, agreed and ordered the mower blades raised [1/32] of an inch so that the green played at [9/64] of an inch in height, while every other green on the course was cut to [7/64]. "The USGA and the man on my left [Boatwright] have more compassion than you think," said USGA vice-president Stuart Bloch, at a Wednesday press conference.

Who needs compassion at a U.S. Open? When a player flies one into the weeds, the world wants to see him start hacking. We want to see beads of sweat around his corporate visor and hear his muffled curses about cows and cornfields. Medinah provided no such titillation.

After a heavy rain last Wednesday night—not exactly an unheard-of occurrence in June in Chicago—Thursday dawned without a puff of wind, and Medinah was left defenseless. The greens were putty-soft. The generously wide fairways accepted drives like a bellman taking tips, preventing balls from bounding into the rough. Balls that did find their way into the long grass were generally swung at with abandon. The pros slashed through the four-inch stand of thatch with ease, thereby effectively eliminating driving accuracy as a factor in the competition. Jeff Sluman hit only 18 of 28 fairways the first two days, but on Friday night he stood at eight under par. Norman missed 21 of 56 fairways during the tournament but wound up fifth, five under.

Meanwhile, poor Curtis Strange, who failed in his attempt to become the first man to win three straight U.S. Opens since Willie Anderson did so in 1903-05, missed only five of 56 fairways—he was the most accurate driver in the field—but finished tied for 21st at two under. "It is not playing like a U.S. Open course," said Norman, who compared the event's mood with that of the Anheuser-Busch Classic in Williamsburg, Va. "It's sad. The tournament really stopped on Wednesday night, when it rained. Everything's so soft that they're firing at the bottom of the flagstick. This week seems to be more of a putting contest than a striking contest."

"We had the course set up just perfect, then it rained," said Boatwright after Friday's assault on par. "Right now, this is not a championship test."

After 36 holes the leader board looked like something you might find at the A-B (a tournament which, not coincidentally, Donald won in 1989 for his first and only career victory). Tim (not Bart) Simpson led at—9, followed by Sluman (-8), Donald (-7), Mark Brooks (-6), and Irwin and Scott (not Homer) Simpson, who were tied at-5. Ian Woosnam, the 5'4" Welshman whose irons have the accuracy of tracer missiles, led a contingent at four under with names like John Huston, Jim Gallagher Jr. and Billy Ray Brown, the 27-year-old good ol' boy from Missouri City, Texas, who seemed to step into the U.S. Open off the pages of a Dan Jenkins novel and didn't leave until the 72nd hole, when a birdie putt that would have gotten him into the playoff failed to fall.

Missing the cut were half the members of the U.S. Ryder Cup team—Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples, Mark O'Meara, Payne Stewart, Tom Watson and captain Raymond Floyd—not to mention Ben Crenshaw, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer, Hal Sutton and Peter Jacobsen, players one might expect to hang around for the final two rounds of a major championship. "I could not believe that two over did not make the cut," said Jack Nicklaus, who barely made it at one over. Nicklaus cited the wide landing areas in the fairways as one category in which the USGA slacked off. "Anybody who thinks he can play golf would rather have had the course play tougher," said Nicklaus.

Everyone kept waiting for the sun and wind to dry out the greens, so that approach shots out of the rough would stop holding, but that never happened. This was corn country, where the soil holds water. Finally nerves did what nature couldn't, bringing the unheralded leaders back to the pack of big names in time for Sunday. Sluman, who played the first 37 holes without a bogey, had seven in the next 17. Scott Simpson raced out to minus nine with a 32 on the front side on Saturday and seemed on track for a second U.S. Open title. Then he came home in 41, playing the last three holes in five over. Most of that damage was the result of a triple bogey on the par-3 17th, a quirky new 168-yard hole over Lake Kadijah that slopes severely from back to front. "What a [bottom of an outhouse] that is," said Jacobsen after bogeying 17 on Friday.

No one accurately recorded Woosnam's thoughts on the matter. He triple-bogeyed 17 on Friday and double-bogeyed it on Saturday, savaging his chances in a tournament in which he played the other 70 holes in seven under par. As for Scott Simpson on 17, he flew a seven-iron into the back bunker, took two to get out, hit a third sand wedge, this one from the rough, and missed a six-footer for five.

"I feel like Homer Simpson," he said afterward. "Beat down. It was getting ugly out there with that sand wedge. But it's kind of hard to have a downhill bunker lie to a downhill green with water on the other side. I didn't know what to do. But I'm sure Curtis isn't shedding any tears."

Strange, all of a sudden, found himself in ideal position after a third-round 68 had left him at five under, just two strokes behind the leaders, Brown and Donald, who had about as much chance of standing up under the pressure of being the final twosome on Sunday as, oh, Buster Douglas had of beating Mike Tyson. The only question was which of the luminaries breathing down their backs would step to the front. Larry Nelson, who had quietly moved to-6? Fuzzy Zoeller from-5? Masters champ Nick Faldo, contemplating a Grand Slam, from-4? Nicklaus, Ballesteros and Irwin, who were poised at-3? Norman from-2? All told, 25 players were within four shots of the two leaders going into the last round.

So what happens? Strange, Mr. Ice Man, and Nelson, Mr. Nice Man, shoot 75. Ballesteros and Nicklaus shoot 76. And Donald, who looks like a guy who should be pouring ale in an Irish pub, birdies the first two holes to give himself some breathing room, and then pars the next 13. This was the guy who went 64-82 at the Masters? Talk about poise under pressure: Donald drained a par-saving 20-footer on 12, a 10-footer on 14 for par, and made par after having driven into the fairway bunker on 15. "I played the kind of golf they say you're supposed to play in the final round of the U.S. Open," he said later. "I just kind of parred it to death."

His only slip-up came on the treacherous 16th, a 436-yard par 4 in which he failed to get up and down from a green-side bunker, leaving his putt on the lip. Donald was in good company on that hole. Faldo, who had moved to eight under, and Brown, the Open rookie who had hung tough all day, both bogeyed 16 to miss the playoff by a stroke.

Donald seemed in command during Monday's playoff as well. He, too, was living a dream: Improbable pro makes good at the U.S. Open. Donald was two strokes ahead of Irwin at the 16th, the toughest hole on the course all week, but Irwin—hitting his second-most-dramatic shot of the tournament—drew a 220-yard two-iron around an overhanging branch to within eight feet of the hole. He sank the putt for a birdie to pull within one shot. On 18, Donald made his first truly bad swing of the round, snap-hooking his tee shot into the crowd. He was forced to play into the trap short of the green and then failed to get up and down. Irwin pulled even with a par.

So it was on to sudden death—a day late, perhaps, but the USGA does things after its own fashion. Whether or not you like the way it set up the golf course, you had to admit one thing after Irwin had potted his winning birdie on the 91st hole, shattering Donald's dream while fulfilling his own: When the time came to hand out special exemptions, the USGA had hailed the right man.

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINIrwin and the Medinah crowd celebrated the 45-foot birdie putt on Sunday's final hole that thrust him into the playoff. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERDonald made a bold move on the first day, using the toe of his putter (left) for a shot from the fringe at 17. The putt just missed (below). PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN[See caption above.] THREE PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINTied for the lead on Saturday, Scott Simpson needed one shot (above) and then another (left) to clear a bunker at No. 17. Mize found a different sort of trouble (above right) at 17. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERStrange's chances for a third straight title improved Saturday despite a few painful misses. PHOTOJOHN IACONONorman charged to seven under on Sunday, but this time he beat himself with bogeys. TWO PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINFaldo on the 16th green (right) and Brown on 18 (below) saw their hopes sink but not their crucial putts.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)