But the fact that he came back from 2 strokes down with three holes to play, tied Mike Donald on the 18th hole of a playoff and sank a 10-foot birdie putt on the first sudden-death hole to win his third Open championship yesterday proved that Hale Irwin was more than just an honored guest at Medinah Country Club.
At 45, the oldest man ever to win an Open, Irwin proved to the galleries at Medinah and a national television audience that he still can play this game.
And he never thought otherwise.
"Yes, I honestly thought it was possible," he said of winning, with the gleaming silver championship trophy perched in front of him. "But then again, I've never thought very many things are impossible.
"I've never looked upon my age - I don't think of that. I don't think that the other interests, the design business, have been a detraction. Yes, there are things that must be done, but there are some very qualified people who work with me. I've always felt that I could (win again). I always had the desire to do it."
You don't have to go any further back than the last two days for evidence of Irwin's desire. He rallied from a tie for 20th place after three rounds with a fourth-round 67 that featured five birdies - including his highlight- film 45-foot putt and celebratory dance at the 18th - in his last eight holes.
Then, in yesterday's playoff, on a windy but otherwise delightful day, Irwin came back with two birdies on the last five holes to shoot a 2-over-par 74 and catch Donald, who bogeyed No. 18 after hooking his tee shot into the trees.
The competition then changed to sudden death - the first playoff decided in that fashion in Open history. After a big drive at Medinah's 385-yard first hole, Irwin struck a 103-yard sand-wedge shot to within 10 feet and watched his birdie putt curl into the hole, propelling him into the arms of his wife, Sally, and his 18-year-old daughter, Becky.
Irwin, who lives in Frontenac, Mo., became the fifth player to win more than two Opens (Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson are the others), having won in 1974 at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and in 1979 in Toledo, Ohio. He joins Julius Boros (1952 to 1963) with the longest dry spell between titles.
Fifteen days after his 45th birthday, he also is the oldest champion, eclipsing the mark of Ray Floyd (43 years, 9 months, 11 days), who won in 1986.
Irwin also became the first player to win in the same year he received a special exemption, offered by the USGA "when the association feels a player is still competitive, but otherwise does not qualify," according to a USGA spokesman. Irwin's 10-year exemption as the 1979 champion expired last year, but he has said he would have attempted to qualify.
"I must admit, you never know if you're ever going to have this opportunity again," Irwin said. "Down inside, I felt fairly certain I would have it, but to have the opportunity and do it is two separate events.
"I had said that three championships would be indescribably delicious. Well, it's every bit that. Because I'm so old, I feel blessed."
But Donald, 34, a one-time winner in 11 years on the PGA tour, never made it easy.
Irwin led by 1 shot after eight holes, but bogeyed the ninth. Donald birdied the same hole with a 20-foot putt, taking the lead.
Irwin bogeyed the 11th after encountering tree trouble, but dodged a bullet when Donald 3-putted the hole from 20 feet. However, when Irwin bogeyed the long par-4 12th after pulling an ill-advised approach shot with a wood out of thick rough, he dropped to 2 shots back - and in danger of falling out of the hunt.
"I was not concentrating on the task at hand, which was the next shot," Irwin said. "I was getting too involved with how many over am I, where's Mike, what's he gonna hit. So on the last five or six holes, I really tried to bear down and forget Mike Donald. He was playing the kind of golf that was putting pressure on me. I had to respond with good shots."
Donald also could see that Irwin was trying hard to get himself under control.
"At 11, he looked pretty frustrated," he said. "He was swinging his putter after that hole. But he held himself together and regrouped. I guess his experience got him through this and he responded."
Donald kept the heat on with a 12-foot birdie putt at the par-5 14th, but Irwin sank a five-footer to match it and stay within 2 shots.
Irwin saved his best shot of the day for the par-4 16th. Faced with having to draw the ball around overhanging branches, uphill and into the wind from 207 yards away, Irwin hit a perfect 2-iron to within six feet and made the putt.
The players parred the 17th, leaving Irwin with one more chance to tie. He got a sliver of light when Donald hooked his drive into the trees, leaving him with no shot to the green at the 440-yard, par-4 18th.
"I was trying to do the same thing as I had the past five days - make a good swing," Donald said. "Maybe I quit a little going through it or I was not as aggressive through it as I should have been. But I still had a good chance after that."
Donald hit his second shot into a bunker, then blasted out 15 feet short. After Irwin 2-putted for a par, Donald's putt for the 1990 U.S. Open championship missed.
"It didn't look all that bad; I thought it had a chance," Donald said. ''But I hit a poor bunker shot. It was just a routine, lousy-looking bogey."
That brought the contestants to the 91st and final hole. Donald's approach shot stopped 30 feet short, and he didn't have much chance to make a birdie. Irwin did.
"I honestly don't remember hitting the putt," he said. "I only remember it going in."
Yesterday's playoff proved something to both players. For Donald, who had a moment of glory with a first-round 64 at the Masters before fading, it was that he can play under pressure.
"I felt pressure (on 18), but it's not that I was shaking and my heart was pumping," he said. "I've been more nervous trying to make the cut sometimes. After something like this, I hope I'm able to do it again. If not, life goes on."
For Irwin, it was that he still had the ability to win a major - age notwithstanding.
"I always felt that tenacity was something I've had," he said. "That would apply to most things that I've ever tried to do. You can call it guts or confidence or experience. But I never abandoned my beliefs. They may have been set aside, or temporarily misplaced, but they've always been there."