Come late Sunday evening, the 72nd Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid could either be one of the biggest accomplishments of Hale Irwin’s illustrious career, or it could be the one that got away.
Irwin, a four-time Senior PGA Champion (his last was a win here at Valhalla in 2004) who turns 66 next week and would supplant Jock Hutchinson (62 in 1947) as the oldest winner of the Senior PGA, will start the final round tied for the lead at 9-under-par 207 with Japan’s Kiyoshi Murota.
Murota has led, or held a share of the lead after each of the first three rounds this week. He said his goal was to shoot an even-par 72 on Saturday, but instead had to settle for a 2-over 74. Even still, he was pleased with the effort.
“I'm happy,” Murota said. “I didn't do too well today. My putting had left something to be desired. But tomorrow is another day. I'm going to play the game of golf my own way. I don't care who is playing with me or before me or after me, I'm going to play Murota game, Murota golf.”
Tom Watson is just one shot back after a 4-under 68 on moving day, while Trevor Dodds tied for low-round of the day honors with Jeff Sluman – a 5-under 67 – and is three behind.
“I enjoy beating people,” said Watson, who at age 61 could become the second-oldest Senior PGA Champion of all time. “I enjoy the competition. I enjoy getting in the hunt and having a chance to win a golf tournament. And that's me. It defines me. And that's what I do for my career.”
Eleven players are within five shots of the lead, including Nick Price (6 under, alone in fifth), Tom Lehman and Loren Roberts (both 5 under and tied for sixth). All three of those great champions are in the thick of a battle that had the makings of a runaway.
Truth be told, Irwin probably feels like he should be entering the last frame at Valhalla Golf Club with at least a two-shot lead and maybe even three.
After a fantastic birdie on No. 16 – the hardest hole on the course this week – and a miraculous par on No. 17, Irwin stepped to the 18th tee Saturday evening with a two-shot edge on Murota at 11 under. In contrast to No. 16, the 536-yard, par-5 18th has played as the second easiest hole at Valhalla all week, yielding more birdies than any other on the course.
But don’t tell Irwin that.
After a decent drive and a nice lay-up, Irwin misjudged his third shot with a short-iron and found the right, greenside bunker. His fourth shot rolled out to about 15 feet past the flag. The par effort slipped three feet past the hole. Faced with a little bogey putt, Irwin shockingly lipped out and then tapped in for a crushing double-bogey 7.
It was the first double-bogey recorded on No. 18 all week.
“I didn't quite catch it the way I wanted to on the third shot with a 53-degree sand-wedge," Irwin said. “I suppose if I had it to do all over again I would hit a pitching wedge. But I thought I had enough club being downwind, even though it was uphill, that by hitting it full and putting a lot of spin on the ball and the greens were as they still are, very soft, so put two and two together you get too much spin down into the bunker. And then the first putt, while it was not a bad putt, it just ran by about three feet and I missed it. One of the very few putts that I've missed. I missed one at 15 and a relatively short one, but I just misread that one.”
Murota had a stumble too. He was 12 under after a birdie on No. 10, but then dropped three shots over the next two holes, going bogey, double bogey. At the time, Murota fell to 9 under and two shots behind Irwin.
On the 15th tee, Murota had a scary moment. He hit a scraggly tee shot left of the fairway and a split second after making contact with the ball, he grimaced in pain, reaching for the middle of his back.
The same thing happened after Murota’s second. He made par on the hole and despite what seemed like a possible injury, he didn’t drop another shot the rest of the way. Afterwards, he said there was a, “twinge,” in his back at No. 15.
“On the tee shot at No. 15, when I swung, I felt a little twinge in my back and I was breathless,” Murota said. “I was unable to breathe for a moment or two. There is pain, a certain amount of pain, minor pain, and my plan is to go back to my hotel and apply ice packs. I don't think it's necessary for me to be seen by a physician.”
Sunday is set up to be a shootout at Valhalla. Temperatures will be the highest they’ve been all week, hitting the 90s and it will be a sprint for the Alfred S. Bourne Trophy – a race Irwin is hoping to win for the fifth time.
As the adage goes, “The older you are, the wiser you get.” With that, it was no surprise that Irwin was able to put that 18th-hole blunder and his position into perspective.
“You take all the putts that I did make, the par save at 17 was unbelievable, so I have to kind of say that while I would have enjoyed the lead by myself, I'm not sure I deserve the lead by myself," he admitted. "I'm very happy to share it with the whole field, to tell you the truth, because I don't feel like I've played the caliber of golf that I need to play to win. Now having said that, there is tomorrow. And my tardiness was because I needed to go work on a couple of things on the practice tee, and again, just getting through up here what I need to do. And to be able to execute that is always a challenge, is it not? So that's all I have to say.”
If that sounds like a guy with 20 PGA Tour wins and 45 Champions Tour wins to his credit, it’s because Hale Irwin is that guy.