Irwin Wins Senior Open

Monday, July 3rd 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — Hale Irwin seems to play his best when the stakes are highest.

Irwin overcame a two-stroke deficit with a 6-under-par 65 to win his second U.S. Senior Open in three years. He finished with a 17-under 267 Sunday, the lowest total in tournament history, surpassing Gary Player's 270 in 1987.

It was his sixth major championship as a senior to go along with three victories in the U.S. Open.

``USGA championships have been the hallmark of my career,'' Irwin said. ``There is just a handful of the special events. That is what I like to get myself ready to play and I look forward to playing in those. I think my game rises to that level.''

And there's no reason to think the 55-year-old Irwin is slowing down.

``I think there is certainly a time period that you may be less effective than you were before, but if somebody is going to tell me at the age of 55 you are not going to play golf anymore, I am going to go — I just don't buy that,'' Irwin said.

The victory at Saucon Valley Country Club was worth $400,000 for Irwin, the biggest check of his professional career.

It was his third win of the season and 28th as a senior. He moved within one victory of Lee Trevino for most wins on the Senior PGA Tour and now has 56 career victories worldwide.

Irwin started the final round two strokes behind Bruce Fleisher who has 11 wins in less than two full years on the Senior PGA Tour. But Fleisher's career on the regular tour was that of a journeyman — one victory in 27 years.

Fleisher, who had led after each of the first three rounds, shot a 70 and finished at 270.

``Hale Irwin loves his position, has been in this position a hell of a lot more times than I have,'' Fleisher said. ``In fact, I can't even remember the last time I have been in this position. In fact, I don't think I was ever in this position.''

Fleisher was seeking to become the third golfer to win the U.S. Senior Open and U.S. Amateur. Fleisher, who won the U.S. Amateur in 1968, would have joined Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in that elite group.

``You spell it E-X-P-E-R-I-E-N-C-E, you have to underline it, and you have to be there,'' Irwin said. ``You don't go train for it; you don't practice it. You don't go buy some at the store. It's immeasurable.

``For Bruce, each time out, it's more experience. You can't measure experience. I think Bruce learned a lot today.''

Irwin shot a third-round 65 to get within two strokes of the lead. He wiped out the two-stroke deficit on No. 1, took a one-stroke lead on No. 4 and made it two strokes on No. 5.

``I did what I wanted to do early,'' said Irwin, who birdied three straight holes on the front nine for a four-stroke turnaround. ``I let Bruce know I'm there, and put pressure on him.''

Fleisher got in trouble on No. 1 when he sliced a drive into the right fairway bunker. He missed a 6-foot par putt, and bogeyed the hole to share the lead as Irwin birdied with a 5-footer.

``Hale was really on,'' Fleisher said. ``I didn't get off to a good start and he got the momentum. I blipped the first hole. I gambled and lost.''

Tom Kite shot a 69 to finish third with a 12-under 272. Raymond Floyd's 67 put him fourth at 274. Hubert Green was at 276 and was followed by Dave Stockton and Jim Thorpe at 277.

``Hale's a good player and tough to beat,'' Kite said. ``It would've been interesting to see if one of us could've put some pressure on him.''

Irwin took the lead for good when he made a 4-foot putt for birdie on No. 4 while Fleisher pushed a 4-footer for birdie to the right.

A nice approach on the 5th set up a 3-foot birdie for Irwin as he took a two-stroke lead.

``The momentum created yesterday carried to today,'' Irwin said. ``What I wanted to accomplish, I got done with a good start.''

Fleisher cut the deficit to one stroke with a birdie on No. 8, but Irwin regained a two-stroke lead with a birdie on No. 12.

``I never put the ball in position where I can be aggressive,'' Fleisher said. ``I wasn't really focused and that happens from time to time.''

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