LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Old reliable Hale Irwin blew a two-shot lead on the last hole with a shocking double bogey. Earlier, Kiyoshi Murota was up by four strokes, lost the lead, hurt his back, and then ended up tied for first with Irwin.
Elsewhere, players were flying up and down the leaderboard with startling suddenness.
It was one weird Saturday at the Senior PGA Championship.
In the end, Irwin had to settle for a piece of the lead with Murota, the front-runner the first two days. They were at 9-under 207, with the ever dangerous Tom Watson lurking just a shot behind and Nick Price, defending champion Tom Lehman, Mark Calcavecchia and Mark O’Meara among the 13 players within five shots of the lead at Valhalla Golf Club.
Seeking a victory that would make him the oldest winner of a senior major, Irwin – who will be 66 next week – shot a 2-under 70 that was ruined by the finish.
“If I had birdied the last hole to tie for the lead, I’d be feeling like this,” he said, stretching his arm out a few feet off the floor. “But doing what I did – I even hate the words ‘double bogey.'”
Jock Hutchinson is the oldest senior major champion, taking the 1947 Senior PGA at 62, and Mike Fetchick set the Champions Tour record at 63 in the 1985 Hilton Head Seniors.
Watson, who shot a 68 after two 70s, marveled that Irwin was doing what he was doing a full four years since he last led a tournament heading into the final round.
“What’s that old granddad doing?” Watson cracked. “I mean, geez, what’s that about?”
Murota, a 55-year-old Japanese touring pro who has seldom played in the United States, was pleased to have a share of the lead. He also couldn’t wait to get some relief after injuring a muscle while hitting his tee shot on the 15th hole.
“There is pain, a certain amount of pain, minor pain, and my plan is to go back to my hotel and apply ice packs,” Murota said through an interpreter.
Everyone in the field, it seemed, had some complaint. Most of the players were irate that the sanctioning PGA of America didn’t permit them to lift, clean and place their golf balls on the sodden course, resulting in numerous squirrelly shots because of the gobs of mud sticking to balls.
Still, Irwin and Murota slugged it out on the back nine head-to-head in the same group.
Up by four shots at one point, Murota bogeyed the 11th and then doubled the 12th to fall two shots back of Irwin. Then, despite the back pain that began with his drive at the 15th hole, he actually played better to salvage his round. He winced during shots and stretched in between them while parring out.
“Tomorrow is another day,” he said. “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’s game, Murota’s golf.”
Before the tournament began, Irwin had talked about the end of his career. He spoke wistfully about whether his playing days would taper off or fall off a “cliff.” He said it was a “transition time” for him.
Then he went out and shot rounds of 69 and 68 in the first two rounds and played keepaway with the lead until he got close to the green on the par-5 18th.
From the middle of the fairway he spun a 53-degree sand wedge shot back into the gaping bunker in front. From there he blasted out to 15 feet and rolled his par putt 3 feet past. Then he missed the bogey putt to give away the lead.
“One of the very few putts that I’ve missed,” he said. “I just misread that one.”
Known as one of the greatest finishers in the game’s history, Irwin has 20 wins on the PGA Tour, including victories in the 1974, ’79 and ’90 U.S. Opens. Since turning 50, he’s racked up more Champions Tour wins than anyone, with 45 including four in the Senior PGA Championship – one coming in 2004 at Valhalla.
“I would have enjoyed the lead by myself, but I’m not sure I deserve the lead by myself,” he said.
The collapses by Irwin and Murota gave hope to a lot of hungry challengers.
Watson, winner of five British Opens, two Masters and a U.S. Open, played solid if unspectacular golf, making the most of his chances. He closed with a birdie – from that same deep bunker fronting the green.
“I enjoy beating people,” he said. “I enjoy the competition. I enjoy getting in the hunt and having a chance to win a golf tournament. That’s me. It defines me. That’s what I do.”
Trevor Dodds, in second after the opening round, sandwiched 67s around a 75 and was alone in fourth at 209.
Price, winner of a British Open and a PGA, birdied the first two holes but played the last 16 holes in 3 over. Still, he is only three strokes back after a 73.
Lehman, riding a string of six straight birdies, had a 68 that got him into a tie for sixth at 5 under with Loren Roberts (73) and David Eger (69). Lehman has three victories this year.
Former British Open winners Calcavecchia (71) and O’Meara (72), who also has won a Masters, were among those at 4 under.
Irwin had the last word.
“If you would have told me at the first of the week, ‘You’re going to be tied for the lead going into the last round,’ I would have just absolutely been delighted,” he said. “I would have said, ‘Let’s play Sunday.'”
And so they will.
Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/rustymillerap