Irwin's experience sets leading example

Veteran American birdies fearsome 18th to make early running while Garcia recovers from poor start to head European challenge
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The Independent Online

Hale Irwin has not just been playing golf longer than most of the field for the 101st US Open have been alive: he won the first of his three national championships before Tiger Woods was even born. If modern tour golf is about youth and power, US Opens also reward experience, which is how the 56-year-old Irwin found himself on the leaderboard early in the first round here at Southern Hills yesterday.

This is Irwin's 32nd appearance in the championship, making him not just the oldest and the most experienced player in the field now that Jack Nicklaus is missing for the first time in 44 years. The quintessential fairways and greens plodder, Irwin was not fazed by bogeying the opening two holes.

Last year's US Senior Open champion merely birdied the next two holes and the short eighth to be out in 34 and then the 10th to move to two under par. He added another birdie at the short 14th but dropped a shot at the next. He holed from 25 feet to save par on the 16th and then came to the fearsome 18th hole.

Left with an approach shot of 198 yards, and needing to go under the branches of a tree, Irwin hit a low two-iron that ran up the bank in front of the green, popped over a bunker and ran up to two feet. He holed the putt for a rare birdie at the 466-yard hole and took the clubhouse lead on 67, three under par. "Did I think I was going to hit it that close? That would be stretching it a bit, but it went pretty much how I tried to hit it," Irwin said.

Irwin led by two from Loren Roberts and Stewart Cink, with Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Angel Cabrera on 70, level par. Bernhard Langer got to three under after 11 holes but found water at the 13th for a double-bogey seven. The 43-year-old German, who has finished in the top six in his last four starts in America, finished with a 71.

Woods, seeking an unprecedented fifth consecutive major title and hoping to become the first player to defend successfully at the US Open since Curtis Strange in 1989, teed off at lunchtime knowing his round might be interrupted by an afternoon storm. After bogeying the third, Tiger's second at the ninth caught a tree and plugged in a bunker. He went over the green with his recovery and took three to get down for a double bogey that dropped the world No 1 to three over par. The suspension of play for the day left Woods to return to face an eight-footer for par on the 10th.

Having already won the US Open at Winged Foot in 1974 and Inverness in 1979, Irwin became the oldest champion with his third victory at Medinah in 1990. He was then 45 and a year younger than Nicklaus when the Bear won at the Masters in 1986.

For the last six years Irwin has been collecting more silverware on the Seniors Tour, his 31st win on that circuit coming in April. "There are times I get up in the morning and things kind of hurt and ache," said Irwin, who was fourth after the opening round at Pebble Beach last year and finished 27th.

"But a lot of it is in the mind. I'm not here to be ceremonial and just take up a spot. I'm in the field and I want to win. If I did win, it would be fantastic. It would probably turn over every rocking chair in the country.

"Age is just a three-letter word. I am championing the cause of those of us who are over 50 and don't feel like we're gone. I probably don't know 80 per cent of the field. Some of these kids weren't even born when I was starting out. They are tremendously talented but you have to take the realism pill. I cannot drive the ball with Tiger, or many of these guys. I play to my strengths, not to someone else's. I don't get caught up in that."

Front-runners have always fared well at Southern Hills. Both Tommy Bolt in 1958 and Hubert Green in 1977 won US Opens here after leading from the first day. And when three USPGAs and the two US Tour Championships are taken into account, the eventual winner first emerged at the head of the leaderboard after the first or second rounds.

Conditions were not easy from early in the morning with a strong wind that helped to keep players cool but gusted through the trees that line every fairway.

Garcia, at 21 still one of the youngest players on tour, came into the event with a win and a second place behind him but the Spaniard had to recover from being two over after seven. He holed from 40 feet for a birdie at the last and said: "I was pleased with the way I handled myself. I didn't start well but I was very patient."

There was a perfect start for Lee Westwood when he hit his approach at the first to 10 feet and holed the putt for an opening birdie. But he scrambled his way round after that, dropping four shots in three holes after the turn on the way to a 75. He hit only six fairways. Having arrived here more confident that his recent swing changes would pay off than his recent results would suggest, Westwood admitted his round could have been far worse.

"Thanks to my putting, I rolled a 90 into a 75, which is no disaster in a US Open," he said.

While Padraig Harrington, who shot a 73, was more comfortable than most in the wind, Clark Dennis said after his 79: "I hope the wind doesn't lie down. I hope everyone else out there has to deal with the wind I dealt with."

Phillip Price withdrew due to illness having played 14 holes in seven-over par.