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DONALD FORCES PLAYOFF WITH IRWIN IN OPEN SHOWDOWN

The putter, the sputter and the flop.

That's how the 90th U.S. Open got into an 18-hole playoff today between Hale Irwin and Mike Donald. And that's how Curtis Strange didn't win his third in a row.Irwin birdied four straight holes on the back nine - Nos. 11-14 - then sank a birdie putt on the 18th hole that was long, long, long, long.

"It was easily four times longer than any putt I made this week," Irwin said.

TV said it might have been 60 feet. At first, Irwin said he had no idea how long it was, then he said maybe 58 feet. Finally, he settled on 40-45 feet.

No matter, it sent Irwin into a running dance around the 18th green and a series of high-fives with the gallery.

He blew a kiss to the crowd and walked into the clubhouse with a 5-under-par 67 and a four-round 280, 8-under-par. He knew he had a chance to win his third U.S. Open, but he had to wait two more hours for Donald to finish.

"You do what you can do. I did, and I can't do anymore," he said as he waited.

In his 13th year on the tour, Donald hadn't won a tournament until last year's Anheueser Busch Classic. In three Opens, he missed the cut twice. In the 1984 Open, he shot 68 in the first round, then bumbled to a 78 the next day, winding up tied for 34th. He shot a 64 in the opening round of this year's Masters, but followed it with an 82 and was 47th. He was expected to fold here, too, but he didn't. He just fizzled.

He birdied the first two holes, then strung together 13 straight pars before he bogeyed the 16th. He came in with a 1-under 71 that tied him with Irwin.

"It looks like a pretty boring round," he said. "I sort of parred it to death. But I played the kind of round you're supposed to play in the U.S. Open."

Strange didn't. He started the day 5-under and two back of Donald and Billy Ray Brown after shooting a third-round 68. But he shot 3-over 75 that included five bogeys and two birdies, and wound up at 2-under 286, six shots back.

Last year, Strange won his second straight Open, becoming the first man with two in a row since Ben Hogan in 1950-51. He was trying to become only the second man - and first in 85 years - to win three in a row. It proved too much of a challenge.

"I just didn't quite have it," Strange said. "I got off to a bad start, and when I bogeyed No. 12, I knew I couldn't win."

Irwin started the day at 3 under par and four back. He bogeyed No. 2, then strung together four pars before a birdie on No. 7, a 581-yard par-5, when he put his third shot 5 feet from the hole.

He made the turn at even-par, then began a string of four birdies on No. 11, knocking up iron shots with the accuracy of a carnival knife thrower. His birdie putts were from 6, 4, 3, and 12 feet.

"It sort of crescendoed at all at once," Irwin said. "As the day was unfolding, I knew I had to get to at least 8-under to have a chance. Seven wouldn't get it."

He hit a good putt on No. 17 from 12 feet, but it broke away from the hole. "But there was one more hole," he said. "I knew I had a chance."

On 18, he split the fairway with his drive, then hit a 7-iron on the right front of the green. The pin was back-left.

"I felt more comfortable at that distance than I maybe would have been at 10 or 12 feet, where you feel like you have to make it," Irwin said. "I hit it out about 5 feet to the right, and it trickled in. It wouldn't have rolled more than a foot past the hole."

If he wins the Open, Irwin will be the oldest ever to do so. When Raymond Floyd won in 1986, he was three months shy of his 44th birthday. Irwin turned 45 on June 3 and had to get a special exemption from the U.S. Golf Association to play this year.

Donald is 34 and turned professional in 1978, the year before Irwin won his last Open.

"Now, I have to regroup," Donald said. "I have to realize that as happy as I am to be in this situation, I've got a job to do tomorrow. I've got a chance to be the national champion, and I've got to regroup."

Donald birdied the first two holes Sunday from 12 and 3 feet. He did nothing but par - including a 25-foot save on No. 12 - until the 436-yard, par-4 16th. He put his second shot in a greenside bunker and blasted out 12 feet short. His first putt came up inches short, and he tapped in for bogey.

He parred 17, then had almost the same putt on 18 as Irwin.

"It was a tough putt and over a mound.

The speed was tough to judge, and there was about 4 or 5 feet of break," Donald said. "To be honest, I was trying to two-putt, and if it goes in, so much the better."

He two-putted and tied Irwin, but that was not his plan.

"After the bogey, I told my caddie, who's my brother, that we can still birdie one of these two," Donald said. "On 18, I drove into the rough. I could have gone at the flag, but I didn't see how I could stop it. I went to the right side. Heck, the putt just about went in."

Brown, playing with Donald, shot a 37 on the front side and fell to 6-under for the tournament, but even he had a chance on the 18th hole of his first Open. He birdied 11, bogeyed 16, birdied 17 and had a 15-foot birdie putt on 18 to go 8-under.

"Mike looked right at me and said, `Make it,"' Brown said. "And he really meant it. That showed a lot of class, and it meant a lot to me."

Brown played the putt for a small left-to-right break. He didn't get it, and he finished at even-par 72 for 281, along with Masters champion Nick Faldo. Faldo shot a 69 that included a bogey on No. 16, and his chance for a Grand Slam was gone.

Greg Norman, playing with Irwin, had it to 7-under at one point. He shot 33 on the front side and birdied No. 13. But he bogeyed Nos. 14 and 17 to finish 69-283 along with Tim Simpson and Mark Brooks. Simpson and Brooks shot 73.

There have been 28 playoffs in Open history, and this will be the second in three years.

"The most difficult part for me will be getting the adrenalin surge back," Irwin said. But, for him, there already was a reward.

"This gives me some feedback that I'm not ready to go away yet."