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Image wasn't everything . . .

For most of his career, Hale Irwin's personality was defined more by things he didn't have _ straight teeth, good eyes _ than by the traits that made him one of golf's steadiest, if not flashiest, performers. He showed up in the 1970s wearing braces and wire-rimmed glasses, but without the charisma and courage of Arnold Palmer or the presence and power of Jack Nicklaus. Yet over the years, Irwin earned a reputation for outlasting his opponents, making few mistakes, grinding his way to victory.

Irwin won 17 times, including two exhausting U.S. Open victories, before last summer's triumph in the U.S. Open at Medinah, where he won an 18-hole playoff and also seemed to carve a new image for himself.

It was made with one spontaneous, high-fiving romp around the 18th green after making an improbable 45-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole of the tournament, which earned him a tie with Mike Donald. The next day, after defeating Donald in the playoff, Irwin became, at age 45, the oldest golfer to win the U.S. Open.

The gallop around the green was as surprising for Irwin as the events that led up to it _ birdieing five of the last nine holes, including four in a row. And when he did his dance, he became a folk hero.

"I would agree, that to most people on the outside of the ropes looking in, it probably was a shock," said Irwin, who will try to defend his title when the 91st U.S. Open begins Thursday at Hazeltine National Golf Club. "I've gotten letters, 99 percent of them favorable, about there being some human emotion. There was no way to hold that back. People described it as a run, a jog, a dance, a jig, you name it. I think it brought people pleasure and some identification with that age group and maybe me."

Irwin had good reason to celebrate. None of his 17 PGA Tour wins had come within the past five years. While his game was declining, Irwin was nurturing a golf-course-design business. In 1986, his streak of 13 consecutive years of winning more than $100,000 ended, and by 1990 _ when he needed a special exemption from the United States Golf Association just to get a spot in the U.S. Open _ he appeared to be waiting for the senior tour.

But Irwin discovered in 1990 that he could still play with the young guys. And just to prove the point, after winning the U.S. Open, he won again the following week at the Buick Classic. People apparently didn't notice earlier in the year when he had finished third at the Kemper Open and fifth at the Players Championship.

The revival actually dated to the fall of '89, when Irwin had discussions with NBC about doing color commentary on the network's golf telecasts. In the course of the talks, it was mentioned to him that he should take the job since his golf game was no longer any good.

Talk about inspiration.

"That really got under my skin," Irwin admitted. "I thought, "Maybe I'll give myself a kick in the a-- and see what happens.' I got back to basics, back to what makes Hale Irwin tick, what makes him do well on the course."

Irwin never felt age was the reason for his demise. He had started paying more attention to his business and his two growing children and let competitive golf slip away. "I was thinking to the future," he said.

As he began practicing again, Irwin could see results. Only two weeks before the Open, he had a dream that he had won the tournament. No dummy, Irwin told no one but his wife, Sally. After all, it seemed a bit ludicrous that a 45-year-old man who had not won in five years could win the toughest tournament of the year.

"I made a birdie at 11 and thought, "Okay, now let's go for the top 10,"' he said. "I birdied 12. I thought, "One more.' I birdied 13. I birdied 14. All of a sudden, I've gone from off the board to two back. Then I got greedy. I thought, "What if I get one more?' It was go ahead and go for 8-under.

"That's why the putt on 18 was so big. I never thought it would be a winner outright, but I knew 8-under would be a big lump in somebody's plan. To get to nine and stay there would be difficult.

"It's probably the most effort I've ever put into an event, and when that putt went in, there was such an avalanche of noise that it just about blew me away."

Irwin went out and lived his dream. The victory was his third U.S. Open title, putting him with Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson as the only players to win three or more.

And after such a feat, who wouldn't want to live it up a little? Finally, after all those years, the guy whose teeth were corrected by braces and his eyesight by contact lenses was showing the raw emotion for which he had never been known.