LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It was a day of dramatic reversals at Valhalla Golf Club.
Hale Irwin overcame a four-shot deficit to grab the lead, then frittered it away with a double bogey on the last hole to drop into a tie with Japan’s Kiyoshi Murota on Saturday in the Senior PGA Championship.
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 could have been better if not for the finish.
Irwin and Murota, who battled back pain to shoot a 74, were at 9-under 207.
Hall of Famer Tom Watson, the 2007 Senior PGA champion, shot a 68 and was just one shot back, with Trevor Dodds (67) at 7 under and Nick Price (73) at 6 under.
Irwin and Murota slugged it out on the back nine head-to-head in the same group.
Murota, a 55-year-old Japanese touring pro and golf teacher who has seldom played in the United States, grabbed his back after hitting his tee shot on the 15th hole. But he was able to par in the rest of the way while wincing during shots and stretching in between them.
Irwin, who grabbed a two-stroke lead when Murota double-bogeyed the 12th hole, had a seemingly comfortable two-stroke lead in hand on the last hole. But from the middle of the fairway he spun his approach shot on the par-5 hole 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.
Defending champion Tom Lehman, riding a string of six straight birdies, shot a 68 that got him into a tie for sixth place at 5 under with Loren Roberts (73) and David Eger (69).
Former British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia (71) and Mark O’Meara (72), a past winner of both the British Open and Masters, were among those at 4 under.
The late collapse dimmed what had been a dramatic turnaround for Irwin. A win would make Irwin – who turns 66 next Friday – the oldest Senior PGA champion ever, surpassing Jock Hutchinson, who was 62 when he won in 1947.
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.
Murota, who led after rounds of 66 and 67 in the first two rounds, began the day with a four-shot lead on Irwin and Price.
But everything unraveled for Murota at the dogleg 12th. He pulled his drive into the right rough and then dubbed a wedge shot when he tried to chip to the fairway, barely advancing the ball 10 feet. From there he hit an iron short of the green, chipped 15 feet by and missed the bogey putt.
The 2005 winner of the Japan PGA Senior Championship, had just two bogeys in the first two rounds but along with a bogey at the 11th gave back three shots to par in a 15-minute span.
The shocking part of Irwin’s closing hole is he has proven he knows how to hold onto a lead. After all, he’s won 20 times 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 – including one in 2004 when it was last played at Valhalla.
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 was 4 under through 15 before making bogey at the next hole. But he closed with a birdie – from that same deep bunker fronting the green – and is lurking just a shot back.
Dodds, in second after the opening round, has sandwiched 67s around a 75.
Price birdied the first two holes but couldn’t get anything going after that, playing the last 16 holes in 3 over.
That was typical. On a warm and sunny day with little wind, consistency was hard to find.