BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The defining moment of the U.S. Senior Open's final day came early, on the par-4 fourth hole at Saucon Valley Country Club.
Hale Irwin had just birdied to take the lead from Bruce Fleisher for the first time all week, while Fleisher followed by missing a shorter chance for his own 3. As the players walked off the green toward the fifth tee, the crowd cheered loudly, but one young child's voice rose above the din.
"It's OK, Mr. Fleisher!" the boy shrieked, "you can get it back on the next hole!"
But the sad reality - for Fleisher and his fans - was that he couldn't. For on No. 5, Irwin stuffed a 9-iron for another birdie (he would make three in a row), giving him his own two-shot lead.
It was a lead that, unlike his opponent, he wouldn't relinquish as he shot a 65 to win the second Senior Open of his career by three strokes.
His 17-under 267 total was the lowest in tournament history, surpassing Gary Player's 270 in 1987.
The victory gave Irwin the largest check of his professional career, for $400,000, but it meant more to the 55-year-old's heart than it did to his bank account.
"Golf has always been a part of me; it's a part of the marrow of my bones," said Irwin, who also won three U.S. Opens during a 30-year career on the PGA Tour. "It's playing for the championships. If you start thinking about how much money you're going to win ... then you're playing in the wrong direction."
The experience factor in this head-to-head battle was immeasurable, as Fleisher - who has won 10 times on the Senior Tour, but never a major championship - attempted to deny the more-seasoned Irwin another USGA title.
Although he entered the day leading, Fleisher readily admitted that he felt like Irwin was the man to beat yesterday - a sentiment that demonstrated his uneasiness with the situation.
Compounding the situation was Fleisher's emotions about the possibility of a win that would both validate his career on the Senior Tour and help provide some inner peace after the death of his father, Herbert, just two months ago.
"Most of that feeling is self-endured," said Fleisher, who shot a 1-under 70 for 270. "It's what I create in my mind. I knew the world was watching. I tried to do it for my father today [and] I fell short. It just wasn't meant to be."
That may have been clear after just the first hole of the day.
Following up on his statement that he would play the final round "as manly" as he could, Fleisher went for the green on the par-5 first hole in two, but came up well short and landed in a fairway bunker.
With a tree blocking his path, he punched out to the rough and made bogey, while Irwin spun a wedge to four feet and made his first birdie of the day, evaporating Fleisher's advantage.
"I guess my eyes may have gotten this big," Irwin said about seeing Fleisher pull a 3-wood out of his bag with 270 yards between him and the green. "I was shocked. If there was a turning point, it had to be the first hole. From that point forward, I just made sure that I didn't beat myself."
And he didn't. In fact, he did quite the opposite, never making bogey all day. Although it took him a little longer to close the door than he would have liked - he missed birdie putts on the 15th and 16th holes that would have given him a three-shot margin - when his 10-footer fell on No. 17, he knew the deal was sealed.
Perhaps the worst thing about the day for Fleisher was that he handled the demons that come with the hope of a first major quite well. It would be wrong to say he lost this golf tournament or that he choked away his chance for glory. He played solid, respectable golf. But it was superb play that was demanded.
"To be honest, I was uncomfortable [holding the 54-hole lead]," said Fleisher, who is now 0-for-3 in four-round events in which he has led going into the final day. "I'm not going to tell you I had a good night's sleep, because I didn't."
Irwin, on the other hand, was comfortable in his position - both as the stalker of the lead and the possessor. He had engineered a similar comeback to win his other Senior Open - a three-stroke rally in 1998 at Riviera County Club.
With this win, he now holds a full house of USGA titles - three U.S. Opens and a pair of Senior Opens. It's a winning hand, for sure, but that doesn't mean Irwin isn't still in search of the symbolic royal straight flush.
"There's room for more in my house," Irwin said with a laugh.
"There's nothing I enjoy more so than being out there having a chance. ... There's a high to that that's unlike any other. Then that becomes the thing you strive for."