Hale Irwin doesn't expect anything for his 45th birthday today except, maybe, a piece of cake. That's why he's dangerous. If he shoots another 65, like the one he carved out yesterday, he could win the Kemper Open.

"If I can do it again, sure, I've got a chance. I don't care if it's the U.S. Open or the Kemper Open, it's still Sunday and anything can happen," said the man who has won the U.S. Open twice, but is winless since his 40th birthday. "If we get the thunder boomers they're predicting and some wild winds . . . "

Irwin smiled, as though the thought of thunder and wild wind, a collapsing leader and an old man charging from sixth place were a pleasant fantasy. Irwin's seen it all. He probably can't pull it off, but he figures he could handle the crunch if he got there.

To the young, such as Steve Jones, who is leading this tournament by three shots, golf is relentlessly unforgiving. To those hungry for great deeds, the game can seem diabolical. The harder you try, the less you achieve. Jones knows. Last season, he won three tournaments. Greatness, or something close to it, was predicted for him. This year, he's 27th on the money list and has fallen from No. 1 to No. 125 in putting.

"I lose my legs," Jones says of those pressurized Sundays that hit every player differently. "When they go, I don't swing the same. Then it gets worse. Pretty soon, they're yellin' 'Fore' on every hole."

For the old, golf has special bizarre benedictions. Sometimes, instead of losing your legs and your adrenaline, you find them just when you thought they had gone on vacation forever. When your best years and most celebrated moments are part of history, the humbling game can sometimes become a gentle companion, not only forgiving sins but waiting to bestow unsuspected days of wonder.

One day, out of the blue at 44, Lee Trevino won the PGA Championship. At 46, playing worse than he ever had in his life, Jack Nicklaus won the Masters. And, this spring, with no warning, Ray Floyd almost won the Masters at 47. Nicklaus contended at 50.

Irwin is not standing on so grand a stage, nor are his chances as good as theirs. At the moment, Irwin (at six-under-par 207) is five shots behind Jones. On the other hand, nobody else is more than two shots ahead of him.

Irwin has one nice advantage. When you've won 17 titles and more than $3 million in prize money, you can play the tour as though every day were your birthday.

As recently as a day ago, Irwin was playing like his age. Three times Friday, he had a short iron in his hand -- a wedge or 9-iron -- and fully expected to put the ball within birdie range. Simple shots, especially for one of the great iron strikers of his time. Twice, Irwin put the ball into the creek and another time into a bunker.

"I'd as soon walk over and beat myself against a tree as do those things," he said. "When you make foolish, lackadaisical mistakes like that, you know you're not thinking too well . . . It's not poor execution, it's lack of concentration. Today, I eliminated some of those more absurd shots."

Last year in the Los Angeles Open, Irwin was in the hunt but ended up third. This year, at The Players, on one of those super-tough tracks that Irwin always has loved, he had a chance to take the lead outright on the 52nd hole. But he missed a short birdie putt, then made two bogeys in a row. Eventually, he finished fifth. That's all part of being 45, an age when a near miss can feel as good as victory once did.

These days, for instance, Floyd writes to old friends to assure them that, in retrospect, his loss in the Masters playoff was, all in all, one of the best weeks of his career.

Old players like Irwin, with the Hall of Fame securely in their grasp, have the wisdom to accept the day on its own terms. If 65 is the preamble to 75, so be it.

Players in their prime such as Jones don't have that luxury. Yesterday, for example, Jones made the first hole-in-one of his tour career. Did he dance, scream, slap hands? None of the above. He instantly reminded himself not to become too happy. "Yeah, hooray. Now let's go on," he says he told himself.

When good things happened to Irwin, he let them sweep him along. A birdie at the third hole ignited a string of four in a row. His irons shots did the hard labor, just as they always did at the classy courses, such as Winged Foot, Inverness, Muirfield Village, Pinehurst No. 2, Riviera, Butler National, Harbor Town and Pebble Beach where he won.

"Four in a row . . . that tends to set up the round kind of nicely," said Irwin. "Anybody that's ever had any measurable success out here strives to get in a {contending} position. If you do get there, it gives you that extra kick."

A kick into high gear. And that's something middle-aged golfers often need desperately.

For Irwin, a reasonable goal is watching his daughter, Becky, graduate from high school next week or helping his 15-year-old son, Steve, who has the golf bug, work on his game. Course building may now be more important to Irwin that course beating.

"When you're young, that's all there is. I just played golf," he said. "That single- mindedness of purpose disappears. But you take advantage of what you've accomplished to develop other parts of yourself."

Irwin has won more PGA tournaments than all five of the players ahead of him on the scoreboard combined. He's won as many majors as all the rest of the players left in the field. In fact, his two U.S. Open wins are two more than everybody else here put together. He's old and he hasn't won in five years. But he'll make the spotty fairways at Avenel classy just by walking on them.

"This is not a bad course. It needs some tree planting. You get out there, it's like the moon. No definition. But it's acceptable . . . needs fine-tuning. The sponsor, the crowds, the facility are all good. The problem this year was timing. It fell in a bad spot in the schedule -- just a quirk."

If Hale Irwin really wants to do the Kemper Open a favor, he'll win it. You know, for the sake of "definition." If that's not possible, maybe he could put on his course design hat and come back to figure out where to put those trees.