MEDINAH, Ill. -- The putt every fan will remember on the 18th green at Medinah Sunday was the 45-foot birdie that sent 45-year-old Hale Irwin into a sprinting, fist-pumping, kiss-blowing, high-fiving frenzy of middle-aged bliss.

If Irwin beats Mike Donald in an 18-hole playoff here Monday to become the oldest of all U.S. Open champs, that TV tape will go in the archives beside Watson's Chip at Pebble Beach, Mize's Pitch at Augusta National and Tway's Sand Shot at Inverness. Into the hole and into major tournament history.

But there were two other putts Sunday evening, which in their strong quiet way had an almost equal authority.

First, Billy Ray Brown had a 10-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that would have tied Irwin. For Brown, 27, who's never won a PGA Tour event and had never played in the U.S. Open, this was a chance-of-a-career moment with once-in-a-lifetime pressure. He needed a brisk word of encouragement, but his dad, who played center for the Oakland Raiders, and his brother, a former tackle for the St. Louis Cardinals, weren't on the green.

But Donald was. He had his own worries, to be sure. If he missed his final little three-foot par putt to tie Irwin, he would have a sad and permanent place in golf lore next to Scott Hoch, Ed Sneed, Doug Sanders and too many others who've yipped tiny putts on the 72nd green to slay themselves. Instead, Donald thought of Brown.

"Mike looked right at me and said, 'Make it.' And I knew he meant it," said Brown. "That meant a lot to me. It helped. . . . Mike had showed me a lot of guts all day. I've gained a lot more respect for his game. Now I know what kind of person he is too. He showed me so much class."

Brown missed by an inch, but he put a good pass on the little beast, just as he distinguished himself under fire all day, shooting 71 -- a score that Curtis Strange (75), Jack Nicklaus (76), Seve Ballesteros (76) and dozens of other famous fellows would have taken in a Chicago minute.

"You know, it's his dream too," said Donald of Brown. "If I miss mine, I lose anyway. If I make it and there's a playoff, I can still shoot my score tomorrow and beat them both. I wasn't trying to psych him out. He deserved to make it. He played great."

When they say golf's a gentleman's game, a sportsman's game, it's not just talk. The first person Irwin thanked for helping him come out of the pack to shoot 67 was his playing partner, Greg Norman -- the man Irwin passed down the back-nine stretch to reach the lead.

"I played off Greg. He's such a force in the game that you have to feed off him. Ha, feed off a Shark," said Irwin, whose 31, with birdies at No. 11, 12, 13, 14 and 18, equaled the lowest nine in Open history. "Next to Greg on the front nine {where Norman shot 32} it looked like I was really hacking it."

So, with huge crowds roaring for the sex-symbol Norman, the stolid, scholarly-looking Irwin misappropriated some adrenaline. And, afterward, said, "Thanks for letting me borrow your cheers."

In a sense, Norman's amazing play brought out the extrovert hidden in Irwin for 23 seasons. Norman shot a titanic, gambling, utterly out-of-control, hair-raising 69 that could have been 66 despite knocking squirrels out of all 3,700 of Medinah's trees. Seeing Norman's 300-yard drives over doglegs and his 50-foot birdie putts after hitting into forests seemed to stir Irwin's pride. The two-time Open champ decided to show what he could do on a comparable scale; Irwin began slashing iron shots that played the stiff breeze, landed with butterfly feet and set up birdie putts of 6, 3, 2 and 10 feet on consecutive holes.

Finding unsuspected resources within yourself and maintaining dignity in the face of embarrassment is at the heart of professional golf. Donald and Brown did both this afternoon -- to the surprise of many, including to some degree themselves.

"After I made double bogey at No. 7 {to fall back to six under par}, I really had to dig down deep and see what I had in me," said Brown. "I said, 'See what you can do.' "

Brown did well. He almost broke the last two flagsticks and didn't miss a hole-in-one at the 17th hole by much. "I didn't sleep much last night," he admitted. "Each time I woke up, I'd think, 'Wow, I won the Open.' But each time I didn't."

This day meant more to Donald than to anybody -- even Irwin, who has not won a tournament in five years and spends more time building courses than playing them. At least Irwin has Hall of Fame memories, from Riviera and Pinehurst No. 2 to Muirfield Village and Pebble Beach. If Irwin wins here, Medinah will seem like a logical progression to go beside Winged Foot and Inverness. If God made the ultimate golf course, Irwin probably would win the first event on it.

On an Irwin scale, Donald had no golf memories -- until this evening. In 11 seasons he's won one tournament. At 34, he was running out of time to leave a mark, even a modest one.

"It was just a great day," said Donald, who started the day birdie-birdie and shot 71. Anyone who emphasizes that he bogeyed the 16th hole to squander an outright victory should have to stand in a thunderstorm holding a 1-iron. "Man, this is what I been practicing 20 years for. I may not have looked like it, but I was enjoying every second of it.

"I felt like, 'I've got nothing to lose.' I told myself, 'Play your game. Make pars. Don't do anything crazy. And take your best shot.' I didn't want to play safe and spend the rest of my life thinking, 'I had a chance to win the Open and I bummed out. . . .'

"You know, other people have won the Open who weren't supposed to. I didn't want to let this thing get to me."

Amazingly, in his first experience of final-round pressure in a major, Donald was true to all his deep-sworn vows. He had two emotional crises. After sinking a 25-foot putt to save par at the 12th hole "my heart was pounding. I was all excited. I said, 'Man, you gotta calm down here or you got no shot.' "

At the 18th, facing that last three-foot appointment with the Devil, Donald gave himself more of golf's hard-won lessons in how to cope with a menacing reality. "I wanted to pick a line and go. If I was going to miss, I didn't want to miss it by gimping. I said, 'Don't wishy-wash it and miss it.' "

He rammed it in the heart.

The last time the Open had a playoff, Norman sank a 40-foot par putt on the 18th green to help force a tie with Fuzzy Zoeller. Norman seemed to have all the mythical momentum just as Irwin, who gained six strokes on Donald on the back nine, might seem to have it now.

Zoeller smoked Norman, 67-75.

"I think that -- win, lose or draw -- I'm a winner," said Donald.

Then he paused. No, he wasn't figuring out how a playoff could end in a draw. Instead, Mike Donald seemed to be imagining something incredible. After such a long and rugged career of obscure grinding, he hardly seemed able to force out the words. Eventually, he did.

"But," he said, "I want to be the big winner."