MEDINAH, ILL., JUNE 18 -- Hale Irwin won the U.S. Open this afternoon with a finishing surge that, for the second day in a row, overcame an opponent who seemed at times unbeatable. Becoming the Open champion for the third time in 17 years, he also defeated a wind-whipped course that battered tee shots, crushed drives and forced a pair of golfers to spend a large part of their day wading through thick rough and aiming for elusive greens.

Irwin rolled in an eight-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole, Medinah Country Club's No. 1, to end the Open's 14th playoff since World War II. It was the final and decisive blow to Mike Donald, who seemed most of the day on the verge of becoming another in a long line of unlikely U.S. Open champions.

"I feel blessed," said Irwin, at 45 the Open's oldest winner. "I never knew whether or not I'd have another opportunity like this. I said earlier this week winning this tournament would be indescribably delicious. It's that and more."

He needed a brilliant 31 on the back nine Sunday to make up six shots and force this playoff, and he played his best golf today after digging himself a two-stroke hole by losing one to Donald on the 462-yard 12th.

He began his comeback by following Donald's birdie putt with one of his own on the 545-yard 14th hole. Still, he trailed by two shots with three to play and began his final comeback at the treacherous 426-yard 16th. He did it with a brilliant 2-iron second shot that traveled 207 yards and landed six feet from the hole.

"The shot of the week," he said.

He made the birdie putt to get within a shot and had a chance to win when Donald suffered a nightmarish bogey on the 440-yard 18th.

"I was running out of holes," Irwin said. "You have to keep telling yourself you have a chance, but you start to know time is running out. That was the real Medinah {Country Club} out there today. I was never at any time certain of what club to use."

The rivals finished with two-over-par 74s for the scheduled 18 holes of this playoff, and if the day didn't make for terrific golf, it was terrific drama.

Neither golfer had ever played an 18-hole playoff -- only the U.S. Open is formatted this way -- and both admitted their mental and physical fatigue was running deep by the 91st hole of this tournament.

When they were done, a bit of golf history had been written. Irwin had become the fifth three-time U.S. Open winner in history. Only Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus have won this event more.

He won it in 1974 at Winged Foot and 1979 at Inverness and didn't take the usual route to get here. Having drastically cut back his tournament schedule to tend to his course-design business the last few years, he was allowed to play here only because the U.S. Golf Association -- the Open's governing body -- gave him a special exemption.

Irwin was the lone golfer in this tournament with one of those exemptions given to distinguished golfers the USGA believes can be competitive in the Open.

When Irwin and Donald replay this tournament -- and both golfers likely will several times over the years -- they will point to a couple of moments. Irwin surely will point to 16 where he began his surge.

He revealed that he dreamed of winning the Open two weeks ago and admitted: "I told my wife. If you tell anyone else, you look stupid."

That dream was dying a cold, hard death, beginning with the 526-yard fifth hole when he drove into the right rough, then tried to get out with a wood. That shot went about 27 feet and cost him the first of two bogeys on the front nine.

"He was looking pretty frustrated at times," Donald said. "He was swinging his club at the grass, he was talking to himself."

Irwin made another mistake on the 429-yard ninth hole after his second shot landed short of the green. "Where is the wind?" he asked after watching the shot land short.

Meanwhile Donald was playing an erratic round, picking up bogeys on 3, 4, 6 and 11 and birdies on 1, 9 and 14.

It's 18 where he had a chance to etch his name into the history books and he likely will live with his performance there for the rest of his life. With his mother, Pearl, in the grandstands and ABC cameras watching his every step, he stepped to the tee and hit his first shot off some trees and into the left rough.

He nailed his second shot into the bunker and then left his sand shot 17 feet short of the hole. He just missed the 17-footer that would have given him the championship and tapped in for the bogey. Irwin got to the green in two, missed a 25-footer for victory and tapped in for the tie.

"I didn't hit a good tee shot, that's all," Donald said. "I then pulled the next one into the bunker, which wasn't a real bad place to be. But I caught it a tad heavy and didn't hit a good shot out. I don't know if it was the pressure or what. I was trying to do the same thing I'd done for five days. It was just a routine lousy-looking bogey."

That sent the golfers back to the first hole, the 385-yard par-4 that Donald had birdied three straight times, including today. "I had a feeling someone was going to birdie that hole," he said.

Irwin and Donald hit their tee shots in about the same spot in the middle of the fairway. But Donald left his second shot 30 feet short of the hole, while Irwin put his eight feet to the left of the pin.

Donald rolled his third shot to the right of the pin and Irwin, with his wife and daughter standing behind him, hit one of the biggest putts of his life. He threw both hands in the air, was greeted by his family and made the shot that gave him his first tour victory since 1985 and a $220,000 first-place check.

"I can't tell you what I said," he said, "because I didn't say anything. There was just too much emotion. I don't remember hitting the putt. I only remember it going in."

Donald's voice cracked during his blow-by-blow description of his round. He has been on the tour 11 years and has one victory to show for it. Plus $110,000 today.

He had several chances to close the door on Irwin. He three-putted the 180-yard second hole and the 402-yard 11th, and Irwin said:

"That might have done it. As it was, it was getting difficult to believe it still might happen for me. All I could do was keep telling myself to keep going, keep going. I guess at some point, by 17 or 18, he was feeling the pressure more than me."