MEDINAH, ILL. -- For champions, like Hale Irwin, maybe life can be about victories. For most of us, like Mike Donald, who have skills and dreams, but intractable limits as well, maybe it's about challenges and defeats that come with pride attached.

"If I can't be happy with a week like this, it's stupid for me to play golf," said Donald, who, for the second day in a row, came toward the Medinah clubhouse with the U.S. Open championship in his hands and, again, arrived without it.

"If I was only happy when I won, I'd be pretty miserable most of the time," said Donald, after bogeying the 18th hole Monday to shoot 74, then losing to Irwin's birdie on the first hole of sudden death. "I've been out here for 11 years and I've only won once. The challenge is what it's all about . . . .

"I didn't make a 10 on the last hole. I didn't shoot 78. And I had a reasonable chance to win the U.S. Open on the last {18th} hole," said Donald.

If you sense an air of resignation in all this, you might be correct. Donald is the modest sort of fellow who, at the 11th green, crouched down so that he wouldn't block the view of spectators behind him. You could wait 90 more Opens before you see that again. In fact, Donald has such a realistic handle on himself and his place in his game that you almost wish he could romanticize his role, just this once. But he can't.

"I think my game has moved up a level. And most people in the sport will probably respect me more than they used to. But nobody really remembers who finishes second," he said. "Five years from now, nobody will even remember that I was here."

Too harsh?

No, probably correct.

Who finished second in the Open last year, one shot behind Curtis Strange?

Don't know? Chip Beck, Mark McCumber and Ian Woosnam.

How close did Donald come to a sliver of golf history? Probably about an inch or less. A bit more evening dew on the grass might have done the trick. For about one second Monday evening, as his 17-foot par putt on the 18th green hooked toward the top edge of the cup at a pleasant speed, Donald -- 34-year-old PGA Tour journeyman and son of a Florida filling-station owner -- thought he'd pulled it off. He started to run. Away from the hole and toward the same crowd that Irwin had high-fived and blown kisses to on Sunday. For that brief moment, Donald thought the same fates that had touched Andy North and Orville Moody, Lou Graham and Ed Furgol, had also chosen him for a lifetime of first-tee introductions as "Former U.S. Open Champion."

"I kinda thought it had a chance," said Donald. "Then, it didn't have a chance . . . . I wasn't going to give high-fives. That's Hale's thing. But I would have done a victory dance, I guarantee you."

We'll never know what it would have looked like. Instead, Donald tapped in his semi-ignominious putt for a bogey on an 18th hole he will never forget. Other shots Donald will remember include:

A hooked drive into the trees:

"Maybe I quit a little on it and wasn't aggressive enough. Sure, I felt pressure on the tee. But I've been a lot more nervous trying to make the cut."

A pulled-punch 5-iron under limbs and into the left front trap:

"I got a break. I had an opening to the green. But I pulled it a little."

A weak sand shot:

"I had a side hill, uphill lie and I hit it a hair heavy."

Once again, golf strangled its victim one tiny lost opportunity at a time.

Except for that final bogey, golf fans would have remembered how solidly Donald played from the seventh through 17th holes -- one under par.

"Mike was playing exactly the kind of golf I would have liked to play if I'd been in his position with a one- or two-shot lead," said Irwin. "My heart doesn't go out to my opponents very often, but it does to Mike. He was very game . . . . I've always thought he could play, but now he seems to have proved it to himself. . . . . As shattering as that last bogey may be, if construed properly, it can be a learning experience for him."

Perhaps to his credit, Donald does not swallow the pabulum of noble defeat in a gulp. "Oh, after he won, Hale told me to keep my head high, that I played great, my chance would come again," said Donald, appreciatively, but also with the knowledge that many losers hear such words. That's how winners shed their guilt at winning so they can enjoy their victory just a little bit more.

Did Donald learn anything about himself from these two final days of bearing up under maximum pressure?

Donald could have said, "Watch out for me now." Or "I can play with the big boys." Or "I found out I have guts."

Instead, he gave a wry smile, "Sometimes I don't even want to know myself, to tell you the truth."

Mike Donald works on the PGA Tour Policy Board. It's hard, necessary, largely thankless work that makes other players' lives richer and easier. He plays in more events than almost anybody. Sponsors say thanks because it's nice to say you've got the No. 22 money winner in 1989 in your event.

And, after Donald followed an opening 68 in the Masters this April with a humiliating 82, he tore his swing apart, root and branch, because he does not believe there are any easy answers or easy excuses when you fail.

"A lot of guys like to make excuses, fool themselves. I like to look myself in the mirror," said Donald. "It wasn't the pressure that got me at the Masters and it wasn't because I was a wimp. My game just wasn't good enough. I've worked hard for two months and this week proves to me that I've made fundamental improvement in my swing.

"{Monday} I played all right. But the two three-putts {on the second and 11th holes} and the poor drive and the poor bunker shot at 18 did me in . . . . I left the door open for Hale."

And, of course, you can't do that. The multimillionaire with the beautiful red-headed wife, the handsome children, and the two previous U.S. Open trophies on the mantlepiece, got to the pinnacle of his profession for a reason. And what might that reason be?

Because when you show Irwin your throat, he goes for it and doesn't apologize. As an all-Big Eight defensive back, he loved to hit. As a golfer with 18 tour victories, he loves to keep coming back like one of those movie monsters who won't die.

As soon as Donald bogeyed the 18th hole, then hit an indifferent iron-shot to 30 feet on the first sudden-death hole (No. 1), Irwin reacted like a champion -- mercilessly. He stood in the fairway. He studied the wind. He almost seemed to smell the kill. A simple 110-yard wedge to an undefended easy pin position. He gave himself no excuses. He didn't think about what a third Open crown would mean to him. No soft emotions crossed his face. Hale Irwin lashed his pitching wedge like he was running a sword through Mike Donald.

The ball landed in the shadow of the pin. "I don't remember hitting the last putt at all," said Irwin. "I just remember seeing it go in the hole."

Donald had chances to slay Irwin. An 18-foot birdie putt at the 11th would have given him a three-shot lead. At that juncture, Irwin was angry and frustrated, cursing under his breath to his caddie about his bad lies in the rough and, when the cameras weren't on, slashing a backhanded divot out of the rough that flew over the crowd's head.

But Donald ran his putt four feet past and three-putted for bogey. At the 168-yard 17th, Donald hit a wonderful shot to 10 feet. But his putt, to take a two-shot lead to the 18th tee, curled around the hole.

Donald's mother watched all this -- watched as one son hit the ball while his brother Pete, a mechanic in his father's garage, carried his bag. Whenever the TV cameras tried to capture her reactions, she said, "Please don't." Whenever marshalls invited her inside the gallery ropes so she could walk near the players, as Irwin's family did, she said, "I'm fine where I am."

In five years, maybe we won't remember much about Mike Donald. But after what he's shown of himself the last few days, he'll probably be fine wherever he is.