MEDINAH, ILL., JUNE 19 -- Hale Irwin began to sort out the pieces of his newly rearranged golf life this morning. One day after winning the first sudden-death playoff in U.S. Open history, he finds himself one of his game's hottest commodities, and reacted to reborn fame by announcing he'll play the British Open for the first time in nine years.

"I feel it's important for the U.S. Open champion to be there," he said of the mid-July event at St. Andrews.

That may just be a start because he'll probably be eligible for the $2.5 million Nabisco Championships late this year as he is for the World Series of Golf and next year's Masters and Tournament of Champions.

He's making no other firm commitments except to emphasize that, after a half-dozen years of getting his course design business on its feet, playing golf is again the most important thing in his professional life.

"I'm not yet completely sure what I'll do," he said. "I haven't had a chance to think about it."

It's a wonderful position for anyone to be in, but especially one who has risen back near the top of his profession after spending about seven years in semi-retirement.

He entered only 19 tournaments last year, and while finishing in the money in 14 of them, ranked only 93rd on the PGA money list. He hadn't won a tour event since 1985 until defeating Mike Donald on the 19th hole of Monday's playoff.

But money wasn't that important. He made millions on the golf tour in the '70s and appears to have made several million more from endorsements and his businesses. Ten of his courses are open, or under construction, and more are planned.

What's amazing is that once he began playing golf regularly again, he began playing it well. He tied for third in the Kemper and had two other near misses before coming to Medinah Country Club to become a three-time Open winner.

At 45, he's the oldest Open winner in history, but he works hard at staying in shape and still carries 175 pounds on a 6-foot frame -- about the size he was while winning the 1967 NCAA golf championship for the University of Colorado.

"I think there are people who rise to certain occasions," he said. "Certain people look forward to certain tournaments. I think there's also people that back away. Maybe it's a combination of those things that has worked for me. Through the years playing well at the U.S. Open meant having a lot of tenacity and I think I've always had that. I think you have to play position golf here. You can still be aggressive, but you have to be sure of your position."

He appeared to be out of the running until Sunday's back nine when he caught leader Donald with a closing 31. He sank a 45-foot putt on the 18th hole for the tie.

Likewise, he didn't get his game going in Monday's playoff until trailing by two strokes on the back nine. He birdied the 16th hole -- the most difficult of the week -- then finished with two pars. When Donald took bogey on the 18th, each had shot 74.

In old-time Opens, the golfers would simply play another 18 holes. A few years ago, the sudden-death format was adopted. Irwin ended it quickly with his birdie on the first hole.

"I never felt I was over the hill," he said. "I don't feel old. We've got other people out here that are older in terms of the way they think and the way they act. That's not me. I played well at the Kemper two weeks ago and I feel I can still play. If I didn't, I wouldn't be here."

He might not have been here at all if the United States Golf Association hadn't granted him a special exemption. His 10-year Open exemption expired in 1989 -- he last won it in 1979 -- and he hadn't played enough events to be invited under any other circumstances.

He probably still would have gotten here but he would have had to get up the morning after the Kemper and go to Woodmont Country Club in Rockville for a 36-hole day of qualifying for one of the Open spots.

He said he was already filling out his application when the exemption arrived. USGA officials give them to veteran players they think will be competitive. Only 20 such passes have been issued since 1966. The highest any of the exemption players had finished was 12th -- Ben Hogan, the original exception, in 1966.