SENIOR PGA: A Chapman breakthrough, or an Irwin comeback?

BENTON HARBOR, MI. – If you look at golf’s big picture, there are two significant stories brewing going into Sunday’s final round of the 73rd Senior PGA Championship.

The more obvious one is Roger Chapman, the English pro who tied the record at the new Harbor Shores course with a 7-under-par 64 on Saturday to open a five-stroke lead in the Champions Tour’s first major tournament of the year.

Still lurking, though, is 66-year old Hale Irwin, who goes into the final round tied four third and seven shots back. Once the dominant player on the 50-and-over circuit, Irwin is far more familiar with winning than Chapman. Chapman, 58, had one win in 19 seasons on the European PGA Tour and none anywhere since he turned 50.

Irwin was dubbed Mr. Chicago in his glory days, when he won the 1974 Western Open at Butler National, the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah and two Champions Tour titles when the circuit had an annual Chicago stop at Stonebridge and Kemper Lakes.

Though Irwin hasn’t won since 2007, the winningest player in Champions Tour history is in somewhat familiar territory. The two-year old Harbor Shores course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, is the closest Champions Tour event to Chicago and the undulating greens remind Irwin of Winged Foot, the New York layout where he won the first of his three U.S. Opens in 1974.

If Irwin could pull of a win at Harbor Shores he’d be the oldest champion in Senior PGA history. Jock Hutchison, the long-time pro at Glen View Club, won the first Senior PGA in 1947 at age 62, and Irwin isn’t giving into age just yet.

“I’d have to play at least as well as I did yesterday (a second round 66 – the fourth time he’s shot his age in competition), said Irwin. “Roger played extremely well. He really separated himself from the field, but that can be inspirational as well.’’

Better putting would inspire Irwin, who is tied with Steve Pate and two shots behind second-place John Cook. Even after shooting his 66 he changed putters on Saturday, going with a heavier one. That’ll get discarded for the final round, as Irwin plans to bring back his Friday putter minus the tape he had put on it.

“Right now I’m looking for anything,’’ he said.

Irwin missed from eight feet at the first hole of Saturday’s rain-delayed round and three feet on the third. Then he put his tee shot in the water and three-putted at No. 4 for a triple bogey six. He still posted a 69 while playing in the same threesome as Chapman.

“That was the first time I played with Hale,’’ said Chapman, “and I felt in the right place mentally. I hit a lot of good iron shots early, and they kept getting better and better. That had to be the best iron play of my life.’’

He’s at 14-under-par 199 for 54 holes. Burr Ridge’s Jeff Sluman, the only player with a Chicago connection to survive the 36-hole cut, is tied for 42nd. Champions Tour members Gary Hallberg and Chip Beck and club pros Mike Harrigan and Billy Rosinia all failed to break 80 in difficult conditions during Thursday’s first round. They improved dramatically in the second but couldn’t qualify for weekend play.