This is what happened at the British Open:
On Thursday, Jack Nicklaus took a lesson from a 23 handicapper. On Friday, Arnold Palmer made a 10 on one hole, including five passes at the ball to extricate himself from one bunker. This goes down as the worst performance in sand since Elvis made Viva Las Vegas. On Saturday, 25,000 Scots braved temperatures in the low 50's, 40-mph winds, which made it seem colder, and eight hours of rain to watch four guys break par. And on Sunday, the kid who blew the tournament, the one a bookie had at 66 to 1, looked for all the world like golf's future.
He is Paul Azinger, 27, a 6'2", 170-pound flagstick and former boat-barnacle scraper from Sarasota, Fla., and he looks less like a professional golfer than like somebody who might carry June Cleaver's groceries out to her car. He often didn't break 40 for nine holes as a high school senior, went through the qualifying school three times, once won less than $11,000 in an entire year on the Tour and drives an '85 Chevy Blazer.
On the last day at Muirfield, in a Scottish mist thicker than a Slurpee at a Sarasota 7-Eleven, Azinger needed only two lousy pars on the last two holes to carve his initials on the picnic table of golf history. Instead, he made two bogeys and handed the old silver claret jug to the great Brit hope, Nick Faldo, a man who didn't have a birdie all day.
Who, in all of Britannia, was figuring on the 30-year-old Faldo? This was the U.K.'s not-so-favorite son, the press's Nicky Fold-o, the man who had let down the Union Jack by folding on the front nine in the final round of the 1984 Masters after having started only two shots out; who later that year lost at St. Andrews after being in contention; who had failed to keep the old trophy on native soil despite his claim to the throne as the best player in the land. Ever tried to play 18 holes with a country on your back?
But there he was Sunday afternoon, battling Azinger, the Brit and the Yank, which, if you thought about it, was not so strange 't all. Muirfield has 159 of the sandiest and ugliest bunkers extant, and each man happens to have led his respective Tour in sand saves. Sometimes the game is not so complicated after all.
Still, by the time Faldo had made the turn, they were beginning to line up glasses of hemlock in London. Faldo had been over the par-5 9th green in two, but came away with only a five. When Azinger rolled in a 14-footer on the 8th with the smoothest stroke to happen along the PGA Tour in, say, the last five years, he led by three.
But that's when the figurative winds shifted. Faldo saved par at 11. Azinger bogeyed 10 after misclubbing himself. Two-shot lead. Faldo made a routine par at 13. Minutes later, Azinger frittered away another shot at 11. One-shot lead. That's how it stayed until Azinger played the par-5 17th. As Faldo stood looking at the 40-foot birdie putt on 18 he thought he needed to tie, little did he know that about 500 yards behind him, Azinger was bogeying 17, having body-slammed a driver into a fairway bunker—another misclub. "Ridiculous," Azinger said. "I should have hit a one-iron. That driver cost me the championship." He had no choice but to chip out sideways.
Faldo ran his putt four feet by and then calmly rapped the next one into the cup. He didn't learn that Azinger had dropped a stroke until he was inside an R & A trailer. And even then, with two TVs in the room, someone had to tell him. He was too nervous to watch.
Azinger's bogey on 17 left him needing a par 4 on 18 to tie. His tee shot left him 210 yards from the green in the middle of the fairway, a five-iron in his bony hands. "I was looking forward to a playoff," he said. "I felt in complete control. I don't know what happened."
What happened was that his five-iron sailed left into one last trap, pin-high, many in the gallery cheering boorishly as the ball came to rest. But who's to worry? All Azinger had to do was get a golf ball up and down out of a sand trap—the one thing he could do better than anyone else in the world, even Faldo. Unfortunately, the ball was in such a position that Azinger had to take an awkward stance. He just barely blasted out and left himself a 30-footer that he hit 29. Faldo was, at last, the British champion.
"This morning," Faldo said, "I said to myself, 'This is a chance you may never get again.' I just wanted to try. In 20 years it would have been sad to hang your hat up and say, 'I was so close once, but I missed.' "
In making 18 straight pars, Faldo was not so much the champion as he was Muirfield itself—36 out, 35 back, par 71—only a backdrop against which Azinger played the real opponents, the course and himself. He fell to it, rose to it and, ultimately, fell to it. He's smart. He wants to grow from it. He will. As he stood on the 18th green in front of the ancient Muirfield clubhouse with his wife, Toni, his 18-month-old daughter, Sarah Jean, and a tear in his eye, Paul Azinger looked very much like the savior who can put the game in the back pocket of his size-32 slacks and not fall over.
It's about time. How long does the sign have to hang in the window, anyway? Counting Faldo's Open, the last 18 major championships have been won by 18 different players. Forget anybody winning the Grand Slam; maybe somebody could win two majors in one year. Maybe somebody could plod on past pretty-darn-good to sort-of-memorable.
Weren't the '80s supposed to be the age of the new and improved Big Three, Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman? Well, the Big Three better hurry up or the '80s better slowdown. In this decade, they have divvied up only five majors—none this year, one last year. The guys from decades defunct—Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd and Nicklaus—have 11, and Watson is threatening again.
Of course, nobody still expects Nicklaus to change water into wine at every major, except maybe Nicklaus. After his Thursday round of 74, he said he was "as down as I've been in a long time." So he drove 10 minutes along the coast to North Berwick and hit a few balls by himself. Or so he thought, until he heard a voice from the dim background.
"Agghh, Jack, you're crossin' the line," it said.
Nicklaus turned around. "What's that?"
"You're crossin' the line at the top of the swing," said a little man in a Scottish cap. His name was Doug Kaddie and he was right. That's what Nicklaus was doing. "I'd worked a couple weeks ago with Jack [Grout] on that very thing," Nicklaus said. The next day he shot 71. As it turned out, Kaddie is a 23 handicapper. On Saturday, without an evening lesson from his Kaddie, Nicklaus went out and shot an 81. Maybe Kaddie charges too much.
If St. Andrews is the most loved British course and Prestwick is the quaintest, then Muirfield is simply the finest. Its trophy case holds the names of Vardon, Hagen, Cotton, Player, Nicklaus, Trevino and Watson. That explained the sense of violation Scots might have felt when Aussie Rodger Davis fired his gaudy 64 on Thursday, a day when, early on at least, windless, rainless Muirfield was as vulnerable as, Watson said, "a naked lady." The 64 was not as garish as the man's socks, which read RODGER in argyle up one side of each leg and DAVIS down the other. Vardon winced in his grave. Hagen lifted a wee whiskey.
But here came Mr. Amazinger, trying to become only the fourth man in history (Lema, Hogan, Watson are the others) to win the British Open on his first go-round. His opening pair of 68s gave him the lead; to the dismay of one British tabloid, whose headline read: THE MAN FROM NOWHERE. Which was a lie. As far as the British Open goes, Azinger was more accurately the Man from the Couch, which is where he often has been during the Open, slouched in front of his TV. This year he was bent on entering even if it meant arriving early to qualify. "Is this because you feel like you're finally good enough?" somebody asked.
"No," said Azinger. "It's because I'm finally rich enough."
Rich enough as in $586,962-this-year-alone-on-the-Yank-Tour rich enough, rich from having won thrice already in 1987—from behind in Phoenix, from ahead in Hartford and from out of the blue in Las Vegas by eagling the 18th. In fact, the former boathop (he pumped gas and cleaned and painted vessels at his father's marina) could become the first man to do in one year what took Arnie more than 13 years: win a million bucks.
"It's amazing," says Azinger. "Now I come to a tournament and open my locker and there's all this free stuff in it. And I just say, 'Boy, I can finally afford all this stuff, and now I'm getting it free.' "
The Zinger, as the players call him, is as fresh as a morning scone. He can be scatterbrained (he won't be on Nicklaus's U.S. Ryder Cup Team this September because he didn't take etiquette classes to become a Class A professional), yet wise: "No matter what happens to me tomorrow," he said with one day to play, "I'll be a better player for it."
He can be a kid (he admits he has no idea what forks go with which appetizers), yet he has a soul for the game that many of the cleated M.B.A.s playing today sorely lack. "Don't let anybody tell you a major is just another tournament," he says. "They're just fooling themselves. I'm glad I'm here. I'm glad I'm in contention. This is the kind of pressure you'll never have in a PGA event."
And he can be fun. On Saturday he complained that the BBC had used only two clips of him in its 40-minute highlight show on Friday night. "Boy, I wish I was watching ESPN tonight," he said. "You kinda get the feeling these old Brits don't want the 'Am-er-i-can' to win this tournament."
Somebody asked Azinger on Friday if he would be nervous as the leader of the British Open. "Not really," he said. "I'll probably just throw up a little tonight."
It must have helped because on Saturday, a day only Willard Scott could love, he cast a Paul over the entire field, holding steady with an even-par 71. Of the 78 players who endured what was essentially playing golf in front of a 747 engine spewing ice water, four broke par. 12 broke 90 but not 80, the Scottish fans broke out their brollies, and a lot of the players' wives broke out the Vicks Formula 44, including the Zinger's, who treated him for the flu most of the week.
The day had reduced the number of players within six shots of him from 29 to 16. That was the good news. The bad news was that the group included Floyd (three back), Watson, Payne Stewart and Craig Stadler (all two back) and Faldo and South Africa's David Frost (one back). If any one of this group was going to sting Zing, it figured to be Watson, who was fixing for a sixth on the Firth of Forth. Watson's longtime British Open caddie could feel it in his joints.
"Them old days," said Alfie Fyles, "them old days are comin' back." Watson started out 69 and 69, but it was his 71 on Saturday that had even him believing. "I hit it all over the place," he said, "but I made the saving putts. That's how you win tournaments. You turn a bad day into a good one." But Watson christened Sunday by missing putts on the second and third holes not much longer than one of Fergie's shoes—"tiddlers" the BBC called them—and his and Alf's show was canceled. At least for another year.
Others hung in longer, namely Stewart and Davis, and Ben Crenshaw made a belated rush. But all fell away, leaving only Azinger and Faldo to battle for the grand auld championship. Finally, there was Faldo alone. Azinger was disappointed, but hardly crushed. "I lost a chance to win a great title," he said, "but I proved that I can play with anybody, that I can cope with the pressure. I enjoyed being center stage here. I love the thought of the whole world watching me. If you're afraid of the center stage in this game, you're nothing. I used to be afraid of it. But I'm not afraid of it anymore."
He is strong. He is resilient. And even as he sat forlornly at the awards table, listening to Faldo's speech, something was happening to make him stronger. A TV commentator walked up to Azinger's caddie and said, "Tell Paul not to feel bad. The first time I played here, I gave up two shots on the last hole and lost, too."
The caddie smiled.
It was Nicklaus.