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."