Victory acts on athletes like a truth serum.

For years, they keep themselves hidden and thus, protected. But, in the flush of a triumph they have sought for a lifetime, they lower their barriers for an hour and let us see them as they are.

That is how Bill Rogers reacted after winning the 110th British Open championship by four shots over West Germany's Bernhard Langer at Royal St. George's today.

This was the day that the 29-year-old blossomed, both as a player capturing his first major championship and as a man who used that platform to show all his charm and gentle humanity.

Rogers may have begun this day with a five-shot lead, and he may have played the last half-dozen holes with a safe margin that fluctuated between three and four shots. His crisp 71 for a four-under-par total of 276 may look like a huge margin, especially since the 23-year-old Langer (70-280) was the only man within seven shots of Rogers.

Nevertheless, this was a day when Rogers endured, and surmounted, all the perils of his game.

For seven holes, Rogers played in a state of terminal choke. His five-stroke lead had dwindled to one and things might have been worse except for his sinking three knee-knocker putts.

At the easy 508-yard par-5 seventh, where others were making birdie, Rogers took a catastrophic 7.

"Till then, I'd been rehearsin' my acceptance speech," said Rogers, who was then only one up over Langer. His eight-shot cushion over Ray Floyd was down to two with 11 holes to play.

"Then," said Rogers, "I started thinkin' about what the runner-up was supposed to say."

At that point, the Rogers of the golfing world are supposed to fold. After all, only once had he finished higher than 17th on the U.S. money list (sixth in 1979), and only twice in seven seasons had he won a PGA tour event.

"So there was the 7," said Rogers, referring to the horrid thing as though it had a life of its own. "All of a sudden, four people are in the tournament," he said, including Britain's Mark James, who finished tied with Floyd in third at 283, along with Langer.

"That was the time I hitched my pants," said the East Texan. "You've had a major foul-up, you say to yourself, 'Now's the time to go. You've let all these people catch up. Now you've got to go.'"

And go Rogers did, proving, in the words of the Royal and Ancient, that he deserves to be called "champion golfer of the year, winner of the gold medal and holder of the trophy."

In the loop, the ninth through the 12th holes, where he had almost come to grief Saturday, Rogers took hold of himself. Three times he faced short par 4s where a nerveless man can make birdies if he is bold.

On those manageable holes of 387, 375 and 362 yards, Rogers showed his marvelous short-iron game by nailing shots two yards, three yards and, finally, one yard from the flag. And he made all three birdie putts. It hardly mattered that he bogeyed the brutal into-the-wind 216-yard 11th.

By the time Rogers had finished the loop, his lead was back to four shots over Langer and six over Floyd. "I could breathe again. . . By the time I got to the 13th," said Rogers of the hole that ends at the stately Prince's Clubhouse, "I could really taste it. . . I've paid my dues. I've worked hard enough to deserve it."

Rogers parred the last seven holes as the Open's first return to Sandwich in 32 years became his own triumphal march. By the time Rogers arrived at the 18th, with its three-sided grandstands for 20,000, it seemed the crowd must be cheered out.

After all, they roared for Jack Nicklaus (70), Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer, who tied for Low Immortal at 290. They exhausted themselves thanking two Britons for cracking the top five -- James and fifth-place Sam Torrance, who had a hole in one at the 16th -- and, particularly, they warmly embraced the blond Langer, a handsome Timothy Bottoms look alike who wore all white as a sort of tribute to his longtime hero, Gary Player, who often wore all black.

However, the British throng saved the best for Rogers, the man who has dreamed he could stroll up the 18th with the Open in hand and bask in the moment of a lifetime. That walk was hardly what Rogers expected.

"You're so excited you don't have a clue what you're doing',' he said, grinning. "Everybody's hollerin' and yellin'." And, he might add, storming the fairway and engulfing Rogers in 5,000 bodies.

"It was tough goin'," said Rogers, remembering the minutes when he was lost from sight. "I finally saw daylight, and this cop (a high-hatted bobby) slams his hand in my chest and shoves me back into the crowd. I said, 'I'm just tryin' to finish, pal,'" chuckled Rogers. For a moment, however, Rogers had a fist cocked until he saw the uniform.

From beginning to end, Rogers' week was bizarre. Fellow American pros tried to talk him out of coming here, bad-mouthing Royal St. George's.

"They said, 'It just kinda lies out there and there's nothin' to it,'" said Rogers. "Well, I can't wait to confront those people and tell 'em what they missed.

"I'm damn sure glad those guys, like Tom Kite and Hale Irwin, stayed home, 'cause they coulda won on this course. After they see that I won, you know they'll be stampedin' to get here next year."

After arriving in England, Rogers almost missed his tee time Thursday, which would have disqualified him before he ever hit a shot. An English reporter spotted Rogers on the practice green one minute before his tee time and sent him running to the tee after his playing partners were already far down the fairway.

Rogers had a sense of good luck from that moment. "On all four days I got the best of the weather. All the worst rain and wind missed me."

Since he was doing well without calling his wife, who stayed in Texas, Rogers went the entire week without calling home. "My only regret is she's not here," said Rogers, who stayed in an old English mansion with Ben Crenshaw, Tony Jacklin, Jerry Pate and their wives.

"I got one long phone call comin' up pretty soon" said Rogers, so jumpy that friends bet he can't sit still for 60 seconds (Rogers always loses). The man they call "panther" has been a classic example of an athlete struggling with himself. And winning.

"When did I think I could win a major championship?" said Rogers. "Probably not until today. No, I thought I had a chance to win the U.S. Open and I was real pleased with how I handled myself that day (tied for second).

"But, until today, I wasn't sure I was good enough . . . that I could do somethin' like this," beamed the straight-as-a-one-iron blond, born in Waco and living in Texarkana.

Rogers approaches the game with a wry Texas humor and a storyteller's knack for anecdote. Asked how he slept Saturday night, he said, "Not that great. When I got up in the mornin', my eyes were tired from squintin' 'em shut so hard." Rogers demonstrated how he had laid in bed with eyes tight shut.

"I don't guess that's just exactly like sleepin'," he said. Even on his way to the course, this born worrier was having nightmares in the daytime. "About half-past noon we stop at this 'level crossing,' which is what they call a train track over here," said Rogers, who has won approximately $210,000 this season, counting his 25,000 pounds first prize this afternoon.

"Well, five minutes go by, then 10, and the train still hasn't come. I'm thinkin', 'Can you believe what's gettin' ready to happen to me?'" Rogers was guy-shy of tee-off times, even though his deadline was still more than an hour away.

"It took 25 minutes for that train to come. And when it did, it musta been the longest train in England."

Bill Rogers' train has been a long time comin'. But it finally arrived today and it could hardly have arrived by a more circuitious route. This is the fellow who, a few months ago, was "so way down," after missing five consecutive cuts, that he went back to an old teacher for a total swing exam. And found the simplest of solutions: "Move your right hand more on top."

This is the guy who almost didn't come to England, almost didn't make it to the first hole, almost couldn't get across the railroad tracks and almost didn't survive the seventh hole in the fourth round -- he drove into the rough, hit an iron onto a trap lip, blasted a ball over the green, took two chips to get on the green then jerked out a four-foot putt.

In the end, however, Rogers had has sweet walk into the amphitheater of Royal St. George's 18th hole. The winds of a chill, breezy, overcast day subsided and the sun even tried to peak through the clouds as the flags of 28 nations flew above the grandstands. And even then, Rogers almost didn't get out of the crowd.

"I want to apologize," said Rogers, sheepishly, at the victory ceremony, "to the policeman I hit."

For days, Rogers had thought about that 18th hole -- "How can you keep from thinkin' about it?" But when it came, he was up to it. "I basked," he said.

And he pulled every move in the book -- the wedge-high salute to the crowd, the fist-pump of victory after the final 10-foot par putt and the jubilant heaving of the winning ball halfway up the grandstand.

"I can't comprehend what this means," Rogers told the crowd. But he could. After the cheers had died he said, "For the rest of my life every time I step to the first tee I'll be introduced as a British Open champion."