All around the 18th green at Royal Birkdale late this afternoon, there was a golfing celebration seldom seen at the midpoint of a major tournament. For 13 years, the British have yearned for one of their own to win the British Open. Nick Faldo has a chance.
It's not something they'd stake the pound on, for Faldo trails three players, leader Craig Stadler and Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, not likely to "foldo."
Still, judging from his reaction to adversity the last two days, neither is he.
Stadler dipped to eight-under-par 134 by adding a workmanlike 70 to his course-record opening binge; Trevino's five-under 66 tied for best round of the second day, and Watson caught him at 135 with a birdie at the 17th hole.
Faldo hit 136 by being hotter than anyone in the field the last 34 holes. Not trying to be generous to the collection of Yanks on a course he scoped days in advance, Faldo took double-bogey, double-bogey his first two holes. He's been 10 under since.
"Guess it won't be an all-American final," said Watson.
That was when Faldo still was on the course, at seven under with the embarrassingly easy 17th among his three remaining holes. Soaring along with four straight birds, Faldo faltered with a bogey at 16 and a surprisingly tough par at 17. And with what seemed like all of Britain tingling in anticipation nearby, he dumped his second shot on the par-4 18th into a trap. Then he hit an ugly sand shot, the ball squirting out nearly sideways and stopping 15 feet from the cup.
He said the pressure was not as suffocating as it seemed. "It was purely to save the card," he insisted.
When that par-saver rattled in, the thousands in the stands and the fairway fairly raised him off his feet with their joy. Not since Tony Jacklin won in 1969 has there been such hope. Faldo has prepared for such a challenge in the best possible way, by joining the U.S. pro tour three years ago.
He has learned as much as he has earned. Last week he had the good sense to come to Birkdale, a day before any of the other players, and get his mind and game set. Working alone got him ready for playing with a nation watching.
"Incredible support," he said. "So many people willing me on. I try not to get too wrapped up, but it's so nice to see so many cheering me on. It's been an extraordinary week."
Indeed it has.
Wind finally arrived at Birkdale, but the only lasting gale was Terry Gale. That 37-year-old Australian birdied five of the final 10 holes and joined Bill Rogers and Ray Floyd at four under, one shot behind Hale Irwin. Denis Durnian was even better.
In a seven-hole stretch starting at the second, the club pro from Manchester had six birdies. His front-nine 28 was an Open record, beating by one the mark held by four players. On the ninth tee, Durnian knew he needed par to leap into lore.
"I played with one of the guys (Bill Longmuir at Royal Lytham in 1979) who shot 29," he said.
A back nine of eight pars and a bogey maintained that wonderful leap. But it scarcely lifted him to the leader board. In all, a dozen players are at three under or better. This on a course that had nearly every player growling about being unfair before the first official shot.
He argued that regardless of how tight the fairways, how high the rough, how evil the pin placements, somebody would shoot the lights out. He even thought he might be the one.
Today, he had four birdies before much of Britain had its first cup of tea. Driving accurately, if not especially long, and putting with skill and luck, he was six under for the tournament after six holes.
Trevino and another early starter, Stadler, experienced the bursts of wind that died about as suddenly as they arrived. Trevino loved it; Stadler hated it.
"I'll be the first to admit I'm not the greatest in the wind," Stadler said. "And I putted very poorly. Every (lag) putt I hit was short. Six or seven of 'em in a row. I putted just like yesterday, only in reverse.
"Yesterday, my putts kept giving me confidence. Today, I lost a bit of confidence."
He volunteered: "I'm the leader. So far."
Birkdale got even with Rogers, sort of. He made a double-eagle 2 at 17 the first round; he suffered bogey-6 agony there today.
Watson missed some shots today, but never missed a chance to recover. His most fortunate break was at the treacherous sixth, when a three-wood shot that could have settled in an unplayable position in a cluster of bushes didn't. He made bogey.
"I don't know how in hell to play that hole," Watson said.
Neither do a whole lot of others. It ranks as the toughest hole on the course, a 468-yard par-4 with a fairway bunker just far enough from the tee so everyone plays short.
Only two players birdied No. 6 today. Trevino was one of them.
"Driver and three-wood short," he said. "Took a seven-iron from 70 feet and chipped it in."
It took four-over 146 to play on the final two days. Arnold Palmer, Bob Gilder, Bobby Clampett, Jacklin and Tom Weiskopf just made it; Gary Player just missed. Amateur Philip Parkin, who had the thrill of his life with a two-under 69 the first round, shot 78 today and missed the cut.