As he walked down the 18th fairway of Royal St. George's Golf Club today, Sandy Lyle could not hear himself think. He was aware of his caddie trying to talk to him, but couldn't hear that either.
"I had an earache on my left and my right," he said. "You could cut the atmosphere with a knife it was so loud."
Born in England of Scottish parents, Lyle knew he was two shots from winning the British Open, a feat that would send this golf-mad nation into ecstasy. His second shot was lying to the left of the green, just into the rough about 40 feet from the pin.
A 4 would put Lyle in the clubhouse at 281 -- one over par. Only David Graham and Bernhard Langer, who were on the 16th hole, would have a chance to match that score and each would need a birdie. On the final three holes of this golf course under major championship pressure, that might be impossible.
"I was thinking I needed 4 to wrap up the championship," Lyle said. "I thought if I made 5, there would be a playoff."
Lyle didn't make 4. But there was no playoff. Because on a day when Graham and Langer, the two leaders starting out, could shoot no better than 75; on a day when Tom Kite charged into the lead after nine holes only to make a hacker's double-bogey on 10 to blow yet another chance at a major title, Lyle was able to make a bogey on the 18th and still become the first Briton since Tony Jacklin in 1969 to win the title his countrymen cherish the most.
"I didn't even think about winning until the last four or five holes," Lyle said after his 282 had beaten Payne Stewart by one shot and Graham, Langer, Mark O'Meara, Christy O'Connor Jr. and Jose Rivero by two. "When I made the birdie at 15 (to get to one over par), it was so emotional I almost burst into tears."
Lyle almost shed a few tears on the 18th. His chip was a tough one. He had to get the ball over a ridge, then try to make it stop near the pin, 15 feet from the top of the ridge. He played a sand wedge and the ball never even came close to clearing the ridge, rolling back almost off the green, a good 30 feet short of the cup.
As soon as Lyle hit the shot, he knew he had blown it. He fell to his knees and pounded the club in frustration. "I thought, 'Don't three-putt it now and take 6 from less than 15 yards and blow it all,' " he said later. "But I made my 5 and it was good enough."
It was good enough because moments after Lyle had two-putted for his bogey -- knocking in a scary two-footer -- Graham and Langer put their tee shots in bunkers at the par-3 16th and made bogeys. The closest either came to a birdie on the last two holes was Langer's chip from the right side of the 18th green. It skittered just past the pin, causing a brief gasp of horror from the crowd that was so partisan it cheered when Graham and Langer missed No. 18 with their approach shots.
In fact, as Langer lined up his chip, the final chance for anyone to catch Lyle, someone in the stands yelled, "Don't you dare!"
"I wasn't going to leave it short," Langer said grimly. "I had to go for it."
As Langer's chip rolled eight feet past the pin -- he missed the return putt -- Lyle's wife Christine, watching with him in the competitors' tent, burst into tears. Most of the 12,000 in the grandstands surrounding the final green shrieked with glee. The BBC flashed the Union Jack onto the screen.
And, while Lyle and Britain celebrated, Graham, Langer and Kite could only look back with chagrin at an afternoon during which anyone of them could have won, only to fail when the pressure was greatest.
This was the day when the weather finally turned reasonable. Tropical Storm Anna never showed up and the afternoon was sunny, cool and windy.
Graham and Langer, the coleaders after three rounds, each bogeyed No. 1, Graham hitting a horrid tee shot into the deep rough on the right and eventually missing a 20-foot par putt. Langer hit a near-perfect drive, an eight-iron shot through the green, a chip to two feet, then missed the putt.
That was a harbinger of what was to come for both players. They matched bogeys at Nos. 4 and 5 and Langer added one at No. 8.
By that time, Kite, playing three groups ahead, had taken apparent control of the tournament. Starting from four shots behind the leaders, he birdied the fifth, almost knocked the flag down with his tee shot on No. 6 before tapping in for a 2, then hit the short par-5 seventh in two, two-putting for another birdie.
That put him even par for the tournament at almost the same moment Graham and Langer were bogeying No. 5 to go one over. Kite was the leader.
He made solid pars at eight and nine, two-putting from 90 feet at eight, then chipping to four feet and holing the putt after going just over the ninth.
Then came the 10th.
"I had played the back nine well all week," Kite said. "I'm really disappointed because I really felt the championship was in my pocket at the turn."
The 10th is one of the easier holes on the course, a 399-yard par 4 that was downwind today. Kite hit a good tee shot down the right-hand side. The ball rolled into the rough then out onto the fairway. From about 135 yards out, Kite hit a nine-iron.
"I didn't want to do what I had done at 9," he said. "I overcompensated. It was bad judgment."
And a worse shot. The ball started out short and left, heading for the bunker, then got pushed a little further left by the wind and ended up left of the bunker. From there, Kite hit a terrible chip that just got over the bunker to the edge of the green, then rolled back into the bunker. He followed that with another Gong Show shot, a skulled bunker shot over the green. Finally, he regrouped, chipping to six feet and sinking the putt for a double bogey.
That put him two over. In the meantime, Graham had birdied the seventh to get back to one over and had the lead back. Almost unnoticed, playing right behind Kite, were Lyle and O'Connor, each plugging along at two over.
"I was hitting the ball solidly but not making any putts," Lyle said. "I kept thinking if I could make a couple of putts . . . "
Kite never made another birdie, bogeyed 13 and finally straggled in with a 72 today for 285.
Kite's disappearance seemed to swing the momentum back to Graham, who birdied the 10th to get back to even and a two-shot lead.
That looked very good as the players made their final trip alongside Sandwich Bay. Well up ahead, Stewart, who had started the day six shots back at five over, was shooting a steady, three-birdie, one-bogey 68. When he reached the clubhouse at 283 with everyone still facing the tough five finishing holes, his score looked very good.
"I had a feeling it was just one shot too many," he said. " . . . It would have been nice to get into a playoff, but Sandy made those birdies at 14 and 15 so he deserved it."
Before Lyle's birdies came a bogey at 13. He missed the green to the right there, chipped to 25 feet and took bogey. That put him at three over. When he yanked his tee shot left at the par-5 14th and had to chip back to the fairway, leaving himself 220 yards to the pin, it certainly didn't look like this would be the day of his life.
The next two shots changed all that. "I hit a two-iron into the wind, a very good shot," he said. "I never thought before I hit that shot I was going to make 4 at the hole."
He made 4 because the ball landed just off the green, 35 feet from the cup. From there, Lyle holed the putt. That pulled him within one shot of Graham. Pumped up, he bombed a tee shot at 15 and hit a gorgeous six-iron shot within 10 feet. When the birdie putt went in, Lyle had to remind himself to stay calm.
"I felt good, but I wanted to make sure I still had everything under control," he said. "It was very important for me to make par at 16 because the birdie at 15 was so emotional."
He parred the par-3 16th, then the tough 17th, getting down in two from short of the green, putting within two feet and tapping in.
And so Lyle walked to the 18th tee, knowing that everyone but Graham had dropped behind him. Langer briefly would get back to two over with a birdie at 15, but had his bogey at 16 immediately thereafter.
Graham's tee shot at 15 caught a bunker and he had to play out short. From there, he made bogey to go to two over.
Lyle didn't know that as he stepped up to his tee shot at 18, one of the toughest finishing holes in golf: 458 yards, usually into the wind, with a tight tee shot and a long-iron second to a rolling, sloping green. Today, no one birdied it. Lyle only wanted par.
"My first thought on the tee was whether the streaker up on the green was a man or a woman," he said, laughing. "Then, I just wanted to be in the fairway."
He wasn't, his slightly pushed tee shot catching the short rough. As Lyle walked to his ball, a huge roar went up at the green -- Graham's bogey at 15 had been posted. Lyle was the leader.
From the rough, he hit a six-iron that rolled through the short cut of rough on the left, just into the high cut. He was pin high and on a high as the waves and waves of cheers carried him down the fairway.
"I was disappointed with the chip," he said later. "I wasn't nervous, I just hit a weak shot." He recovered from that to two-putt and then went off to wait, calling his parents during the interim. "They could barely talk, they were so choked up," he said.
Langer and Graham each parred No. 17, then missed the green with their second shots on No. 18, Graham's ball finding a bunker from which the best he could do was blast onto the green and two-putt for his bogey.
When Langer's wedge shot from the short rough just missed, one final scene, the victory ceremony, remained. A few yards away from the platform where Lyle sat, his wife and their 2-year-old son Stewart sprawled on the grass.
Now, as Lyle accepted the trophy high, thousands of voices screamed, "Sandy, Sandy." Stewart Lyle leaped ecstatically to his feet and looked all around him, wide-eyed with wonder.
Finally, he joined in. "Papa!" he yelled. "Papa!" Like many others in Britain, he was jumping up and down, clapping his hands gleefully as Lyle held the trophy up against the setting sun for all his countrymen to see.