It often happens on the last nine holes of a major championship. Players look at the leader board and suddenly find their names at or near the top. Dreams of huge dollars dance through their heads and the collar starts to tighten.
Never was that more evident than Sunday during the final round of the British Open. David Graham and Bernhard Langer, both winners of major titles, began the round with the lead and quickly dropped back. Tom Kite, who has done everything but won a major title, grabbed it after nine holes, then dropped back.
Finally, it was left to Sandy Lyle, the only player in contention to make two birdies on the back nine, to take control. But even Lyle, who today is the toast of this nation, couldn't handle the pressure. He blew a pitch shot on 18 and made a bogey there. Only the incompetence of Graham and Langer behind him made him the champion.
In short, this was the British Open no one wanted to win. Lyle simply ran out of holes to lose it on.
"I thought all along that a score around level (280) or one over would win," he said after his 282 had won. "I know I made some mistakes but I hit the ball well all week and did enough to win. That's all that matters."
It also was no coincidence that Payne Stewart, who finished alone in second place at 283, was in the ABC-TV booth helping with commentary during the last two hours of the tournament, having finished nine holes ahead of the fading leaders with little pressure on him.
"I really never did think about a playoff until Sandy hit that chip," Stewart said. "I thought for a moment that he might three-jigger (putt) and, if he had, well, we'd be having some fun right now."
Instead, Lyle had the fun and the glory although Stewart, who has won a lot of money but not many tournaments, said, "Second place in the British Open isn't too shabby."
This was a British Open full of suspense and drama but lacking in stars. Severiano Ballesteros, the defending champion, shot 75 the first day, never was a factor and continually grumbled about his bad luck. His silly attitude was perhaps shown best on Saturday when he hit his drive on the 18th hole 50 yards left, outside the gallery ropes, then complained that his ball didn't land in an area that had been walked through. "I can't believe I got such a bad lie over there," he said after making an ugly double bogey on the hole. Hit it 50 yards left and you should get a bad lie.
Jack Nicklaus missed the cut by three shots. Tom Watson, the five-time champion, began with a double bogey, never got back to even par and ended up 12 shots behind Lyle in a tie for 53rd place. Watson hasn't been close to winning a tournament since last year's British Open, when he gave the championship away on the last nine holes.
Curtis Strange, the leading money winner on the U.S. Tour, stayed home, drawing razzes from the pros over here. Lee Trevino birdied two of the first three holes Thursday, then blew up at his caddie over distances and wasn't heard from again. Only Langer, of the current big names, was in contention and he went out in 39 on Sunday, just about taking himself out of the hunt.
If Lyle's story -- his birdies at Nos. 14 and 15 won for him -- is the happiest, Kite's may be the saddest. He is a gifted, consistent player, one who has won huge amounts of money, a number of PGA Tournaments and set records for Top 10 finishes and cuts made. But at moments in his career when it has mattered most, Kite's smooth swing has fallen apart. Never was that more true than Sunday when he finished nine holes two shots ahead, then hit three awful shots at No. 10 for a double bogey.
Kite keeps rationalizing his failures in the majors. "It won't be a void in my career if I don't win one," he said on Saturday. Yet, it would be sad if a player of his capabilities left the game without having won anything more signficant than the American Motors-Inverrary Classic.
If Kite had won, he might have quieted the growing notion that U.S. golf is in retreat. Three of the last five majors have been won by non-U.S. players and, if T.C. Chen of Taiwan had not double-hit a shot during the last round of the U.S. Open, it would be four of five.
Strange, Fred Couples, Johnny Miller and several other significant U.S. players didn't compete here. But, as Peter Jacobsen said, "That should have opened things up for one of the rest of us to win." It did. But Jacobsen, Kite, Stewart, Mark O'Meara, Fuzzy Zoeller and D.A. Weibring -- the U.S. players who had a chance Sunday -- have two major titles among them, both by Zoeller. Nicklaus has not won a major since 1980 and Watson hasn't won one since 1983.
Where the next U.S. star will come from, no one is quite sure. Strange might well be another Kite -- a rich man without that extra something needed during those last nine holes at Royal St. George's or Augusta.
Until Sunday, Lyle was thought of that way, too. At 27, he was another Briton with great talent who couldn't seem to handle the pressures to succeed put on an athlete in this country. But that changed -- with some help from the field -- late Sunday afternoon. Lyle will be very rich and, as the newspapers said today, "A golfing immortal."
He might not have tamed the final nine of a major, but he survived it. In this British Open, that was good enough.