In big-time golf, the worst go first in the final rounds. Sunday morning in the British Open, Jack Nicklaus was part of the eighth match, Lee Trevino was in the ninth and Tom Watson in the 11th. They were finished long before Greg Norman stepped to the first tee.

Curtis Strange, the leading money winner on the U.S. tour last year, barely broke 80 in the first round here. D.A. Weibring was 20 yards from the 18th green in the third round and made eight. Payne Stewart fell from contention with five straight bogeys. Bob Tway shot 298 for four rounds.

Ugly, Americans.

When the British Open was last here, in 1977, Watson broke the 72-hole record by eight shots -- and beat Nicklaus by only a stroke.

Eleven of the top 12 players were from the United States.

The closest U.S. player to Australia's Norman in this Open was Gary Koch, whose 1-over 71 Sunday earned him a tie for sixth. Fuzzy Zoeller was the only other American in the top 10.

How come?

Are Americans losing a grip on their 1-irons?

By most estimates, Seve Ballesteros and Norman came into this major rated one-two and left two-one. Ballesteros was 86 under for his previous 32 rounds in Europe this year. Norman has won about $650,000, mostly on the U.S. tour.

The United States lost the Ryder Cup matches last year for the first time since 1957.

This has European chauvinists practically singing: "The Americans are going! The Americans are going!"


Americans need not cower in the nearest bunker. The rest of the world simply has improved immensely in the last decade but has only narrowed the gap quite a lot against Americans rather than closed it. What's wrong with that?

"There are 15 to 20 very good players in Europe," said Stewart. "There are 60 in the States. Seve isn't eligible for our tour; he doesn't win four tournaments in a row there."

This was the third straight year a non-American won the British Open? Hey, it's about time the other guys are winning on their home courses. It's an entirely different game over here.

"I think more Europeans tend to play better in the wind," said Ian Woosnam of Wales, who finished tied for third, "because they are playing more in it. There was more wind and rain this week, and that suits me."

Truth be told, the most wimpering about the Ailsa course was done by Europe's pride and joy: Ballesteros. Once his game started going sour.

Four days before the first round, Ballesteros was fairly cooing with praise for the course. The greens were "perfect." The fairways were "fine."

The rough?

"I don't know yet," he said. "It looks very high from the fairway."

Now . . .

"This is the toughest course I've ever played. . . . If the R&A the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which sets up the course for the British Open wants this to remain the greatest golf tournament in the world, which it is, they should stop copying the Americans."

That was after he shot 76-75-73. He blistered Ailsa for 64 Sunday, but would not back off his earlier charges about the course being unfair.

"The fans want to see good golf," he said, "not how they play."

So, Seve, did they get full value for their money this week?

"Don't know what they paid," he said. "I get in free."

Ballesteros had a surprising ally: Watson. He plans to dash off a letter to the R&A this week complaining that the 115th British Open was "not a fair test."

"I love to play in the wind and elements," Watson added, "but not the man-made elements."

Let's examine this British Open against the one Watson won nine years ago. In each case, the field got lapped. Besides Watson and Nicklaus, only Hubert Green broke par in 1977. Norman was the only player within five shots of par this week.

I say the only difference this time was the weather. Green, at 1 under, said after the '77 show: "I won the golf tournament. I don't know what game those other two guys were playing."

Besides Watson and Nicklaus, there were only five players under 284 in '77. There was just one this time, but he showed what a splendid shotmaker can do even in the most dreadful conditions.

When the weather was manageably tame, Norman shot the lights out. Same with Ballesteros.

In the Masters earlier this year, Nicklaus won, and six of the top 10 players were Americans. Ray Floyd charged to victory in the U.S. Open, and Americans filled 10 of the first 11 places.

Not referring to anyone in particular, Nicklaus said: "There are guys you hear complain, and maybe they should keep their mouths shut. The course can't be that bad if Greg Norman shoots 63. I got what I deserved."

That was 298, or 18 over par. Once more Watson beat him -- by two shots this time. Watson's was a 28-stroke swing in nine years, from 12 under to 16 over. He was the best player in the world in 1977; he came here hoping to win something significant for the first time in slightly more than two years.

This week, the hottest player won the British Open by playing a whole lot better than everybody else. He happens to be as "Australian as you can be," but came to America three years ago because that's where the best players and the most money happened to be.

"I'm happy to have won here," Norman said, "because Europe accepted me as a pro golfer early in his career , supported me for five years."

This was at the victory ceremony on the 18th green. He turned to the R&A officials and said: "The only reason I didn't shoot in the red break par for the tournament is so you don't set up Muirfield next year so difficult."

Of Muirfield's rough, Nicklaus said to those who growled about Turnberry's tangle: You ain't seen nothin' yet.