MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND, JULY 17 -- Bernhard Langer, a man who knows about the havoc a major golf championship can play with one's nerves, took note of the jumble of names at the top of today's British Open leader board and smiled. "I don't think by Sunday there will be many surprise names still on the leader board," he said.

There are surprise names there now, but after just two rounds, most of the people near the front are those who have proven they can handle the pressure of the majors and the foibles of links golf.

The one large exception is the leader, Paul Azinger. Although he is having a superb year on the PGA Tour with three victories and a tour-leading bankroll of more than $586,000, Azinger had never set foot on a seaside links course before this week and has never finished higher than 17th -- at this year's Masters -- in a major.

"I'm sure I'll be nervous tomorrow on the first tee," he said after a second straight 68 put him at 6-under-par 136 at the halfway point. "But I welcome that feeling. I just want to know what it feels like to contend in a major. I welcome the pressure. If you don't welcome it, you might as well go home."

Azinger will get all the pressure he seeks because the field is bunched behind him about as tightly as a rugby scrum. One shot back at 137 are first-day leader Rodger Davis, who shot 73 today, beginning the round with a hacker's snap hook; Payne Stewart, the 1985 runner-up, who had the low round of the day with 66; Nick Faldo, an Englishman who shot 68 when the course was at its most difficult this morning, and Gerry Taylor, a slender Australian, who also had 68.

One shot behind that crew comes a mini-who's who of golf: Langer, who had a second straight 69; Tom Watson, looking for his sixth title, also 69-69; Craig Stadler, also 69 twice, and South African David Frost, who had 68 today.

Watson, who finished second at the U.S. Open at Olympic last month, had five birdies and three bogeys despite rain and temperatures in the 40s. "I don't mind playing in bad weather," he said. "Actually, the weather today wasn't very bad. We didn't get real hard rain, we didn't get real hard wind. I wouldn't mind seeing the wind pick up a little bit more.

" . . . If I can putt well, I can win the tournament."

Lots of players still can win here. Besides the eight men within two shots of the lead, a number of players capable of lights-out rounds are not much further back. PGA champion Bob Tway and Masters champion Larry Mize lead the group at 139 that includes Nick Price and Mark Calcavecchia. Ray Floyd and Ian Woosnam are at 140 with Ben Crenshaw, Fuzzy Zoeller, Hal Sutton and Lee Trevino at 141. Norman is at 142. Seve Ballesteros, who didn't make a birdie in the first 27 holes, then birdied three of the last four today, is at 143.

The cut came at 146 and Corey Pavin, T.C. Chen, Jim Thorpe and unfortunate Arnold Palmer were among the victims.

For a second straight day, the weather favored the same group of players. Thursday, the morning was pleasant and windless. Today, with the tee times flopped, rain fell until mid-afternoon before the clouds broke to produce an almost balmy evening.

That meant Azinger, Davis, Stewart, Stadler, Mize and Frost played under optimum conditions for a second day. Faldo, Watson, Langer, Norman and Ballesteros caught the worst of it.

Azinger, who is playing here for the first time, admitted to a bad case of nerves on the first tee Thursday. Today, he started out shaky again, knocking his tee shot into the right rough, putting his second shot in the left rough and ending up barely coaxing a three-foot putt for a bogey.

But he steadied quickly, making a deuce at the fourth before stringing three birdies together beginning at the ninth. At 10, he made a 30-footer and followed that with a 15-footer at 11. At that point, his swing began to get tight.

"I had some bad swings the last few holes," he said. "The worst swing I made all day was at 15 {where he duck-hooked a 3-wood off the tee}, but I made some good recovery shots to hang in there."

At 15, he blasted a 5-iron from heavy rough onto the green and saved par. At 17, he came out of the deep rough to within 55 yards of the green. But there, he got careless and threw away a birdie opportunity. Rather than walk up to the green himself, he sent his caddie to step off the distance. "A mistake," he said.

He settled for par, then finished with a remarkable par at 18. There, he pushed a 4-iron second shot into the right bunker. Facing a five-foot high lip and a downhill lie, he somehow popped the ball out and stopped it six inches from the pin.

"That may be as good a sand shot as I've ever played," said Azinger, who has led the PGA Tour in sand saves the last two years.

Azinger's closest pursuers took very different routes to the limelight. Davis, Thursday's hero, started out bogey-bogey, came back with two birdies to take the lead again and then faded late, finishing with a bogey brought on by a badly pushed tee shot.

Stewart, who took a month off after missing the cut at the U.S. Open, began with a bogey -- six of the top nine bogeyed No. 1 today -- then reeled off four straight birdies. The last of those came at the par-5 fifth, when he crushed a 3-wood 260 yards to reach the green in two, hitting into the group in front of him.

"My caddie told me it was 260, so I just hit. There was no way I figured I'd get on," Stewart said, then added with a laugh: "I went up to apologize, but then when I saw it was Fuzzy {Zoeller} I didn't feel so bad."

Faldo, who will turn 30 Saturday, has been the great hope of Britain. In 1983, he topped the European Order of Merit and in 1984 became the first Briton since Tony Jacklin to win on the U.S. tour, winning the Heritage Classic.

But in 1985, he went through a divorce that made major headlines here. His game suffered, his earnings dwindled and his swing became scattershot. Now remarried and largely unnoticed since Sandy Lyle won the Open at Royal St. George's in 1985, he is quietly making a move this week.

Taylor, 27, had failed in his three previous attempts to qualify. This year, playing qualifying five miles down the road at North Berwick, he was told on the tee of the 18th, a 351-yard par 4, that he needed to make an eagle 2 to make a nine-man playoff for the last three spots.

Taylor drove the green, holed a 35-foot putt and then birdied the first playoff hole to get in. Now, he finds himself one shot from the lead of the British Open after 36 holes. "It's a dream come true," he said, "just to be where I am right now."

He probably won't be there by Sunday. But who will be, with 24 men within five shots of the lead, is impossible to guess.