MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND, JULY 18 -- Twenty-four hours ago, Paul Azinger wondered how he would react to the pressure of leading a major golf tournament for the first time in his life. Today, when he rolled in a 12-foot putt to save a remarkable bogey at the 18th hole, he had his answer.
With the wind howling off the Firth of Forth until late afternoon, the slender Floridian produced an even-par 71 on the wet, blustery Muirfield links and went home to contemplate some more pressure: a one-shot lead in the British Open with 18 holes to play.
"All I know is I'm playing well, I love playing here and I'm in the best position of anybody going into the last day," Azinger said. "If it's my time to win the British Open, then I'll win. If not, well, I'm still going to be a better player coming out of here than I was going in."
Azinger's 71 put him at 6-under-par 207. That left him with a one-shot lead over Nick Faldo (71) and David Frost (70); a two-shot lead over Tom Watson (71), Craig Stadler (71) and Payne Stewart (72) and a three-shot lead over Raymond Floyd (70). Frost and Floyd were two of four players who shot 70. No one shot lower.
"It was the kind of day where you just hope to survive," said Stadler. "It wasn't a day for hitting great golf shots. It was a day for trying to make pars and get to the clubhouse."
As cold and windy as it was for the leaders, they caught the best of the weather. The morning players teed off with the winds averaging 40 mph, gusting to 50. The temperature was in the low 40s. The rain swept in and drenched everyone and everything.
"By the seventh hole I was so cold that I wasn't sure I could even grip a club," said Ricky Willison, an amateur who, at 8:55, was the first man off the tee. "On No. 1 I pulled my drive into the heather and it was so thick, I could barely find the ball. I whiffed twice before I could move it out finally."
Willison made an 8 on that hole and ended with 83. That was not the high score of the day. Wayne Westner, one group behind him, had 84. His playing partner, U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson, shot 82. Eight of the first 12 players on the course failed to break 80. The first 26 players averaged 79.
Teeing off a little later, the three players who are supposed to be the best in the world shot themselves out of the tournament. Seve Ballesteros had 77 to finish at 220; Greg Norman had 74 for 216, and Bernhard Langer, who began just two shots back of Azinger, took a 7 at the eighth hole -- needing three swings to get out of a fairway bunker -- shot 76 and faded to 214.
The leaders didn't exactly play in midsummer heat, but relatively speaking, their conditions were balmy. The rain actually stopped for a while, and although the temperature never climbed, it wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as it had been.
"I have definitely had the best of the weather for three days," Azinger said. "Today, we actually had a few holes in the middle of the round where it was not uncomfortable. I think the weather sort of helped me. Because I was thinking about that, I didn't feel the least bit nervous on the first tee. The weather took the pressure off me."
Azinger bogeyed the first hole when he knocked a 4-iron into the left bunker. But he calmed quickly and began to play as if the high roughs and whistling winds hardly bothered him.
He birdied the fifth, rolling in a 20-footer, then went on a binge, birdieing holes 7, 8 and 9. At that point he was 8 under par and had a two-shot lead on Faldo and Frost.
"Everytime I looked up," said playing partner Faldo, "It seemed as if Paul was rolling in another putt."
Azinger finally began to look like a 27-year-old playing his first British Open at the start of the back nine. He bogeyed 10, leaving a 4-iron way short of the green, and bogeyed 12, missing a two-foot putt.
"That's probably the first real bad mistake I've made the whole tournament," Azinger said. "The wind was really blowing up again and I may have rushed it a little. But it's going to happen to you."
At 14, he hit a 5-iron that ran through the green, stopping against the collar of the rough. He hit a poor chip coming back and, staring a bogey in the face, rolled a 12-footer in to save par. He and Faldo were tied for the lead and the crowd, quite naturally, was vocal in support of Faldo, a Briton marking his 30th birthday.
At 15, Azinger's 2-iron off the tee stopped two feet short of a fairway bunker, a nearly impossible downhill lie. He got a pitching wedge into the air, but the ball rolled through the green into a trap. No problem. Azinger popped the ball out a foot from the cup. Then, at 16, he nailed a 2-iron to within 10 feet and made the putt to take the lead back.
"The best shot I hit all day," he said. "You have to go out there with the attitude that in four hours of golf you're going to have some good stretches and some bad. Today, I hung in there through the bad."
He was not alone -- which explains why so many are so close to him. Faldo was steady all day with two birdies and two bogeys. The only time nerves betrayed him was at 18, when he hit a sorry chip from just in front of the green, knocking the ball 15 feet past the pin.
Frost, the South African who insists he will never look at the leader board -- "I just ask my caddy on 18 how I did," he said today -- raced to the top of it with a remarkable 33 on the front nine. But he missed a two-foot birdie putt at 11 and bogeyed 13 and 14. He parred in from there.
Stewart, Stadler and Floyd probably played the most solid rounds. Stewart hit eight of the first nine greens, but couldn't buy a putt. His only bogey on the front side came at the fourth when he twice backed away from a two-foot putt before sliding it to the right. He didn't make a birdie until the 12th, running in a 20-footer, then made another at 15 with a 14-footer.
His one bad swing of the day put him in the back bunker at 16 and he made bogey. But he finished with 72, having hit 14 greens. If Stewart and Watson had been a team today -- Stewart hitting the ball and Watson putting -- they might have shot 65. But they were just playing partners, as they will be again Sunday.
Stadler, who cost himself a shot Thursday by not knowing the rules, struggled through the front nine but when the wind died a little on the back, he cranked up his powerful game and, with a favorable ruling on 18 where he drove his ball 75 yards to the right onto a path muddied by the tramping of spectators, he shot 33 for the back nine.
"I walked outside thinking that 71 would be a hell of a score today," he said. "I walked back inside thinking the same thing. It's nice to go into the last round thinking I have a chance to win. It's been three years."
Much like in the 1986 U.S. Open, Floyd has gone virtually unnoticed for three days, but he has purred along very much in contention. He looked to be in trouble today when he double-bogeyed No. 8, but he came back with birdies at 12, 15 and 16 and undoubtedly will sleep soundly tonight, dreaming about becoming the fifth player in history to win all four Grand Slam events.
Azinger is sure to be more restless than Floyd or Watson or Stadler might be. He has never placed higher than 17th in a major. And yet, at the 18th hole, when he had a chance to fold, he showed the kind of grit that wins majors.
He hit a horrible drive, pushing the ball into a fairway bunker, right up against the lip and with no shot out. "I was lucky to get it out sideways," he said. "I killed the ball and it barely moved out."
From there, still almost 200 yards from the green, he hit a 4-iron that landed well short of the green. His chip ran 12 feet past the cup. Staring at a discouraging double bogey to finish, Azinger rammed the putt in the hole and walked off clinging to the lead.
"I desperately wanted to make that putt," he said. "I really wanted to go home tonight with the lead. I was proud to make that kind of putt for the lead in the British Open."
Gil Morgan, on a comeback from a shoulder injury, beat gusty winds and Midwest heat to card 7-under-par 63 and gain a one-stroke lead in the third round of the $500,000 PGA Tour event in Coal Valley, Ill.
Morgan, 40, came from six strokes back with eight birdies for a 54-hole total of 12-under 198. Kenny Knox shot 66 -- 199. At 200 were Brad Fabel and Mark McCumber, winner last week at Kingsmill.
Defending champion Bruce Crampton shot 5-under-par 67 to keep his lead at three strokes over Chi Chi Rodriguez after two rounds of the Syracuse (N.Y.) stop on the Senior PGA Tour. Crampton's 36-hole score was 12-under-par 132 going into Sunday's conclusion.
LPGA Boston Five:
Becky Pearson rolled in 50-foot birdie putts on consecutive holes and added a pair of late birdies to shoot a 2-under-par 70 and take the lead after the third round of the $300,000 event in Danvers, Mass.
Pearson, who started the day two strokes off the pace, was at 9-under-par 207 after 54 holes, to 208 for second-round leader Jody Rosenthal, who took 73. Defending champion Jane Geddes surged late in the round to 67 -- 210.
Signet State Open:
Wheeler Stewart, pro at Alexandria's Belle Haven, shot 4-under-par 68 to take a two-shot lead at 210 with a round to go in the $50,000 Signet State Open at Richmond's Brandermill Country Club.
Stewart, 36, birdied four of the last eight holes to surge past two-time Virginia state amateur champion Tom McKnight of Galax. McKnight, 32, who won the State Open two years ago, shot 69.
Defending champion Woody FitzHugh, 35, of Great Falls, shot 70 to tie for third at 215 with Brandermill assistant pro Tim White.
U.S. Public Links:
Kevin Johnson won the 62nd U.S. Amateur Public Links title at Cincinnati's Glenview course handily, 10 and 9, over Jimmy England in the scheduled 36-hole final. Johnson, 20, is a Clemson University sophomore from Pembroke, Mass.; England, 25, is from Gastonia, N.C.