MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND -- Gripping a security blanket 9-iron in his hand, Paul Azinger paced lightly inside the clubhouse, glancing out the bay windows at the rain with mounting concern. Isolated and anxious, the leader in the clubhouse. His tee-off time minutes away, nothing he'd seen or heard so far was encouraging. And now here was Tom Kite coming off the course looking like the Gorton's Fisherman and giving him a scouting report.

"You're not going to believe it," Kite said, shedding wet clothes as he spoke. "It's unreal out there."

Azinger wasn't sure he wanted to hear the details.

"Tell you what," Kite said, "If it keeps raining, 78 is a great score. No. 10 is totally unreachable, and they've pushed the tee up 40 yards."

Azinger looked a little green.

Kite passed him on his way to dry clothes. "Have fun out there."

Azinger chipped at the carpet with the 9 and grinned at a total stranger. "How about this?" he said. "The wind will stop. The sun will come out. I'll have the best weather of the day, and there'll be about 70 other players pretty irritated." And damn if that isn't exactly what happened.

The Saturday round of a golf tournament is known as "Moving Day" because you either move into or out of contention. But this Saturday was more accurately divided into two days: "Earthquake Day" for the unfortunates who teed off in the morning, and "Catch a Break Day" for those who went off in the afternoon. At 11 a.m., when Scott Simpson made the turn at 8 over par, wind gusts were reportedly as high as 50 mph -- to say nothing of the driving, needlelike rain, or the chilled, see-your-own-breath, October-in-July temperatures. But at 5:15 p.m., just after Azinger had birdied 7, 8 and 9, wind speed was down to 20 before kicking up again; although the air was still frosty, the sun was actually peeking through a thick, gunmetal gray curtain of clouds. "I had a great break in the tee times today," Azinger said. "I've personally had the best weather every day."

Whoever said golf was fair? "The early guys are basically out of the tournament now," said defending champion Greg Norman, himself one of those who got caught in the earthquake. Twelve of the first 28 players to tee off scored 80 or higher, including the U.S. Open champion, Simpson (82), Kite at 81 and Jack Nicklaus at 81. Simpson said after six holes he was "just hoping to break 90." Gary Player, who was only 5-foot-7 when he teed off at 9:15, lurched back to the clubhouse saying, "I'm so wet I think I've shrunk," and said of the conditions: "They weren't unplayable, but there was no skill involved."

It certainly wasn't a morning for wearing a kilt. Not even the Loch Ness Monster would have gone out without Gore-Tex. A savage northern wind blowing from the Kingdom of Fife clean through the Firth of Forth whipped into Muirfield. (That's Fife to Forth, if you're scoring.) People wondering whose game is best suited to foul weather are often told: Tom Watson's. But the morning's weather was better suited to Donald Duck's. Caddiemaster Archie Imrie was asked what a good caddie has to know on a day like this, and he replied, "He'd know to have enough sense not to go out, ha, ha, ha."

British Open officials, not the kind of people to disturb tradition, were so aghast at the winds that they shortened four holes -- 5, 10, 11, 12 -- a total of 182 yards to give players a sporting chance to reach the greens in regulation figures without resorting to rocket launchers. Nicklaus, who saddled himself with nine bogeys and a double bogey, had to hark back to 1964 at St. Andrews to recall conditions that were "even remotely close" to these. "At 10, I absolutely nutted a 3-wood, couldn't hit it any better, and it went 184 yards," Nicklaus said, laughing because he normally hits that shot 260. Someone asked what a realistic par was in that weather, and Nicklaus smiled: "For me it was 81."

The difference from morning to afternoon was dramatic. The first 26 to go out averaged 79; the second 26 averaged 73; the final 26 averaged 73. Of the 22 players who teed off after 1:30, 10 finished within one stroke of par 71. Sandy Lyle, a home boy, was the only player teeing off before noon who shot par, and Azinger said, "That may have been one of the great rounds in golf history." Perhaps as surprising as Lyle's 71 was Bernhard Langer's 76, especially since he played in relative calm. A lot of highly rated players stubbed their toes: David Graham fell six strokes back; Bob Tway fell four; Fred Couples, who practiced the last two weeks in 100-degree heat in Palm Springs, suffered Climate Shock and fell seven. But this was a disastrous day for golf's Big Three: Langer lost five strokes to par, Norman three and Seve Ballesteros six.

And so there is a leader board crowned by people known mainly to a small circle of friends: Azinger, at 207, and Nick Faldo and David Frost at 208. Despite winning three PGA tournaments this year, Azinger, first place in the young Ricky Nelson lookalike contest, still stands in the shadows of at least 20 more famous American golfers, including people like Johnny Miller, Curtis Strange and John Mahaffey, who didn't even come here. Faldo, an Englishman known here as "Our Nicky" when he's going good and "Nick Foldo" when he's not, is concentrating on the European tour this year. And Frost, who may or may not have interviewed Richard Nixon, is a South African living in Dallas who has yet to win a PGA event. They are riding in the front of the cab, but it promises to be a bumpy ride.

And next, looming appropriately enough like a storm cloud on the horizon, is the group of Americans at 209: Craig Stadler, Payne Stewart and the five-time British Open champion, Watson, who said that if he wins, "It will mean I've finally proved to myself I can win a golf tournament again." The weather is supposed to be bad again on Sunday, the wind supposed to blow like Gabriel's trumpet. Watson, who like Br'er Rabbit is looking for a briar patch to land in, can't think of any forecast he more enjoys.