MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND, JULY 19 -- Standing on the 18th green this evening, shivering slightly from nerves and the evening mist that had closed in on the back nine of the Muirfield golf links, Nick Faldo found his mind wandering back to a boyhood game.
"Whenever we were on the putt-ing green, when we had a crucial putt to make we would always say, 'This one for the Open championship,' " Faldo remembered. "So, standing there on 18, when I had that 40-foot putt, I just told myself, 'Okay, this one for the Open championship.' "
Faldo missed the putt, just as he missed every birdie putt he looked at today. But he made a knee-knocking four-footer coming back for par and, 30 minutes later, he was the British Open champion.
Years from now, people will remember not how Faldo won this British Open, but how Paul Azinger lost it, bogeying the last two holes to give Faldo the title by one shot on a day the Englishman made 18 straight pars. They will remember Azinger finding his second fairway bunker of the tournament on 17 and the left bunker on 18 and they will remember his stunned look when his 25-foot par putt to tie on 18 stopped two feet below the hole.
Faldo became the second Briton in three years to win this championship (Sandy Lyle, a native Scot who lives in England, won in 1985) and extended to four years the American drought here. He won with a 71 for a 279 total good enough to beat Azinger and late-charging Rodger Davis by one shot.
His victory, regardless of the circumstances, left Faldo, a quiet, intense man, so choked up he could barely finish his acceptance speech. And, it left Azinger thoroughly frustrated.
"The three tournaments I've won this year, I went out and won them. Nobody lost them, I won them," said Azinger. "Here, I lost. It was my tournament. I was in control all the way and I just lost it."
Azinger had a three-shot lead after nine holes and a one-shot lead with two to play. No one, including Faldo, ever made a move at him. The players who should have been prepared for a late charge on a cool, foggy but almost windless day never did.
Tom Watson, two shots off the lead and seeking a record sixth British Open, three-putted the second hole, missing a two-footer, and walked off the green slapping his thigh in anger. He shot 74, finished seventh and went home talking about his love-hate relationship with the game. He has not won any tournament for three years.
Payne Stewart hung close most of the day, but never could get going, following birdies with bogeys and ending at 281, tied for third with Ben Crenshaw, whose 68 today moved him past 12 players but never close to Azinger. Craig Stadler started two shots back, bogeyed the fourth and the sixth and crawled home with 75. And Raymond Floyd, bidding to become only the fifth man to win all four Grand Slam events, bogeyed No. 1 and shot 76.
Davis, who had a 64 in the first round but began the final day four shots behind Azinger, was five groups ahead of him and closed strong, birdieing the 17th to put his 280 on the board. But with Azinger starting the back nine at 8-under, Davis was hardly a threat. That meant it was mostly a two-man golf tournament.
Those two men hardly could be more different in approach, in background and in recent history. Faldo first played the British Open in 1976 and, in 1978, at age 21, finished fifth. But, although he was consistently in contention, he never finished higher than fourth and became known here as "Foldo."
In 1984, after becoming the first Englishman in 12 years to win a PGA Tour event (the Heritage Classic), Faldo went through a highly publicized divorce. By the end of that year he was unhappy with his game and his life. Then he met David Leadbetter, a teaching pro in Florida -- Azinger's home territory -- who suggested that if he took his whole game apart, he might become a much better player.
"When I first began working with David it was very, very hard," Faldo said. "It was about the equivalent of walking backwards all your life and then learning to walk forwards. I went through a lot of pain barriers before I began to feel comfortable. But today certainly proved it was all worth it."
This was Faldo's 12th Open in a lifetime spent dreaming of winning it. Azinger had not set foot on a seaside links course until this week. He had not finished in the top 10 in a major championship. But he came here as the leading money-winner on the 1987 PGA Tour, and a rising star who in five years had gone from losing his tour card for ineffective performance to being expected to win a major title, some day.
From the start, this looked to be his week. He eased his way to back-to-back 68s to take the second-round lead and still led by one after a 71 on Saturday.
"I liked the way the pressure felt," he said. "I handled it well. I came out of the box playing like a trooper." Azinger was flying so high that as he walked off the third tee he turned to his caddie and said, "I'm hitting the ball better right now than at any point in the tournament."
That certainly seemed the case when he rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt at No. 4 and an eight-footer at No. 5 to go to 8-under. Up ahead, only Faldo and Stewart were in sight, Stewart hopping from 4 to 5 under and back while Faldo plodded along, never moving off 5-under.
"If you look at the score it seems that I played conservative," Faldo said. "But I didn't. I was trying to hit the ball as close as I could on every hole. I didn't want to go wild on the birdie putts and three-putt. That would have been suicide. But I tried to make every one."
Faldo said he didn't look at the leader board until the end of the day. Azinger didn't stop looking. "I always knew exactly how I stood," he said. "I knew I had control of the golf tournament."
He bogeyed No. 6 but made another birdie at the eighth and led by three shots. But at the ninth, he made his first real mistake, playing the easy par 5 conservatively, laying up 50 yards short, hitting a poor chip and taking a par on a birdie hole.
But the lead was still three shots. "Then I made a mistake on 10," Azinger said. "I hit a 2-iron when I should have hit a 1-iron and I had too long a shot to the green. That's why I put it in the bunker and made bogey."
He made another bunker at 11, pushing a driver way right, outside the gallery ropes. He got his second shot to the front edge of the green but knocked his 60-foot putt eight feet past the cup. He missed that putt and was back to 6-under and a one-shot lead on Faldo.
Faldo was in trouble three times and saved himself with great bunker shots. At No. 7 he came out to within three feet after missing the green left; at No. 8 he hit a wonderful shot to within three feet out of a bunker a good 90 feet from the pin, and at 10 he got to within three feet, this time from the left bunker. Everything else was routine -- on the green in regulation and two putts.
That left the drama in Azinger's hands. At 12, he rolled a pitching wedge to within 10 feet but missed the birdie putt. At 14, he had another 10-foot birdie putt and came up just short. At 16, he hit a 3-iron to within 12 feet and again the putt peeled off at the edge of the cup.
"My putter failed me," Azinger said. "When I've won this year, my putter was really clutch at the end. Today, if I had made just one of those birdie putts or the par putt at 11, I would have won the tournament. I never felt shaky putting and I don't think I was conservative. I just didn't feel comfortable reading the greens."
Still, even without the birdies, Azinger stood on the 17th tee leading by one, knowing two pars would make him the champion.
Right there, Azinger made the fateful error. No. 17 is a 550-yard par 5, reachable in two some days, easy to reach in three even today into the wind. "There was absolutely no reason to hit the driver there," Azinger said. "I didn't consult with my caddie and I wish I did. It was stupid, a ridiculous play. It cost me the golf tournament."
Azinger hit the ball solidly, but pulled it, catching a pot bunker. His only play was a sideways sand wedge onto the fairway. From there, he had to lay up 80 yards shy of the green. His wedge got to within 15 feet, but there was no magic left in the putter. Bogey.
Faldo, walking up 18, heard the roar as Azinger's bogey went up. Finally, he looked at the board and knew he was tied for the lead. While Azinger walked to the last tee, Faldo was finishing. After his birdie putt slid by, he faced those last four feet: "I told myself to hit it solid and it would hold the line. I didn't want to be loose with it."
Firmly, he knocked the putt in and walked to one of the official trailers to wait. His new wife and year-old daughter joined him. "There were two TVs in there," Faldo said. "I didn't watch either one. I just listened."
Azinger hit a 1-iron at 18 down the middle. Walking off the tee, just to be sure, he asked an official, "Did Faldo finish at 5-under? Told he had, Azinger nodded. "I was looking forward to a playoff," he said later.
He had 211 yards to the pin, the wind slightly behind him, blowing left to right. He hit a 5-iron. The ball started out left but never moved, catching the left bunker. Some in the crowd cheered, a reaction so un-Scottish that Alistair Low, the tournament chairman, felt obliged to apologize during the awards ceremony later.
Azinger wasn't concerned about that. His ovation as he walked up the alley formed by the thousands of fans on 18 was warm and his mind was on one thing: getting the ball close from the sand. But his lie was almost impossible, the ball barely in the trap so he had to stand above it, one foot in the sand, one foot out. Though he is the best trap player on the tour, this was a shot Azinger was lucky to get out of the bunker. The ball stopped 25 feet short.
Now, Azinger needed a miracle. He didn't come close. His pain was apparent as he tapped in, having owned the tournament for 70 holes, but not after 72.
For Faldo, regardless of how it happened, his joy was unbridled. He turned 30 on Saturday and this was a gift he never imagined. As he spoke in the post-tournament mist, fog closing in rapidly, his voice broke as he finished. "This is a moment," he said, "I will always cherish."
And one Paul Azinger will never forget.