MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND -- The books will dutifully record that Nick Faldo won the 1987 British Open, that a local hero, an Englishman bravely tramping on the heather, emerged ghostly through the chilled, wuthering mists and reclaimed for Great Britain what was rightfully hers all along. But the truth of the matter is that Faldo didn't win it. How can you win a major championship by not making a single birdie on the final day? How can you plant the flag on the ramparts if you never scale the wall?
Paul Azinger lost the 1987 British Open.
Nick Faldo never laid a glove on him.
"No way," Azinger said when he was asked if Faldo had pressured him. "I knew where I stood all day. It was my golf tournament to win, or to lose. And I lost." To further drive home the point that nobody should be bringing this Faldo stuff down the middle at him, Azinger said, "The three tournaments I've won this year, I went out and won them. Nobody lost them, I won them. Here, I lost."
Yet there was something in the way Azinger spoke, maybe the strength and purposefulness in his tone, or the hint of defiance in his clear brown eyes, that suggested Azinger hadn't really lost much at all -- just this one tournament -- that he is destined for a shelf Faldo might reach only with a stepladder:
"Don't anybody feel sorry for me," Azinger said. "I've proven I can play with anyone in the world, proven I'm one of the better wind players, proven a lot to myself and to everyone else that I'm a contender. I've been on the tour for five years and I've never been in the hunt for a major championship. Greg Norman had several chances before he won his first major. This was my first shot. I'm proud of the way I played. I wanted to win this tournament so bad, and I'm proud to say I wasn't afraid to win. I put myself in a position where a lot of people would have been throwing up."
You hear this tone occasionally, the prideful combination of arrogance and confidence that can illuminate the face of a champion. Azinger is the kind of guy who wants the ball for the last shot, who wants to be up with two out in the bottom of the ninth. He's 27 and in the next two or three years we'll know if he's really Larry Bird and Mike Schmidt, or if he's just some empty cannon talking. But the way he sounds, if it doesn't happen, it isn't going to be because he didn't try. "I enjoyed being center stage. It's where I wanted to be," Azinger said, unafraid of the consequence of such brashness. "I wanted so bad to be the leader after the second and third round, and I was. I got to play in front of the whole world, and I played my butt off -- for 17 holes. If you're afraid of center stage, you've got no chance. I used to be afraid. No more. I want it more than anything now. That's one reason I know I'm going to be a great player someday."
This great: Paul Azinger said, "I want to be the best player in the world."
Going into the third round, Azinger said he wanted to feel what it was like to be in contention in a major, and the surprise was how little it burned. "It was hard to eat breakfast this morning, but I always feel that way in the lead. It wasn't as traumatic as I thought. It wasn't any different than on the PGA Tour. I like the way it felt. I handled it well. I came out of the box playing like a trooper."
You can have your pick of eight different places where he might have lost it: On No. 9, by far the
asiest hole of the day -- 34 birdies, one bogey -- where Azinger was already three shots ahead and a birdie would have sprung him clear of the field. On 10 and 11, where he bogeyed. On 12, 14 and 16, where he had makable birdie putts and slipped them. On 17, where he chose his driver over his 1-iron, and pulled it into a pot bunker. Or on 18, where he hit a 5-iron into a terrible predicament in the sand that Lawrence of Arabia might not have escaped. Azinger called 17 "my demise, a ridiculous choice of clubs." But you can make the case for any of the others.
The point is that whatever slim drama the British Open had was all Azinger's making. Faldo, scrambling to make pars himself, wasn't breathing on him. The canny vultures who were expected to swoop down on an unprotected leader board -- Tom Watson, Craig Stadler and Raymond Floyd -- took themselves out of contention early. Watson was 2-over by the third hole; Stadler and Floyd, by the sixth. Payne Stewart was too chaotic to take seriously: birdie, double bogey, eagle, bogey on successive holes.
Through No. 8, Azinger seemed invincible. He was hitting greens easily, and with his eccentric push-broom style of putting there wasn't a spot on them outside his range. From 8 on, he didn't make a putt. "My putter actually failed me," he said in genuine amazement. The one that everyone will remember was on 18. For the last two years Azinger has been the PGA's leader in sand saves. He gets up and down on 18, he forces a playoff. But he left himself 25 feet worth of putt, a gulf too wide to walk.
When he missed, he sank to his knees and stared at the empty cup. Tears seemed to well in his eyes. For a moment it looked as if he'd never get up -- that he'd stay there until he dissolved. "I went down to gather myself," Azinger said as if trying to memorize all the champions' books in this first time in the library. "I wanted so hard to hold my head up. I was grinding. I was shellshocked. I'd been on the verge of winning a tournament that puts me in the history books."
Anyone could understand his disappointment. But Azinger didn't want pity. He wanted you to know exactly what he had inside, exactly what you'd be looking at the next time he came through town. Hey, buddy: "I don't bogey the last two holes very often. I hit a 20-footer in Vegas to win $225,000. It wasn't my time this time. I wasn't choking. I just didn't win."
Four bogeys on the back nine, including 17 and 18, and a vanishing putter when he needed it most, say Azinger indeed may have choked. But almost nobody wins his first time. And his is surely coming.