ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND, JULY 21 -- By the time Nick Faldo's last swing had struck at the weakened heart of The Old Course, and Greg Norman's wrists had unlocked from their intractable three-putt position, here is how matters stood in the British Open today: It was all but over.

The North Sea lay flat and uninspired, offering only a faint breeze and little protection to par-72 St. Andrews from the insistent Faldo of Britain, who shot 67 for a total of 17-under-par 199 and a five-stroke lead after three rounds. While Faldo laid at least one hand, if not both, on the silver claret jug of a trophy, Norman three-putted five times for an appalling 76, the third-highest score of a record low day, to trail by nine shots after beginning the round tied with Faldo in the lead.

With 18 holes left was it too soon to call Faldo the assured champion, and Norman, the Australian with a talent for spectacular last-day charges, out of it? Perhaps. But Faldo is an unerring, machine-like player who simply does not back up, and his total was the lowest ever after 54 holes of a British Open, the previous record of 202 set by Tom Watson in 1980 at Muirfield.

"Let me do the job first, please," Faldo said. "We'll talk about that tomorrow."

Few would have thought this morning that the Australian left in contention would not be Norman but qualifier Ian Baker-Finch, with his 64 that included a 7-under 29 on the first nine holes. Or that the only threatening American would be PGA champion Payne Stewart, whose third consecutive 68 tied him with Baker-Finch at 12-under 204.

Yet another Australian superceded Norman in Craig Parry, a stylish 24-year-old alone at 205 with his 69. An English qualifier named Paul Broadhurst, despite a gash in his head, tied the Open single-round record with his 63, including a 29 on the front, the sole player at 206.

These were mere asides to the anticipated duel that never came to pass between Faldo and Norman. They began the afternoon tied at 12 under par, four strokes ahead. Norman left the course drained and mystified after a horrendous 40 putts over the severe greens.

"I just putted terrible," he said.

Only Jose-Maria Canizares of Spain with a 78, and Jack Nicklaus with 77 fared worse. It was the round that some suspected might leap out of Norman sooner or later, one of the most talented players to hold only one major championship title. The 1986 British Open victor has been frustrated by either bad luck or one poor costly round, like his opening 76 at the Masters this spring.

But if anyone is capable of recovering, Norman is. He will need some miracle like his closing 64 last year at Royal Troon, before he lost to Mark Calcavecchia in a playoff. But even then he came from only seven strokes back, not nine.

There was no explanation for Norman's miserable putting, jerking everything left of the hole, and he did not hang around to offer one, going right to the practice green and then back to his hotel with only a curt comment.

The attitude of the entire round was set in the first two holes. Faldo birdied the opening, 370-yard par-4 with a sand wedge that came to rest 15 feet away; Norman missed virtually the same putt. Norman bogeyed the 411-yard, par-4 second when he ran a three-footer for par around the rim of the cup.

On the 356-yard, par-4 ninth, Faldo skimmed a low 2-wood and a sand wedge to 15 feet for a birdie, and Norman three-putted again. Faldo was at 15 under par, Norman 12 under.

Norman three-putted the 342-yard 10th to blow a birdie chance after driving the green. At the 12th, a short, straightforward par-4 of 316 yards, Faldo all but killed him. They both found trouble off the tee, Faldo straying right into gorse and Norman catching a bad bounce into a green-front bunker. But Faldo somehow chipped his ball into the fairway, got a wedge to eight feet and saved par. Norman's blast from the trap left sand in his eyes and his ball on the front lower plateau of the green. He left his putt three feet short, and missed that too to fall to 10 under.

Norman found his second straight bunker in the 13th fairway, his ball again taking a bad hop for another bogey. On Nos. 15 and 16, he dropped his last two strokes with three-putts at what should have been routine par-4s. He caught a swale in the green at the 382-yard 16th, where his difficult first putt broke off and left him six feet away. He was in no shape to make that nerve-jangler by then.

"I had a couple of bad breaks at the 12th and 13th, and that was the end of my day," he said.

Faldo's play was composed and patient, his hallmark. His six birdies were strewn evenly across the course with accurate iron shots that left him chances between 15 and 20 feet. His only bogey came at the infamous Road Hole, the par-4 17th consisting of 461 bending yards and a concrete path, where his 3-iron pulled up short of the green. He played a bump-and-run 8-iron over a severe hump that broke 10 feet away. He could not make the putt.

But Faldo promptly stepped up to the 18th, an expansive par-4 of 354 yards, and spun a wedge just two feet from the flag, which he tapped in to an approving roar.

Faldo has won the last two Masters in playoffs, and he took the 1987 British Open with 18 straight pars on the final day. He has the most consistently penetrating swing perhaps since Ben Hogan, and some other similarities too, like the 2-wood he packs in his bag and the grim, intimidating concentration he brings to every shot. A second British title would establish him as the dominant player of the moment, but he was not secure in his five-shot lead.

"I have to keep it going one more day," he said. "The guys in back have something to shoot at, and can take all the risk they want to. I have to keep it going forward. . . . I would not be content to take pars. I want birdies."

Those who are pursuing him had some grave doubts about catching him. Baker-Finch showed he was capable with his 64, blistering the first nine holes with five birdies and an eagle.

The eagle came at the 564-yard, par-5 fifth, which he reached in two with a driver and 4-wood that settled flag high and 15 feet away. He suffered his only bogey at the 17th, where his 4-wood sucked down into a gully on the green, leaving him in an impossible position around the edge of a trap.

"I actually said to my caddie I needed 64 today," he said. "I was going for every pin and every putt."

Stewart, he of the dandified plus fours and driving cap, should not be ignored. His record in the British is a list of near misses, finishing no worse than eighth in four of the last five years. He hit every green today, and his three 68s have been somewhat underachieving. If anyone is capable of a low final round he is, coming from six strokes back to win the PGA last year over Mike Reid.

"Maybe I'm saving the best for last," he said. "I will have to shoot a low one to catch Nick. Someone will have to come out of the pack and shoot a real low number. The way he has played, if he goes on, no one will catch him."