As Paul Lawrie sat in the dining room at the Marcliffe at Pitfodels Hotel here in his home town today working on a pint of lager and a salad, the man at the next table couldn't help but turn around and say, "Well done, lad, well done. That birdie at the 18th, just magnificent."

Lawrie was there with his agent, his caddie and his golf teacher--and, of course, the claret jug he earned for winning the British Open on Sunday at Carnoustie. Occasionally, strangers came by to snap his picture or ask for an autograph, and Lawrie obliged with a smile or a signature, clearly basking in this unexpected glory.

What a week for the 30-year-old Scotsman. He had to qualify just to get into the field of 156, and began the final round at Carnoustie 10 shots behind the leader, Frenchman Jean Van De Velde. But by the time he drove home to his wife and two young sons on Sunday night, he had been transformed into the most improbable Open winner in recent memory.

This British Open will be remembered in golfing lore as the week Van De Velde took the par out of excellence on the 72nd hole of regulation. He made a foolish triple bogey at the 487-yard 18th, resulting in a three-way, four-hole playoff with Lawrie and American Justin Leonard.

Lawrie had shot 67 two hours before Van De Velde's antics on 18. When he made birdies on the last two playoff holes, he walked off the green with only his second victory in four years on the European Tour, a check for about $560,000 and the cheers of his countrymen ringing in his ears. He was the first Scot since Tommy Armour in 1931 to win the oldest major championship on Scottish soil.

Van De Velde "really should have won, no doubt about that," Lawrie said today. "I don't know what he was thinking. If he's on the 18th fairway [in two], all he has to do is chip down the fairway and make five, at the worst six. I think I would have chipped it down the fairway myself.

"I'd like to think if I was in his position, I would have known what to do. If not, your caddie would say, 'Come on, let's make six and get out of here.' He didn't do what he had to do. You've got to hit it well, putt good, think good to win an Open. He didn't have one part of the package."

Lawrie's coach, former European Tour player Adam Hunter, thinks his pupil has the whole package. It was Hunter who pulled Lawrie over to the practice green while Van De Velde was flailing around on 18 and told him he had just as decent a chance to win as the shaken Frenchman or Leonard, the '97 Open winner at Troon.

"I believed he could do it," Hunter said, "and I told him he had a chance to show these guys who could play. I basically told him to enjoy it, and I told him the other guys wouldn't be feeling very good when they got to 15 either."

In 1995, as a young player struggling on the European Tour, Lawrie wasn't doing much. He said he considered quitting competitive golf and trying to get a job as a club pro back home. His game was off, and the money was dwindling. Then he won about $25,000 at the '95 Scottish Open, also at Carnoustie, and that provided a major boost to his confidence and his bank account.

This year he won for the first time on the European Tour at Qatar, and his victory Sunday moved him onto the European Ryder Cup team in September at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. He also jumped in the world rankings from No. 159 to 48 and will play all the majors next year.

"I'll have a Ferrari in the not too distant future," Lawrie said, "and a Porsche, too."

But he also insisted his sudden success and fame will not have an effect on who he is--a taxi driver's son who turned pro at age 17 with a 4-handicap and worked his way through the ranks.

"I will not change a bit," Lawrie said. "I'm just a normal fellow. I would like to think that everyone thought of me as a good guy, a regular guy who works hard at everything he does. Bt this is just the start. Everything is up to me to keep working hard. I'm sure there will be a little more hype when I go to the PGA next month [at Medinah in Chicago]. They'll ask, 'How's Lawrie doing?' which they never asked before."

Bookmakers had listed Lawrie as a 150-1 shot to win the British Open. But Lawrie said he had a feeling that because of the severity of the course, especially if the wind blew, an unknown player just might have a chance to win, even if he didn't put a single quid on himself.

"I never thought I would win," said Lawrie, who estimated he's played Carnoustie between 20 and 25 times over the years. "I felt a lot of the big players wouldn't be happy with the conditions and the set-up. I just felt if you kept quiet and did your thing, you could do something.

"If you're truthful with yourself, you'd like to think that if you ever had the chance, you could do it. I obviously felt the British Open was my best chance. I was brought up in wind. I don't mind playing in the wind. I was brought up on links golf."

Still, Lawrie's prospects seemed so slim that his parents and his brother went to Spain for a vacation last week, though they did watch the final round on TV at a pub in Majorca. Today, Lawrie still hadn't spoken to his parents, "but we'll have a wee party when they get back."

With his earnings and his victory, Lawrie is now eligible to play on the U.S. PGA Tour. But his agent, Adrian Mitchell, said he believes his client will remain on the European circuit.

Lawrie also made it clear that he's content to stay in Scotland, especially in his home town, with his wife, Miriam, and sons, Craig (4) and Michael (seven months).

"Aberdeen is where I'm from," he said, "and Aberdeen is where I'll stay."

CAPTION: Paul Lawrie celebrates Open win with wife Miriam and sons Craig, left, and Michael. He dug outof a 10-stroke hole to become the first Scot since 1931 to win the claret jug on home soil.