Some great golf tournaments are won thrillingly by a player charging past his opponents like a cavalry officer in full cry. More often than not, though, the major championships are not won but lost by the mounted soldier falling off his horse. He succumbs, indeed, to the frailty of his human emotions. That was the case last Sunday at Muirfield, a sublime Scottish coastal links course that was the scene of the 116th British Open. Paul Azinger, a 27-year-old American who had once painted boats and scraped barnacles off their sides to make ends meet, was set to crown his magnificent year on the United States tour with his first win in the oldest and arguably the most prestigious of the world's four major championships.
But on the next-to-last hole, having seen his 3-stroke lead whittled down to one, he made a rash decision - choosing an aggressive driver instead of a safer one-iron. He bunkered his drive, eventually missed his putt for a par, and wound up with a bogey.
Meanwhile Nick Faldo, playing one group ahead and now tied for the lead, was holing his crucial putt to par the 18th.
``What did Faldo score?'' Azinger asked me as we walked up the 18th after his fine tee shot. ``Par,'' I told him. ``OK,'' he said with a grimace.
The fight seemed to go out of him, though, as he pulled his second, fractionally, into a deep bunker. He played out too cautiously and then babied the putt, taking another bogey as the title slipped away.
And so it was Faldo who won the tournament with a 72-hole total of 279, becoming the first Englishman to capture the championship since Tony Jacklin in 1969. Azinger, who had not been out of the lead since he made the turn in the third round on Friday, had to settle for 280 and a second-place tie with Australia's Roger Davis.
Wisely, though, the Floridian has accepted that the experience will ``make me a better man and a better player'' - better able next time to handle the unique pressure that separates the majors from the regular week-to-week events on the tour.
Faldo, the man of the hour, is in many ways a story of triumph over self-created adversity. The new Open champion was in the pits of personal and professional despair two years ago. His marriage had broken down under the pressure of his far-flung, stress-filled life style. He and his new wife-to-be were being pursued around the world by scandal-hungry British newshounds. And he was having his golf swing, already good enough to have won him several big tournaments, remodeled by David Leadbetter, a Zimbabwe-born coach who had emigrated to Florida and become a guru figure for several professionals seeking psychological and technical succor.
As part of his new mental approach to the game, Faldo tries to follow the approach of US Open champion Scott Simpson and ignore the scores being posted by close competitors. Even after walking off the final hole, Faldo waved away well-wishers trying to tell him Azinger had failed to par the 17th. ``I never look at the scoreboard,'' he told them.
The British player now stands to earn some $4.5 million this year and next as spinoffs from his victory. But perhaps his greatest benefit from his new status is that he can at last rid himself of the derisive sobriquet ``fail-do.''
Yet he is not universally popular even in his own country. He has had a running feud with Scotland's Sandy Lyle, who won the Open in 1985. Seven years ago Faldo reported Lyle for placing a piece of tape over the top of his putter blade to stop the strong African sun glinting into his eyes. Lyle was disqualified for changing the character of his club during play.
But they say nothing succeeds like success. Faldo is already being acclaimed a national sporting hero after breaking the long drought of English champions. His victory also extended to four years the longest stretch of non-American winners at this tournament since a seven-year string from 1954 through 1960. The last US winner was Tom Watson in 1983, followed by Seve Ballesteros of Spain, Lyle, and Greg Norman of Australia in 1984, '85, and '86, respectively.
Commendably, Faldo played in a charity program in southern England the very next day after winning the Open, and the tumult of Muirfield was replaced by the tranquillity of Sunningdale. In attendance for Faldo's unpublicized round were a courting couple, a reporter, an elderly man and wife, two other men, a little boy, and a fox terrier.
Faldo's mind was still far away, no doubt reliving his superb 5-iron shot to the 72nd green the day before. He forgot to hand in his card after the event was over, but the officials decided not to disqualify him ``in view of the circumstances.''
And the scoreboard operators summed it up when instead of putting ``70'' against his name they inserted: ``Faldo. Cloud 9.''
Is Faldo a true champion? Many people have won one major title. A better test is who can win two. Faldo will show his mettle in less than two weeks at the US PGA.
Just as Simpson failed to make an impression on the rolling, wind-swept, rain-soaked fairways of Muirfield, so may Faldo find himself out of contention early on in his next big event.
Simpson and many others who were blown off course by the conditions here can take some cold comfort in what happened on the same course in 1938, when the wind got so strong that the exhibition tent collapsed.
Playing conditions have not changed all that much over the years. Nor have the qualities that make a champion. You have to take the rough with the smooth, only there tends here in Britain to be a lot more of the former than the latter.