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Azinger's Luck, Lead Holding : He Starts Late--After Storm Blows Half of Field Away

July 19, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER | Times Staff Writer

MUIRFIELD, Scotland — Surf's up on the Firth of Forth.

After two days of fairly fair weather, the wind and rain blew into Muirfield Saturday and turned a friendly pitch-and-putt contest into a manly man's British Open.

A nasty Nor'easter whipped up a froth on the Firth, the bay just beyond the links, and ruined the day for half the golfers. Winds gusted up to 50 m.p.h. Rain fell sideways. Only the strong, and the lucky, survived.

The strongest and luckiest was American Paul Azinger, golf's overnight sensation. Teeing off after the worst of the storm had passed, Azinger shot a par 71 to stay on top of the field, remain six under par at 207 and carry a one-stroke lead into today's final round.

Nick Faldo, the great British hope, and South Africa's David Frost are a stroke back at 208. Then come more Americans: Payne Stewart, Craig Stadler and Tom Watson are at 209, and Raymond Floyd is at 210. And don't forget Stadler's first-day, two-shot penalty.

Those are the success stories, and it's significant that all seven of the leaders teed off after 2 o'clock Saturday, in the nice half of the day.

The low score was 70, carded by Frost, Scotland's Ken Brown and Spain's Jose-Maria Olazabal, all afternoon tee-timers.

Ah, but the horror stories from the morning crew are more compelling. Years from now, old golfers will tell tall tales of the storm of '87.

"Aye, mateys," they'll say, "I remember the day the Nicklaus and the Simpson went to the bottom."

Scott Simpson. Remember him? Won the U.S. Open. Saturday, he was in the second group to tee off, the shock troops. He was eight over par after six holes and staggered back into port with an 82.

"Worst weather I've ever played in," Simpson said. "The front nine, I just couldn't hold onto a club. It was blowing so hard you couldn't stay still over the ball. I was eight over after six and I was hoping to break 90.

"After a triple bogey (on No. 5), the next hole the club slipped in my hands and I hit my drive off the toe (of the club). It went 100 yards off line, almost onto another fairway. It was the worst drive I've ever hit."

Despite the fact that tournament officials moved the tees forward on four holes, taking off almost 200 yards, of the first 23 scores posted, the best was a 75, and 10 of those 23 players shot 80 or higher.

It was such nasty weather, one almost expected to see the San Francisco Giants appear on the first tee to take infield practice.

The weatherman, who is batting about .200 this week, predicts more rain and pain on the seaside plain today.

"It was just a joke," said Tom Kite, who went out early and was blown back to the clubhouse with an 81. "To think people live in this . . . You gotta laugh about it, I guess."

He didn't, though

Jack Nicklaus went down swinging, with nine bogeys, a double bogey and five three-putt greens, muttering, "I three-putted myself into oblivion."

Aye, the wind was even blowing the putts.

Bernhard Langer triple-bogeyed the eighth when he got caught in a bunker. Seve Ballesteros double-bogeyed No. 8 and No. 12 for a 77. He's seven over par, beyond hope.

Gary Player opened his round with double-bogey, bogey and bogey, scrambled to shoot a 79 and said, "I'm so wet I think I've shrunk a bit."

He also said, "It (the course) was not unplayable, but there was no skill involved. The skill is eliminated."

Greg Norman went out in 40 and came back in 34, out of the running, and griped about the teeoff system. He said the system of having the first teeoff only on No. 1, not No. 1 and No. 10, put too many players at a weather disadvantage.

"That's a dumb thing to say," Azinger said when told of Norman's statements. "That's golf, man, the rub of the green. Better him than me."

Azinger, you can see, is no shrinking violet. He has come out of nowhere to lead the PGA Tour's money list this year. He had never played a British links-type course, he had never led a major tournament, and he's treating the whole business with a breezy aplomb and a sense of adventure. He sank a 14-foot bogey putt on the 18th hole Saturday to save his tournament lead.

"I desperately wanted that putt," Azinger said. "This is the greatest place in the world to play golf, and now I'm in a great position and I'm enjoying it, I really am. . . . If it's my time to win this tournament, I'll win it. If I don't win it, it's OK, I've had a great year."

Azinger acknowledged that he has had the best of the weather all three days. Each day there has been a distinct good half and bad half, and Azinger is 3 for 3 with the weather gods. He's got them working for him, even psychologically.

"I was not the slightest bit nervous on the first tee," he said, "and I think the weather was the reason. I knew everyone would have a hard time, and that took the pressure off me."

Azinger was asked if he'll be looking over his shoulder, or at the leader board, as he goes for the championship today.

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