Golf: Azinger makes his major breakthrough: Norman relives the misery of sudden death to hand American the US PGA Championship while two veterans earn call to The Belfry

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The Independent Online
PAUL AZINGER, the leading qualifier in the United States Ryder Cup team, said before the start of the 75th US PGA Championship that he had acquired a new label. 'I was the best player never to win a major,' he said. 'I didn't resent that but it did put more pressure on me.' After Azinger's triumph at Inverness on Sunday the label will pass to somebody else.

Azinger, who has won more than dollars 6m since joining the US Tour in 1982, survived a sudden death play-off against Greg Norman who once again left Inverness in a state of bewilderment. Norman was once labelled the greatest golfer to have won only one major. That was the Open Championship at Turnberry in 1986, the year he led all four majors going into the final round. It included the US PGA Championship at Inverness, the one in which Bob Tway holed out from a bunker at the 18th in the final round.

Norman, as he had done in 1986, arrived at Inverness as the Open champion, his career revived by his inspired victory over the world No 1 Nick Faldo at Royal St George's. What happened here on Sunday provided Norman with a grand slam in reverse and once again raised doubts about his temperament. In the 1984 US Open he was hammered in a play- off by Fuzzy Zoeller; in the 1987 Masters he was gutted by Larry Mize's chip in at the second extra hole in a sudden death play-off; in the 1989 Open at Royal Troon he was beaten in a play-off by Mark Calcavecchia. Now this. And there are no excuses.

Norman had the lead in the final round, lost it, regained it and finally cracked in the play-off. He thought he had won it at the first extra hole, the 18th, where his putt hit the hole and spun out. He and Azinger went on to the 10th which had bad, fresh memories for Norman. Earlier in the day he put his approach shot to within two feet of the flag and he missed the putt. In the play-off Norman was about 25 feet from the flag, Azinger about six. Norman left his putt five feet short and was given a reprieve when Azinger's putt lipped out. The American's four was secure, the Australian's was not. Norman's putt also hit the hole but the ball refused to drop. 'What can I say?' Norman said. 'At least I've been there, I suppose. I lost to a great player.'

Azinger, 33, from Florida, had never been considered a great player, certainly not by Faldo, who two years ago said of him: 'It is hard to be a champion when you have a bad technique.' In 1987 Azinger bogeyed the last two holes in the Open at Muirfield to lose by a stroke to Faldo and the following year was runner-up in the US PGA.

As a high school senior a golf career was the last thing on his mind. He worked at his father's marina in Sarasota, played golf occasionally and could not break 80. His form improved when he went to Brevard Junior College and met a golf coach. In 1981 he earned his Tour card at the qualifying school and has steadily progressed. He has won three times this year and leads the US money list with dollars 1.3m.

When Azinger had a bogey at the fifth he was three strokes behind Norman and level with Faldo. 'Walking off the seventh green after leaving a putt short for the third time I asked myself if I could handle the pressure,' Azinger said. 'I questioned whether I would allow myself to perform or was I going to throw up. I was really sucking air. I'm not afraid to admit it. But I'm lucky. When I'm nervous I don't have nervous arms, my hands don't shake. I can still putt.'

When Norman dropped three strokes at the sixth and seventh, Faldo, with birdies at the seventh and eighth, appeared to have the championship in his grasp. He moved to 11 under par with a birdie at the 13th but needed one more. He should have got it at the 16th but missed a three-foot putt. Last year Faldo scored 281 in the US PGA and finished runner-up; on Sunday his aggregate was 273 and he had to be content with third. Except he was not content. When Azinger got to 12 under - he came home in 32 to Norman's 33 and Faldo's 35 - the Englishman boarded a plane and was in mid-air when Azinger was relating how he won his first major championship.