Golf / The 121st Open Championship: Faith and fear on the fairway to fulfilment: Ken Jones with the Muirfield gallery through a draining final round

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The Independent Online
ALL ALONG the fairways you could hear people declaring the anxiety that built up around Nick Faldo as shot after shot slipped away until he was no longer leading the Championship.

Faldo's fifth major victory in six years, one that established him as the greatest British golfer of the age, was not the triumphant procession the crowds imagined when setting off with him from the first tee. It became a thing of grim purpose and considerable courage that eventually required the best four holes he has ever played.

If some sensed a bad omen in the dark clouds and squalling rain as Faldo set off for the final round at Muirfield, it was comforting to know that their man held a four- shot cushion. When he drove into trouble at the first, immediately dropping a shot, there was no reason for them to suppose that the demons would soon be closing in. And by the turn even Faldo's most pessimistic supporters were confident that he could not be caught. Just follow him around before sending up a great cheer. 'As long as he completes the back nine in par, that's it,' they were saying alongside the ropes.

Then suddenly, as though some spirit had chosen to invest the Championship with more drama than it had offered all week, things began to go wrong for the favourite. A shot went at the 11th; when another went at the 13th a groan came from the gallery; the leader board carried bad tidings from elsewhere on the course. John Cook was charging, Jose-Maria Olazabal was closing in. 'God, I can't take much more of this,' said a lady in patriotic colours.

Faldo, looking wearier with every stride, began to tinker with his swing, checking the angle of his wrists. The irons were not working well for him. More trouble at the 14th, another groan going up when he failed to salvage par.

By then Cook had gone ahead. 'Come on Nick, you can do it,' people shouted, but not really believing that he could turn things around. A roar from across the fairways announced another birdie for Cook, and when Faldo looked across at a leader board he saw that the American was two shots better off. He looked grim, passing a hand across his brow. 'That's it,' people were saying as they scurried for position along the 15th fairway. 'Nick won't do it now.'

Up ahead, Cook was putting for an eagle at the 17th, a blow that probably would have finished off Faldo, who about then was concluding that it was necessary to complete the round with the best golf of his career. Agonisingly, Cook only made par. The door was still open.

There was a fresh spring in Faldo's stride as he made towards his ball after splitting the 17th fairway with his drive. Yardage checked, Faldo reached for his four-iron, and a hush settled on the proceedings as though it was a putt they were watching. The ball took off and a great cheer from around the green indicated near- perfection. Faldo would later describe the shot as a 'thing of beauty'. Two putts, birdie.

When that was posted on the leader board simultaneously with the sight of Cook's bogey on the closing hole, there was great celebration in the stands alongside the 18th fairway.

The crowd set off at a canter from the 17th green, whooping in delight, grown men punching the air in the manner of football supporters, now convinced that Faldo had a third Open Championship in his grasp. 'Please let him get it, he can, can't he?' a boy said anxiously to his father. Sure he could.

The crisis was not quite over, but spirits had been restored. Safely from tee to green, the peril avoided. Nothing to inflict further torture on the audience: two putts, all over. In truth, Cook, whose temperament suggests that he would not notice an earthquake, had blown the championship as Paul Azinger, his compatriot, did when Faldo first won it here in 1987. Damp from the rain, people hugged in delight. 'God, didn't Nick make us suffer,' a man said. Didn't he just.