Golf / The 121st Open Championship: Faldo's triumph over the torment: Favourite emerges from the wreck of his round to deliver the best four holes of his life and recapture the major prize

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NICK FALDO won the 121st Open Championship, regained possession of the old silver claret jug and nobody in the history of the game had embraced it with such loving care. This was Muirfield revisited for the Englishman who won here in 1987, but there the comparison almost ends. What happened to him yesterday was golf's equivalent of a journey to hell and back.

He had a four-stroke lead going into the final round, but it was no cushion as he ran the gamut of emotions over the back nine holes. When he holed the final putt, he broke down and wept. He looked as if he had aged 10 years. 'I was a bit of a wreck,' he said. 'I was absolutely shocked, absolutely gone. The horrible pressure of it. If it had ended up wrong what the hell would that have meant to me? I'd have needed a very big plaster to cover that up. I think I'd have become a professional fisherman.'

Another sub-70 score and Faldo would have become the first player since the Open began in 1860 to score four rounds in the sixties. The fact that it has never been done is testimony to the enormity of the occasion. During the course of a round of 73, Faldo hit the troughs. A bogey five at the first seemed almost inconsequential, for when he reached the turn he still had a three-stroke lead.

Steve Pate, his playing partner, was at 10 under par and the Californian John Cook was at nine under. Cook, playing in Britain for the first time since 1980, had a birdie at the third, an eagle three at the fifth and a double-bogey seven at the ninth where he drove out of bounds, over the grey walls of the Greywalls hotel where Faldo spent the week.

At that point Cook was four strokes adrift of Faldo, but the drama was only just beginning. Cook, playing directly in front of Faldo, birdied the 12th, the 15th and the 16th to move to 12 under par for the championship. Simultaneously, Faldo was running into a brick wall. What helped him survive the crash is that he had been through the experience before. In the Irish Open he led by four strokes with 18 holes to play and eventually won it in a play-off. He led the French Open by two strokes with five holes to play and lost it; he had a great chance to win the US Open at Pebble Beach and shot 77 in the last round. The nightmare was recurring.

Faldo found a bunker on 11; another stroke dropped and his lead was down to two; on the 13th, he missed a putt from two and a half feet for another bogey and Cook was now one stroke adrift; Faldo hit it into another trap at 14 and from a dreadful spot somehow got the ball on to the green. But it was another bogey and suddenly Cook at 12 under held a two-stroke lead. It was short-lived.

Five years ago Faldo, on a foul day, made 18 successive pars at Muirfield to pip the American Paul Azinger, who took a six at the 17th and a five at the 18th. Now Cook had Faldo at his mercy. He had an eagle chance at the 17th and his brave putt for a three shaved the hole and rolled two feet past. Cook missed the return and what could have been a three became a five.

At the 18th, he missed the green to the right, had a free drop after his ball landed near a spectator railing, chipped over a bunker to eight feet and missed the putt: a round of 70, 273, 11 under, one stroke better than Jose-Maria Olazabal, who had come in with a 68.

Faldo, however, was far from finished. When he walked off the 14th green the torment was replaced by a conviction and the almost fanatical will to win. 'I told myself I would have to play the best four holes of my life,' he said. 'And I did.' And he did. At the 15th, he hit what he described as one of the best five-irons of his career and the result was his first birdie of the day. Back to 11 under with the tasty 17th to come and he duly birdied that.

On the 18th tee he knew, as he knew in 1987, that a par four would give him his third Open, his fifth major. Into a strong cross wind, he hit a perfect drive, followed by a near perfect three-iron which he cut into the breeze. The ball homed in on the flag, took a couple of bounces and rolled to the back edge of the green. He was faced with a downhill putt and he lagged it up to within a foot of the hole. His knees, he said, were trembling. He knocked it in, picked the ball out of the hole and broke down.

If that putt had been any longer he might not, he admitted, have been able to handle it. He spoke of the 'unbelievable pressure', of 'turning round what was almost a disaster to the ultimate triumph'. 'It was like climbing a bloody mountain. The worst thing was the build-up. I wanted to take my head off and put it to one side. It wears you to a frazzle.'

He finished on 12 under par, one stroke in front of Cook, two in front of Olazabal. Pate also shot 73, so he was marking time. Faldo's mind was so fazed that at the end, when he handed Pate his scorecard, there was nothing on it. Not a single figure. Blank. Faldo apologised to Pate. 'What did you score?' Faldo asked the American. '65,' Pate joked. In the scorer's hut Faldo cried on the shoulder of David Begg, the press officer.

The leader had arrived on the first tee last of all. He carried a banana and as the round unfolded, he came perilously close to slipping on the skin. The first thing he did was drink some water and he did not even have to open the lid to the soft-drinks-only mini-bar. 'It's all yours, Nick,' yelled a man. Faldo ignored the remark. 'Go on, handsome,' yelled a girl. He did not ignore that. He looked towards the fan and smiled. Pate yawned.

The Duke of York did not wait for Faldo. He and his men marched ahead, following the progress of Ian Woosnam. There was a curious atmosphere on the first tee. An R & A official described the championship as a 'non-event'. Non- vintage, he said, because of a lack of excitement. He spoke too soon.

Faldo took out a wooden driver, a traditional club that would find approval with another traditional club, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. A split second after Faldo hit his opening shot, somebody yelled: 'Great shot.' The ball landed in a bunker on the left. It is a short walk from the 18th green to the first tee and players at the last can hear the starter announce the names of the players on the opening hole. Only one player complained of being distracted. That was Faldo on the opening day.

As Faldo, who began this latest quest for another large imprint in history as the 7-1 favourite and ended up 2-1 on after the third round, was teeing off yesterday, Ian Baker-Finch was applying the last rites to his defence of the championship. Baker-Finch crouched by the 18th green, his mind a million miles away beneath a sky as grey as the walls of Edinburgh Castle. Not a million miles actually. He was reflecting on his day 12 months ago when he shot 66 in the last round at Royal Birkdale. He finished nine shots in front of Faldo on that occasion and yesterday the Australian was 10 strokes behind.

When Faldo, who celebrated his 35th birthday on Saturday, walked back on to the 18th green for the victory ceremony he hugged the claret jug and, naturally, kissed it. It was the most emotional of reunions.

The golf shoe manufacturers, Stylo Matchmaker, may take legal action against Faldo over his failure to wear their shoes at the Open, despite being paid pounds 100,000 a year to endorse the product.

The computer game, page 19

----------------------------------------------------------------- FALDO'S RECORD ----------------------------------------------------------------- US Masters US Open Open US PGA 1987 - - 1 28 1988 30 2 3 4 1989 1 18 11 9 1990 1 3 1 19 1991 12 16 17 16 1992 13 4 1 - -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph and chart omitted)

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