MUIRFIELD, Scotland — He was huddled against the wind with his wife and his baby daughter. They were alone, in front of the clubhouse, a few hundred feet from the 18th green, where, at the moment, the fans chanted wildly for the British Open champion: “ON THE GREEN! ON THE GREEN!” they demanded.

He should have been the hero. But he was not the hero. Paul Azinger kissed his wife’s forehead and looked off beyond the noise, beyond this coastal golf course, beyond the North Sea. He looked off to someplace far away.

Something was happening, a storm was brewing inside his belly. One stroke. One stupid stroke. How could he have lost this? How could a handsome British golfer named Nick Faldo, who played a decent round, a par round — aw, face it, he did absolutely nothing to take this tournament away — how could he be walking out there with his hands held high, waving to the fans?

“I wanted to be center stage so bad,” Azinger would tell a group of reporters later, biting his lip. “I wanted to be leading this thing after the second and third rounds, and I was. I got to play in front of everybody in the whole world! And I played my butt off for 17 holes. . . . “

Seventeen holes. They say you can live a lifetime in a single minute if the minute is the right one. What happened to Paul Azinger in the final hole of this British Open, what happened in less than 60 seconds of real action, would indeed be enough for a lifetime. And then some. Azinger: Alone in a crowd

You can forget everyone else who played this otherwise dull and weather-whipped affair. The big names like Norman and Langer were in the clubhouse long before anything important happened, and sentimental favorites like Tom Watson and Ray Floyd crashed early in the final round.

Suddenly, there was only Azinger, tall, bony, shaggy — he looks like a grocery clerk — and the dashing Faldo, 30, who, until Sunday, was Britain’s answer to Gerry Cooney: high hopes, no payoff. And once Faldo sank a putt on 18 (finishing a round in which he had parred every hole on the course) it was Azinger against himself.

Alone. One hole to play. He had led by as many as three strokes on this final day, had putted brilliantly on the front nine, but he seemed to jangle down the stretch. He bogeyed 10, he bogeyed 11. Seconds earlier he had bogeyed 17 (he chose a driver over a 1-iron, “a ridiculous decision,” he would later admit) and now he was tied with Faldo at five under. And Faldo was inside a trailer office, watching on the TV screen.

“The Open was mine to win,” Azinger would admit. He hit a nice tee shot on 18, but his second shot landed alongside the left bunker, then fell in gently, like a roulette ball dying in the slot.

The bunker? Suddenly, the sure thing was not a sure thing at all. How fast was this all coming apart? For two days Azinger had been atop this tournament, playing with amazing confidence. He is only 27. This was his first British Open. Just three men had ever conquered her on the first date. “He’ll be the fourth,” people whispered. Growing pains of a champion?

He tried. He somehow found a stance in that bunker, crouched like a man trying to walk around horse manure, and hit the shot from sand to green. It stopped some 27 feet away. Seconds later he was standing alongside it, putter in hand, and all of Muirfield held its breath. Tap! The ball rolled, someone screamed, and . . . it . . . stopped . . . one foot short and wide to the right.

Over. A minute. A lifetime. He stared at the hole, he never took his eyes off of it, he circled it, and dropped in front of it. He should have been the hero. But he was not the hero. (“Were you afraid you would cry?” he would be asked. “I was shell-shocked,” he would say. “I was on the verge of winning a championship that would have put me in the history books. But don’t put that I was teary-eyed. . . . “)

But he was. Faldo, the great British hope, had won while sitting in an office. Azinger had lost in front of the world — by bogeying the last two holes. “I never bogey the last two holes,” he would say. A minute. A lifetime. He exited quickly, then turned away and slapped himself.

But the minutes passed. And something happened. Something jelled. And when he was finally ready to answer questions, this is what the loser — the man many will say choked on Sunday — this is what Azinger had to say:

“Don’t anybody feel sorry for me. It’s not the end of the world. I learned a lot out there. I’m gonna benefit from this.

“If you’re afraid to be center stage, you’ve got no chance. I used to be afraid of that. Not anymore. I like it now. That’s why I’m gonna be a great player someday.”

“How great?” he was asked.

He paused. “The best in the world.”

Watch out for Paul Azinger. He should have been the hero Sunday. He was not the hero. But something was happening in that minute, that lifetime, that long gaze out to sea. He was growing up. And grown-ups have a habit of coming back.

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