ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Winning, they used to say, isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. But that was a long time ago. Today, image is really all that matters.

For proof, look no further than this historic golf course, where, Saturday morning, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman, the world’s reigning golf kings, teed off together in the third round of the British Open. One lugged a heavy suitcase of major championships the 1989 and 1990 Masters titles, the 1987 British along with a reputation for winning under pressure. Very impressive, Mr. Faldo.

But the world was cheering for Norman.

This seems odd, since the blond Australian has won only one major title in his career, the British, and that was four years ago. Meanwhile, he has lost six majors in incredible fashion, blowing playoffs, bogeying an 18th hole, watching as other players hit spectacular shots to beat him.

Yet losing has actually made Greg Norman famous, so famous he is now paid by McDonald’s, Reebok, Spalding, Qantas, and Epson computers, and is second only to Arnold Palmer in endorsement money for golfers.

Faldo, meanwhile, suffered this headline last week: “WE ALL HATE NASTY NICK!”

Hmmmm. Image is everything The lesson from this is obvious: Credentials matter only so much. After that, it’s perception. Norman is seen as a dashing, blond-haired, good old Aussie, always going for gusto on the course, and always ready with a handshake after a tough loss. Faldo is seen as a handsome but aloof Brit with a solid, conservative game, a boring, rich man who is loathesome of the press.

Now, what any of this has to do with the real men is questionable. I have met people who claim Norman, in one-on-one confrontations, can be snide, rude and egotistical. I have met people who claim that Faldo, one-on-one, can be charming and very funny. It could be true. And it wouldn’t matter. The general public will never have either man alone in its living room; the general public will never even see them in person.

The general public works on perception, which is created by image, which is created by looks, words, and a handful of actions played out before TV cameras that touch every country in the world. People remember pictures: Norman’s gleaming white teeth; Faldo’s icy glare. They form opinions: like him, don’t like him. Advertisers, hungry for sales, take polls of this stuff, then hand out huge checks to the “like him” guys, who, in turn, are filmed chewing on their hamburgers or showering with their soap. And the image is further solidified.

And pretty soon, these men, who, remember, are still flesh and blood, are caged inside their images, good or bad, and that is likely where they will stay. Only a major controversy — a Pete Rose betting scandal, for example — can change their stripes, usually from attractive to ugly. Good is sometimes bad Now, there is nothing wrong with this, I suppose, except that it is terribly unfair. “Good” guys can get away with anything in private — Steve Garvey certainly took advantage this way — and “bad” guys can’t seem to do anything right. Friday, at a post-round press conference, someone asked Faldo, rather innocently, for his thoughts on playing with Norman.

“Oh, no,” he quipped, “I’m not getting involved with that. After what’s been written this week . . . it’s too dangerous. . . . I don’t want to say anything about Norman, because you’ll twist it. . . . I won’t get involved.”

Embarrassing. The guy was squirming under his image. A half- hour later, someone asked Norman the same question about Faldo. He didn’t flinch. “We’re friends. He’s a good guy. I’ll look forward to playing with him.”

Who’s to blame for all this? Certainly the media, along with agents, PR firms, and the sports’ governing bodies, who all wish to portray their clients in a certain light.

The real culprit, however, is time: Nobody has the time to get to know superstars on a deep level. The reporters have deadlines, the advertisers have shooting schedules, Mr. and Mrs. Fan have laundry to do, and kids to put to bed. And the celebrities themselves are too busy on their yachts to spend time explaining their inner beings.

So we take a snipet of behavior here or there, a scene, a quote, an Adam’s rib of personality, and create the entire person out of this funny clay called image. Sometimes it’s accurate; sometimes it’s not even close. But the faster the world gets, the more image — not winning or losing — becomes not only everything, but the only thing.

“What do I learn from reading what’s written about me?” mused Norman, the man who has lost his way to the top. “That a lot of people don’t really know me.”

And it hasn’t hurt him a bit.

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