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FALDO BOLTS TO THE LEAD WITH AWE-INSPIRING 63

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63. Nick Faldo's record round Friday in the British Open resounded around Royal St. George's, the number spoken in awe even by fans who had seen him hole a 50-yard pitch and play about as perfectly as possible.

They didn't worry that Bernhard Langer stood only a stroke behind Faldo's two-round total of 132 - 8 under par. Or that Fred Couples, Greg Norman and Corey Pavin were just another stroke back.Champions of majors were all over the leader board as the damp and pliant course was whipped again despite confounding winds. Five players scorched the normally unyielding Royal St. George's in 66 after four had carded that score on Thursday.

"All the right names are up there," Faldo said after a glance at the scoreboard.

But only one name had a 63 next to it.

Faldo's round of seven birdies and no bogeys put him on a loftier level and into golf history. It was one of the best rounds ever, three strokes better than anyone else could manage on this course in this tournament.

The best round in a dozen British Opens at Royal St. George's since the first one 99 years ago, Faldo's 63 also matched the lowest round at any British Open anywhere - a figure reached only five other times. Christy O'Connor Jr. set the previous course record of 64 in the last Open here in 1985, in turn breaking a 51-year-old record of 65 by Henry Cotton.

"When I got to the golf course this morning and saw everybody else was steaming along, I think that really sort of sets your mind into gear," Faldo said. "And then to come out and birdie the first, that was a big step."

Royal St. George's was ripe for plucking again, the greens still soft from two days of rain, and 78 players would make the cut at 143 - the lowest cut ever on this course and five below the 1981 mark when Bill Rogers became the only subpar winner at 276.

Australian Peter Senior, tied for the lead at 66 after the first round with Norman, Fuzzy Zoeller and Mark Calcavecchia, followed with a 69 for 135. Zoeller shot 70 for 136 along with Larry Mize.

Knotted at 137, five strokes back, were Ernie Els, Peter Baker and John Daly, who shot 66. Calcavecchia slipped to 73 and 139.Not everyone thrived. Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, John Cook, Davis Love and Ben Crenshaw all will sit out the weekend.

Maybe they should watch Faldo.

A 5-iron to within four feet of the pin on the first hole got Faldo going and set up the challenge for Norman in the group behind him. Faldo sank a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 5, a hole Norman would follow with a bogey, but still wasn't impressed with himself.

"When I walked down the sixth, the whole of the hill was filled with people and they were cheering like mad," Faldo said. "And I was saying, `Heck, they've really created an atmosphere before you've done anything.' You think, `Right, give the people something to show for it.' And I did."

He gave them a 20-foot putt on No. 6 and a third consecutive birdie on No. 7 after a superb 6-iron to the green. Making the turn in 31, he hadn't played a bad shot yet and was 5-under for the tournament. But Norman was stalking behind, also at 5-under, and Langer was already in the clubhouse at 7-under.

Norman went to 6-under with a birdie at 12, and Faldo immediately matched that with a 4-foot birdie putt at 13. The duel was heating up and the crowd roared for Faldo, the betting favorite.

Then in his worst predicament of the day, he produced the masterpiece of his round and one of the finest shots of his life.

Faldo sent a 2-iron from the 14th tee into the hay on the left, then whacked a 5-iron into more hay on the left. A 7-iron across the fairway into the right rough, 50 yards from the pin.

"I thought, `OK, this is going to be my hack hole and I'll take a six, just keep it to one mistake and then move on,"' Faldo said.

He didn't realize just how fast he'd move on.

He grabbed his pitching wedge, lofted the ball onto the green and watched it, amazed as anyone, roll into the cup.

Faldo, so composed all day, flung his arms wildly left and right to show how far his shots had gone astray. Then turning his palms up and shrugging his shoulders in a gesture that meant he couldn't figure it out, he said to his caddy: "And now it's in the hole."

Faldo's manager, John Simpson, had visited him in the morning at his house and told him how Norman had birdied the 14th in the first round.

"He was left-right, left-right in the hole," Faldo said. "And I'm hacking it up the fairway and I thought of the same thing and I hit the shot and it went in the hole clean as a whistle."

The roar that went up at the shot was unsurpassed - until the 18th when Faldo tapped a 12-footer with just enough speed that it died in the hole. The 18th had been the demon hole of the day with 60 bogeys and 10 double bogeys, and Faldo's birdie was one of only four it yielded.

Norman backed off his putt on 17 when the crowd's cheer erupted, then he stepped up and missed a 30-footer he needed to save par. But the bogey and two-shot deficit behind Faldo didn't dissuade Norman from believing Faldo "is not infallible."

Norman is very much in the hunt, following his opening round 66 with a 68 on Friday.

"I think we'd all like to knock him off," Norman said of the man who sent him into a two-year tailspin after their head-to-head confrontation at St. Andrews three years ago. "He's the best, no question about that.

"When you're on top, that's the medal you wear on your chest to be shot at."