Mark Herrmann Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988, and has been Newsday’s national golf writer since 2002.

AUGUSTA, GA.

Imagine if the greatest moment in your life became your living nightmare. This what Paul Lawrie endured for more than 10 years. The claret jug became like a shard of glass in his skin, as irritating as a kidney stone, because people either didn't believe he had won the British Open or didn't care.

The average person might ask, "Who is Paul Lawrie?" A U.S. immigration employee in Florida basically asked that very question just last month, incredulous when Lawrie said he plays golf for a living. According to Lawrie's blog, the employee told him, "I don't know you, man."

Join the club. To Lawrie's immense pain, he won the oldest major championship in golf and the world basically shrugged. The 1999 British Open never has been seen as the one Lawrie won, but the one Jean Van de Velde spectacularly lost.

Hey, Lawrie can't help it if the Frenchman made a series of poor shots and worse decisions when he had a chance to grab a piece of history and instead claimed what was perhaps the greatest scrap of golf infamy: Needing only a double bogey on the final hole at Carnoustie, Van de Velde made seven, and lost a four-hole playoff that also included American Justin Leonard.

Fact is, Lawrie did go out and win the playoff. Truth is, he didn't give up that Sunday, even though he began the day 10 strokes behind. So what did the Scot get for all of that? Plenty of heartache. The win was seen as a fluke, accomplished by a bystander who entered as No. 159 in the world and eventually sank as low as 272.

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But how fair is that? Bob Goalby won the 1968 Masters in a complete gift, when Roberto DeVicenzo signed an incomplete scorecard. Yet there's no asterisk on Goalby's green jacket when he comes back here every year. He's a Masters champion, period.

Lawrie's tale is an extreme example that losing a tournament can eclipse winning a tournament. It's no fun being the loser, but it isn't so hot being the non-loser either.

"I tried to be fair, for a wee while, to change the way people saw it. And I failed miserably, to be honest," Lawrie said Thursday after what might have been his finest day on a big stage since that evening in Carnoustie. He eagled both par-5s on the back nine at Augusta National and finished the first round of the Masters at 3-under 69, two shots out of the lead.

A victory here this week would change anyone's life, but none would be altered quite the way Lawrie's would. If he could win the Masters, it would be like winning two majors. Finally people would acknowledge the 1999 British Open, too.

Lawrie won the Qatar Masters in February and made it into the world top 50. He is driving the ball much better than ever, he said. Plus, he is driven by the memory of his close friend and coach Adam Hunter, who died of leukemia last fall.

Lawrie is planning to write a book about his life. He decided to write off the bitterness a while back.

"If people want to give me respect for what happened, then they can. If they don't, that doesn't bother me anymore," he said. "One day, I just thought, 'Man, what are you battling this for?' Just get on with it. Just play your golf. People will respect you if you win tournaments."

They'll recognize you, too. Anyway, Lawrie did have the last word for that immigration official. The golfer told the man behind the desk, "I don't know you either."