July 20, 2008

‘Shark’ Wed to Idea of Third Title

By Nick Townsend CHIEF

Boosted by his new wife, Australia's fiftysomething shows no sign of slowing down his inspirational charge

Love is irrefutably in the air, and "Greg" and "Chrissie" are as content as those couples who used to drive around with their Christian names emblazoned on their car windscreens. And there, on cue, was Chris Evert, winner of 18 majors in her own sport, but now seated transfixed, to witness her new husband, Greg Norman, conclude his round with a flourish as the shadows lengthened.

Not for the first time on an afternoon when fantasy-land became reality, the gallery rose to him, and the Aussie rewarded them with a decidedly tricky chip on to the green which very nearly found its target at one attempt. He contented himself with par, which was something to be celebrated anyway on a day when the elements mocked every player.

And at the end of it all the Great White Shark was not just in contention but, remarkably, held a two-shot lead over his playing partner Kyoung-Ju Choi and the defending champion, Padraig Harrington. It provoked the question: could this character who represents the Saga community actually claim the Claret Jug, and become by some distance the oldest-ever major winner?

He answered that query himself as he strode imperiously down the 18th. Someone suggested to him that he had summoned "a bit of the old magic". He smiled and retorted: "Long way to go yet." There is, and the suspicion is that Harrington, among others, could deny him. But whatever the outcome, he has given the spectators an Open to treasure.

If the fifties are the new middle age then, at 53, Norman is clearly suffering a mid-life resurgence in his career. Not bad for a chap who only turned up, ostensibly, to warm up for the next two majors on the seniors' tour. He is more accustomed to playing tennis with his wife, also 53, back home in Florida these days than contesting a major but, contesting his 26th Open, he has been enjoying an extended honeymoon, in both the sporting and domestic sense of the word.

Could it be that the endorphins have kicked in and the influence of a woman so successful in her own sphere is enhancing his game? Certainly the player who wed Evert in a multi-million-dollar bash in the Bahamas at the end of last month happily pays due credit to the input of the missus - which makes a change from listening to the woes of those professionals who have gone through divorce, with golf clearly attributed, if not directly named, as the "other party".

How the Royal and Ancient will be loving it, too. No tiger in your tank, as the old Esso ad tried to convince us, no oomph in your engine. No Tiger Woods. Barely worth the contest was the attitude of some curmudgeons beforehand. The absence of the aura of Woods may have initially stripped the veneer off the occasion for spectators. Yet just look at who has filled the vacuum: the 1986 and '93 Open champion, who yesterday started on level par, one shot behind the leader at the halfway stage, Choi. As he and "KJ" emerged, there could scarcely have been greater contrast. The imposing Norman, six foot but looking considerably taller, clad in cream sweater and white baseball cap, still has the easy stride of an Aussie beach bum. He appeared to tower over the impassive 37-year-old Choi, who was turned out virtually in black. He finished eighth in last year's Open at Carnoustie, and has recorded seven victories on the PGA Tour in the US.

The portents weren't auspicious for Norman. Even Old Tom Morris was a mere stripling of 46 when he became the oldest winner of the Open in 1867. Norman is seven years older than Jack Nicklaus was when he won the US Masters in 1986. And neither did the Queenslander's drive from the first tee herald optimism, drifting into the rough.

"It was just brutal" was Norman's assessment of the wind. "It was incredible to watch." He recorded three bogeys in the first six holes and descended to third on the leaderboard as Harrington launched his assault. The concern, albeit briefly, was that, as in the past, he could self-destruct. He proved those fears unfounded with a birdie at the eighth, though when he double-bogeyed the 10th there resurfaced thoughts that the years may be taking their toll. But from then on his level of performance hardly wavered.

That back nine included two further birdies; one after a magnificently judged putt at the 14th, and another at the par-five 17th, as Norman first regained joint leadership with Choi, then took up the running and protected that lead until the end.

Choi, three clear at one stage, had double bogeys on the sixth and 10th, but is still well-placed to become Asia's first major champion. But yesterday was about Norman. In sport, there are comebacks, like Freddie Flintoff's at Headingley, but rarely ones like that of Norman, who has, seemingly, been around as long as Fred Flintstone, although it was actually a mere 32 years ago that he turned professional. Surely it couldn't be Yabba Dabba Do! for a fourth day running at this year's Open? Could it?

Originally published by By Nick Townsend CHIEF SPORTS WRITER.

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