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Norman's Conquest Turns Ol' Turnberry Into Open Walkover

July 21, 1986|MIKE DOWNEY | Times Staff Writer

TURNBERRY, Scotland — He is no Nicklaus. Not by a long shot. Not by a chip shot. The Golden Bear owns 20 major titles. This guy owns one. But big, blond Greg Norman of Australia certainly could become The Next Jack Nicklaus, so call him what you will. The Great White Shark. The Platinum Platypus. Whatever.

He won the 115th British Open by five shots. His 69 Sunday gave him the big one that got away at the U.S. Open, where he faltered the last day, and at the Masters, where Nicklaus jumped up and beat him. So he missed the green jacket, big deal. Give him the green kilt.

Nobody made it close. Seve Ballesteros fired a 64--and still finished eight strokes back. Bernhard Langer celebrated his daughter's Saturday night birth with a 68--and still trailed Norman by six.

Tommy Nakajima crashed and burned. Runner-up Gordon J. Brand was five back, and only got that close with an eagle at 17. They took the high road and Norman took the low road, and Norman got to the trophy before them. Norman's 280 total was even par.

It was the largest winning margin in a British Open decade, since Johnny Miller's six-shot spread at Royal Birkdale in 1976.

The suspense was so thin, you could have cut it with a feather. Nakajima, one shot out entering the round, double-bogeyed the first hole. Norman immediately led by three, and never led by less thereafter.

Not hurting Norman's chances one teensy-weensy bit was a 75-yard sand wedge at No. 3 that hopped, skipped and jumped right in the cup.

It was not until the Shark escaped some trouble at the seventh hole that he knew he was home free. Turnberry's knee-high rough had ensnared him, but he got free cleanly. "Then I hit a beautiful drive at eight and I said to myself, 'Well, guys, you're not going to catch me today,' " Norman said.

The hardest thing the winner had to do all afternoon was get through the crowd to the 18th green. He was assailed with affection. A marshal trying to clear a passageway fell, and Norman said he was concerned about somebody's body, very possibly his own, being trampled.

Yet, he also basked in the attention. It had been a long time coming. Norman turned to caddy Peter Bender on the march to the final green and said: "Let's walk slow. I just love it so much." A man who leads the PGA tour in money earnings obviously had heard applause before, but never like this.

He was nervous all morning, although he hid it from his wife. What sustained him was a conversation he had with Nicklaus the night before, when the Masters champion interrupted him and Laura in the Turnberry Hotel dining room and said: "I'd like to talk to you."

Nicklaus pulled up a chair. Norman pushed his own a couple of feet from the table, so they could have some privacy. He had no idea what Jack had in mind.

"I just want you to know that nobody in the world wants you to win this thing more than I do," were the first words from Nicklaus.

Norman went tingly all over. Even though Nicklaus was nowhere in sight on the leader board, he had not been expecting this.

"Coming from that man, that was very special to me," Norman said. "I was a little choked up. He said he thought I deserved to win this one, and that he was rooting for me. He even gave me a few little pointers about concentrating on my grip pressure, things like that. It was the greatest boost I could have had, including from my wife. And when I walked off the 18th green today, there he was to greet me."

As a teen down under, this son of a Queensland mining engineer was given two books by his mother as birthday gifts--"Golf My Way," by Jack Nicklaus, and "55 Ways to Play Golf," by Jack Nicklaus. Other kids could read Colleen McCullough. The only birds Norman wanted to know about were putts to break par.

Bruce Devlin, Fuzzy Zoeller, Hubert Green, John Mahaffey--they all joined Nicklaus in giving Norman encouragement before his big day. They knew he was privately feeling what he was publicly denying, that his great success in professional golf had been diluted, at least a little, by the missing major. All those Hong Kong Opens, Kapalua Internationals and New South Wales Opens are fine, but a British Open, that is historic.

Norman, 31, has been rehearsing months for this. Since tying for second at the Masters, he has won twice (Las Vegas Invitational and Kemper Open), placed second at the Canadian Open, tied for second at Houston, tied for third at Atlanta, and was 12th at the U.S. Open after leading after three rounds.

"He's playing better right now than anyone I've ever seen," Nicklaus said at Shinnecock, and nothing has happened since to change his mind.

Norman has won $547,779 this year on the U.S. tour and collected a check Sunday for 70,000 British pounds, or roughly $105,000. He was wealthy enough, and classy enough, to spring for a case of champagne in the press tent afterward. But as he told the Turnberry gallery, while holding the winner's silver cup: "You can spend your money, but you can never lose your trophy."

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