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Eye of the . . . Shark?

BRITISH OPEN AT ROYAL BIRKDALE

While others struggle on one of the toughest days in major history, Norman, 53, keeps the historic dream alive and winds up with a two-shot lead.

July 20, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

SOUTHPORT, England -- Golf had the weirdest dream Saturday.

In this dream, malevolent winds burned faces, shoved golf balls from their lies and yanked caps off heads, until all the wreckage and all the tortured shots and all the happy gorse culminated with emphatic applause on No. 18 for . . .

Greg Norman?

Yeah, you know those deep, senseless, REM dreams where familiar faces turn up in unfeasible places? Well, on Saturday in early-evening sunshine in the dunes of Royal Birkdale, here came the third-round leader in a scene so beyond belief it's already, surely unforgettable no matter what might happen today.

Here up the left side of the fairway came Norman in the year 2008, the Greg Norman who's allegedly 53, who didn't even play the previous 11 majors or 16 of the last 19 or the last two British Opens, who has dabbled in five tournaments and 15 competitive rounds all year, who's 12 years removed from his last major-Sunday lead, 15 years removed from his last major title and who came here to practice -- practice! -- for two upcoming senior events.

"The players are probably saying, 'My god! What's he doing up there? Sheesh!' " Norman said.

That's how it goes in dreamlike flashbacks in which the giant yellow leaderboard gets mystical and places the black, block letters "NORMAN" at the top. After all these years when Norman morphed from tortured golfer to contented golf businessman, the sport suddenly braced for another Sunday with Mr. Melodrama, whose aching catastrophes in at least eight majors in the 1980s and 1990s proved self-induced, fate-induced and cruel.

At two over par, Norman had a two-shot lead over the major-champion-in-waiting K.J. Choi and the defending champion Padraig Harrington, a three-shot lead over the Englishman Simon Wakefield, and five-shot lead over four clearly rugged golfers who included the 2003 champion Ben Curtis and the prodigiously talented 23-year-old Anthony Kim.

And if all that weren't surreal enough for you, eyewitnesses to Norman's cup-grazing chip and tap-in par on No. 18 included, just behind the ropes, one Nick Faldo in a brown corduroy jacket over a gray wool sweater.

Faldo, of course, shot the ruthless 67 that exacerbated Norman's ghoulish 78 at the 1996 Masters, turning Norman's six-shot lead into a five-shot defeat, and the retro vibe deepened when, beside No. 18, Faldo and Norman's new wife, retired tennis star Chris Evert, greeted each other with double-cheek kisses.

Still a pup at 51, Faldo then spoke of whether Norman could outdo even the 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters and the 48-year-old Julius Boros at the 1968 PGA and become the oldest major champion.

"I've got a funny feeling he can," Faldo said.

Faldo credited old age, reckoning that, "As you get older, you don't try to do too much too clever," minimizing ruin in dire conditions. He said, "While everyone else is grinding and spitting out fescue grass, he's just cruising." And he said, "How come he still has the same putting stroke at 53? Where's the fairness in life?" pretty wry, given that no one with six majors against Norman's haunting record can bewail fairness.

Norman just said, "Well, I'm not going to get ahead of myself," and, "We'll find out," straining to continue with expectations he'd labeled "nil" earlier in the week. Just last week, Evert said, he'd mentioned he just didn't feel prepared for his first British Open since 2005, one he reached only as a nostalgia entry, as a two-time past champion.

The absurdity of it all crowned a British Open day historic for its cruelty to the golfers, as contender Robert Allenby said, "Two occasions I put my coin down on the green and the ball decided to go for a run."

And the 2003 champion Curtis said, "It was probably about as tough as you can play out there."

And the 83-shooting David Duval said, "It's about as hard as I have ever played in."

And the pre-tournament favorite lodged seven shots back, Sergio Garcia, said, "So many shots, so many putts were hit with the ball wobbling."

And the U.S. Open runner-up Rocco Mediate, 45, said after his 76 that in his long career he'd seen golf "never like this, no, never like this."

And the contending Englishman Ian Poulter found it "right on the edge of playable."

And the 26-year-old Colombian Camilo Villegas, who shot 65 on Friday, shot 79 and said, "First time I've ever played in these conditions and it's so hard to trust your instincts."

And out of all that carnage among much younger men rose Norman, who said, "I'd put it in the top three hardest rounds I've ever played under the circumstances," but who countered three bogeys in the first six holes with three birdies and only one double bogey over the last 12.

"I mean, I'll be honest, I walked to the first tee nervous today," Norman said, adding, "I hadn't felt that way probably, you know, for 10 years maybe, maybe even longer. So I was excited about being there."

Inconceivably, he would walk to the first tee nervous on a Sunday again, taking all of golf with him, even as Faldo, his vanquisher the last time this happened, pondered Norman's titles and said, "Eighty-six, '93 and then 2008?"

He laughed, as it's so hard to believe.

--

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bottoming out

The other members of the top 10 in the world rankings haven't taken advantage of the absence of No. 1 Tiger Woods. Their standing through three rounds (MC-missed cut):

2. Phil Mickelson

T-48

3. Geoff Ogilvy

MC

4. Adam Scott

T-27

5. Ernie Els

T-48

6. Stewart Cink

MC

7. Sergio Garcia

T-15

8. Steve Stricker

T-15

9. Justin Rose

T-79

10. Vijay Singh

MC

--

Major troubles

Greg Norman has led or shared the lead in seven majors, winning once. What Norman shot in the fourth round and how he finished:

*--* Tournament Norman result 1986 Masters 70, T-2 1986 U.S. Open 75, T-12 1986 British Open 69, 1st 1986 PGA 76, 2nd 1993 PGA 69, 2nd 1995 U.S. Open 73, 2nd 1996 Masters 78, 2nd *--*

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