I wish I could tell you how Greg Norman is leading the British Open by two strokes as a 53-year-old part-time player, but it really doesn’t make any sense. Norman’s play reminds me of Johnny Miller winning the AT&T at Pebble Beach in 1996 at age 46, which had that same strange and dramatic feel.
However, Royal Birkdale presents some advantages for Norman. The course is good for someone who’s thinking a lot. This isn’t a U.S. Open or a Masters where you know beforehand what you need to do. With the wind, the course is constantly changing and you have to think on the fly all the time. In that light, it isn’t surprising that an older player is leading the pack. Plus, the weather has taken length pretty much out the equation. Heck, the longest guy in the field posted an 89 on Friday. Sure, Daly’s got other problems, but a look at the leaderboard shows that distance doesn’t mean a lot here.
Norman’s putting is another reason he’s able to contend. I heard Adam Scott say that he’s never seen Norman putt badly and I haven’t seen anything this week to contradict him. That’s a nice thing about this Open: If you putt well and you’re smart, you can stay in the fight.
Ironically, his lack or preparation may have helped Norman. Even recreational players know the feeling of playing well after taking a break from the game. When you’re not thinking so much and don’t create high expectations, you often play well. And Norman certainly didn’t over-prepare for this. He’s playing on instinct, hitting shots he’s hit thousands of times before and not thinking too much about it. That approach is well-matched to links golf, which is an instinctual, non-technique environment.
Being Australian doesn’t hurt either. Since Birkdale began hosting the British Open in 1954, only Australians and Americans have won here, from Australian Peter Thompson in ’54 to American Mark O’Meara in ’98.
Do I think Norman would be doing this with Tiger Woods in the field? Well, if he couldn’t hold off Nick Faldo at the Masters in 1996 with a six-stroke lead, it’s hard to imagine him playing well in the final group with Tiger. However, Norman will probably find it easier to play Sunday because he doesn’t have those high expectations. He always tended to hurt himself, but maybe this is the time he can really do it.