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Greg Norman turned back time at British Open

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

They looked like kids, walking hand in hand one night around the Royal Birkdale parking lot, Shark with his big green-and-white throwback MacGregor golf bag on his shoulder, broad-shouldered and shaggy-haired and appearing ready for the surf, Chrissie in pigtails, one knotted off with a blue scrunchie, the other with a red. Two 53-year-old Hall of Fame newlyweds. You may know the routine: Hubby plays golf while the new wife, all smiley, walks along the side of the fairway, cheering him on. For a while the golf seems both important and inconsequential, which frees up the swing. Of course, no honeymoon lasts forever, so enjoy it while you can, right?

Last month Greg Norman married Chris Evert, second nups for him, third time for the tennis legend/America's sweetheart, fresh start for both of them. Last week, on a windswept links where whole shrubs gyrated as if they were doing the twist, Norman did what others try to achieve through surgery, the gym, the diet of the month: He turned back time. After 63 holes he was leading the British Open, by a shot over defending champion Padraig Harrington, of Ireland and the rest of the world. (Paddy has a passport and uses it.) Norman's golf was studly. As the saying goes, or should, 53 is the new 46. (See: Nicklaus, Jack; 1986 Masters.) Except for some lines on his face and the silver in his hair, Norman looks as he did in '86, when he won the British Open in the wind at Turnberry. He's not as straight with the driver as he was in '93, when he won his second Open, at Royal St. George's, but he's just as long, maybe longer — it was hard to judge last week, with the wind machine on and the fairways as hard and flat as the lid of your laptop.

These days, Norman doesn't play much tournament golf. (He says he spends a lot of his time on other interests: tennis, wine, fishing, his many businesses, his two kids — and Chrissie.) But when he does play, he often makes good scores, although not four good ones in a row. In February he played well, at least for a while, at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, inspired by the chance to play with his son, Gregory. In May he played well at the Senior PGA Championship, inspired by the difficulty of the course, Oak Hill, in Rochester, N.Y. Last week there were inspirations every time he looked up: clapping fans, his celebrity gym-thin wife, a demanding course and the oldest title in all of golf dangling before him (as it turned out, just beyond his reach). Last week, said K.J. Choi's veteran caddie, Andy Prodger, Norman was "all there."

For Norman, more than any other player you could think of, it's a shame golf doesn't allow you to play defense. A partial list of people he would have taken down at the waist: Nicklaus, Larry Mize, Bob Tway, Paul Azinger, Nick Faldo (all of whom got in his way in majors). He may now add Harrington, his Sunday playing partner at Birkdale, to that list. Harrington's play on the final nine holes, where he shot 32, was close to flawless. In majors, if you're in the hunt with nine to go, and then you play some crazy good golf at showtime? You win every time, and that's what Harrington did. Two British Opens in two years. With his grinder personality and game, he should win a U.S. Open or a PGA Championship someday.

Harrington, who will turn 37 next month, is long-winded and earnest in the press tent, not nearly as slow on the course as he used to be, goofy in an endearing way in public with his wife and two young kids, and likable. Norman went bunker to bunker on these final nine holes, covered in 39 shots for a closing seven-over 77, and as he and Harrington walked up 18, the winner-to-be thanked him for being such good "company." You may call that class, manners, whatever — he's a sweet guy and a complete player. In '86, when Norman won his first Open, Harrington was a teenager in Dublin, bucktoothed and wide-eyed, with dreams of playing the Open but a plan to become an accountant. First he ditched the accounting thing. Then he got the teeth straightened. More recently he got the body tight. He has played in 12 Opens, and on his 11th try, at Carnoustie last July, he cradled the old jug.

During the practice rounds last week, Harrington was debating whether he would even attempt to defend, because of a strained right wrist. He practiced chiefly with a putter and a wedge. But last Thursday he was ready to go, and his rounds of 74, 68, 72 and 69 (all told, three over par) gave him a four-shot win over Ian Poulter of England. Poulter and Harrington will be on Ryder Cup teams together in the future. Someday Harrington will captain one.

To play home in 32 shots on a Sunday evening in a pant-flapping cross-breeze — two birdies, one eagle, no mistakes — is the kind of thing that brings to mind the last two men to win consecutive British Opens: Tiger Woods (2005-06) and Tom Watson (1982-83). Watson was in the field last week, missed the cut by a shot and spent the weekend in the ABC broadcast booth. You could guess that Woods, recuperating from his left knee surgery at home, was watching Norman and Harrington and listening to Watson on TV. Would Woods have won? You can't say. He has played in 13 British Opens but has won only three. Harrington's one of the guys who can beat him. As for Tiger and Shark, their careers never really overlapped.

The wait for April begins. Harrington will be in the field at the Masters, of course. And courtesy of his tie for third, so will the Great White Shark. For Tiger, one more guy to beat.

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