Norman shot an even-par 70 on Friday.
John Biever/SI
Monday, January 23, 2012

SOUTHPORT, England — The Best Player Never to Have Won a Major is a silly, arbitrary honorific. It's a compliment, really, and K.J. Choi has as much claim to the title as anyone. With seven PGA Tour wins and seven international victories, he's 11th in the World Ranking. When he won the AT&T National last July and tournament host Tiger Woods handed him the trophy, the king and future king cracked jokes and laughed. The symbolism was irresistible.

Having won the Memorial hosted by Jack Nicklaus only a month earlier, Choi was on top of the world.

"Here's your trophy, big guy," Woods said.

"Yours is heavier than Jack's," Choi quipped.

A year later, after a relatively flat 2008 season thus far, Choi is delivering on his promise. He shot 67 Friday to get to one under for the tournament, one ahead of Greg Norman at the halfway point of the 137th British Open at Royal Birkdale.

"It comes well to my eye," Choi said of links golf, through an interpreter, after making birdies on the 17th and 18th holes. "I can see my target and go for it. I feel very comfortable out there."

Camilo Villegas birdied his last five holes to shoot the low round of the tournament, a 65, and was alone in third place at one over.

Padraig Harrington (68), U.S. Open darling Rocco Mediate (73), Jim Furyk (71) and David Duval (69) headline a group of seven players at two over.

Like Norman, Duval presented an intriguing narrative: a man well past his prime, who at times hasn't even been a full-time pro, suddenly turning back the clock. Until Friday, he had missed 10 cuts in 12 starts on Tour this season, with one WD and a tie for 60th. His dizzying fall from the top of the game is part of golf lore, but on Friday, at least, he was playing like it was 1999.

That was the year Duval shot 59 to win the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the zenith of his career, even though he claims the 2001 British Open among his 13 victories. (It was also his last.) The day after Duval's 59, players and caddies were astonished when they got to the driving range at the Phoenix Open, the next week's tournament, and found Duval beating balls in the Monday morning sun. He was relentless, and unbeatable.

Then he fell apart. Back trouble led to swing trouble, and he began to hit the kind of wild shots that ended the career of another Open champion, Ian Baker-Finch. He recorded just one more top-10 finish after a T4 at the 2002 Memorial.

Duval hardly played at all in 2007, staying at his home in Denver while his wife endured a difficult pregnancy. Nowadays he wakes early to play by himself at Castle Pines Country Club, then goes home to be a father to their five kids. He has felt close to his old form for a while, he said after Friday's round, but hasn't scored.

"I told my wife the first trophy would be for her," Duval said, "and the second will be for the kids."

Twenty men were within five of the lead, and with gusts of up to 45 mph forecast for Saturday's third round, players and fans were bracing for a wild finish.

Pre-tournament favorite Sergio Garcia slipped to a 73 and was at five over, while Phil Mickelson rallied with a 68 and made the cut at seven over.

"I'm still fighting," Mickelson said. "But I need serious weather and I need those [leaders] to struggle."

Choi, nicknamed Tank for his unwavering drive as much as his square physique, stole the headlines from one of the week's least likely success stories.

At 53, Norman is at the age when ambition isn't so blind. He used to practice for eight hours a day but has long been married to his business, and now he has wooed and wedded retired tennis pro Chris Evert.

They travel the world by private jet, teach each other their chosen country club sport and enjoy a very golden version of the golden years, making Norman's life ready-made for the pages of InStyle, not Sports Illustrated.

And yet there he is near the top of the leaderboard. Norman shot a second straight 70 to take sole possession of the lead for most of the day and keep the improbable dream alive: No longer No. 1 in the world, no longer capable of making his golf game the top priority, he has a third Open title in sight.

"My expectations were almost nil coming in, to tell you the truth," Norman said after bailing himself out with the putter on his last three holes. "I hadn't played a lot of golf. I was trying to work on my game as much as I could. Obviously we had a lot of preparation getting ready for the wedding."

While the Shark drew the biggest following, Spiderman delivered the week's most mesmerizing show. Open rookie Villegas took only 23 putts, compared to 34 the day before, and made eight birdies.

All three of the overnight leaders — Robert Allenby, Graham McDowell and Mediate — dropped from one under to two over with three-over 73s.

England's Ian Poulter shot 71 and was at three over along with Fredrik Jacobson (72), Stephen Ames (70), Stuart Appleby (71) and Peter Hanson (72).

Adam Scott (74) and Jean Van de Velde (71) were at 144, four over par and well within sight of the leader, along with Scott Verplank (67), Soren Hansen (69) and Anthony Wall (73).

Norman rode a white-hot putter to his second straight even-par score, and also cited improved fitness and flexibility for his revival. For that he thanked his new wife for their tennis outings three to five times per week.

When Jack Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters at age 46, Norman was one of the victims. He was asked if he felt the game owed him one.

"I don't think there is any owing in golf," he said. "I think you've just got to take advantage of the situation you're in."

Choi, a relentless front-runner who speaks English but whose clubs do most of the talking, will have a lot to say about that.

 

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