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Norman downplays his chances at Birkdale, but golf gods owe him one more major

Photo: John Biever/SI

Greg Norman with his caddie, Linn Strickler.

SOUTHPORT, England — The old golfer and the old caddie appeared behind the white clubhouse, their silver hair blowing despite baseball caps pulled low. Greg Norman and Linn Strickler have more than a half-century of links golf knowledge between them, even if their muscles and bones don't work as well as they used to.

Strickler once caddied for Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion who spent a career battling Norman in golf's biggest events. Now, Strickler is standing beside Norman, 53, the lion in winter searching for a last shot at glory, in second place at the 137th British Open at Royal Birkdale through 36 holes.

"Nothing's changed," Strickler, 58, said. "He's got it, the competitive edge. Just knocking the rust off."

Does it feel like Strickler has stepped back in time?

"H.G. Wells," he replied.

After a career as one of the best players in the game-and its most star-crossed-Norman has returned to the forefront of a major, carrying a gallery through fairways and fescue as in years past. Fifteen years after winning the British Open for the second time and a dozen years removed from his memorable collapse at the Masters, Norman is flirting with triumph — or disaster — yet again.

With back-to-back 70s, he can continue to play down his expectations and talk all he wants about his off-the-course happiness and new bride Chris Evert, but he has taken ahold of this championship the way he used to and the way Tiger Woods does now.

With Strickler looking on, Norman straddled a bunker on 16, blasted out from an awkward lie, and saved par. He buried a 12-foot putt for bogey on 17 and a 20-footer for par on 18.

"Of course you feel like you're stepping back in time," said Norman, who married Evert in the Bahamas last month. "My expectations were almost nil coming in, to tell you the truth. I hadn't played a lot of golf. My mind has been elsewhere in the last month. My expectations are still realistically low, and I have to be that way. I can't sit here and say, 'I'm playing well and I'm going to do it.' I still haven't been there for a long time."

It's impossible to forget those days when Norman was there at the end of what seemed like every major. The British Open titles (1986, 1993) and the near misses ('86 Masters, Jack Nicklaus; '87 Masters, Larry Mize; '95 Masters, Crenshaw; '96 Masters, Nick Faldo; '99 Masters, Jose Maria Olazabal; '84 U.S. Open, Fuzzy Zoeller; '86 U.S. Open, Ray Floyd; '95 U.S. Open, Corey Pavin; '86 P.G.A. Championship, Bob Tway-and on and on and on).

Still, Norman says he doesn't believe golf owes him one more major, despite all the close calls. "I think you've just got to take advantage of the situation you're in," he said. "I think Jack's victory in '86, that was a tough one. He came back on a fast and furious back nine [shooting 30] to do what he needed to do. That goes to show you-46, 53, there's not much different in age right there."

So Norman does know how special this weekend could be, how one more claret jug might be the perfect bookend to an imperfect career. He has a tennis legend in Evert in his corner and an old caddie on his bag.

"I was available, ready, willing and able," Strickler said.

And maybe, just maybe, so is Greg Norman.

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