PITTSBURGH (AP) – Back when Greg Norman was the top-ranked golfer in the world, he'd practice by playing a transposed, almost-torturous version of “best ball.''
“I'd play two golf balls, and you always had to hit the worst shot,'' Norman said Wednesday after a playing in the pro-am for the Senior Players Championship. “So if you hit a great drive, you had to hit the next drive great, too.''
That was when Norman's golf game was a priority in his life. Nowadays, with a burgeoning portfolio of business interests, the 57-year-old isn't nearly as maniacal about his swing.
“The best score I remember playing ('worst ball') was 72. So, it really makes you concentrate,'' Norman said in his familiar Australian accent.
“Now … I'm not worried about that anymore.''
Secure with his legacy and a realist enough to know his best golf is behind him, Norman plays tournaments sparingly these days. He will make his first start on the Champions Tour in almost three years Thursday at the Fox Chapel Golf Club.
The two-time British Open winner will be making only his 12th Champions Tour start over more than seven years of eligibility at what is the third of five majors this season. He hasn't played on the tour since Pebble Beach in September 2009.
“I don't think your competitive juices ever go away,'' Norman said. “Do I have the passion to play? I enjoy playing. I don't enjoy practicing. There's a big difference now. When I go out to play, I don't go out to try and shoot 65 because everybody expects you to shoot 65, even in a practice round or playing with your friends. When I go out to play now, I just go out to play, to have fun and not to worry about my score.
“Preparing for a golf tournament, you have to practice for a score, you have to push yourself, you have to train yourself to focus.''
For a Wednesday practice round at a Champions Tour event, a larger-than-expected gallery followed him around the 93-year-old course.
This despite – or, perhaps, because of – the fact he rarely plays in the U.S. anymore. This year, Norman made two early-season starts on the PGA Tour, and one of those was in Cancun, Mexico. Norman has plans to play only two more tournaments this year (the Senior British Open and the European Masters).
He said he was drawn to the Senior Players not so much by the $2.7 million purse, but by his ties to Pittsburgh. Norman has become friends with Dr. Jim Bradley, the Pittsburgh Steelers team physician who has performed two surgeries on him.
Norman also has helped assist in biomechanical research on the golf swing at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
As recently as 2008, Norman was the leader heading into the final round of the British Open. Still, his age and lack of dedication to practice time would seem to make contention this weekend unlikely. Less than 10 percent of winners in the 32-year history of the Champions Tour have been as old as Norman is now.
“I don't have a target score in mind,'' Norman said. “Whatever game I brought here is the game I've got.''
Norman played Fox Chapel for the first time Wednesday in the pro-am. Many of the pros came away gushing about the “unique'' old-style 1919 Seth Raynor-designed course.
“The course is in the best shape possible,'' said Mark Calcavecchia, who won the tour event last weekend in Montreal. “I won't say ever. But it's close to being the best ever. It's just perfect.''
The tournament has its fourth different home in as many years and has been staged at five courses since a 16-year run at TPC Michigan in Dearborn ended in 2006.
“I hope they keep it here forever,'' Tom Watson said. “It's a wonderful golf course. I am so impressed with it here at Fox Chapel.
“(Corey Pavin) made the comment, and I agreed with him 100 percent, he said `When I finished the 18th hole, I wanted to go start playing again.' That's the true measure of a great golf course.''
Watson is making his first start since he withdrew from a tournament in April due to a wrist injury.
Defending champion Fred Couples plays in the third group to tee off Thursday along with Calcavecchia and Jay Haas. Norman, Watson and Tom Lehman are in the following group.
The only two-time winner on the tour this year, Michael Allen, tees off with the sixth group. He retook the series points lead by tying for fifth in Montreal.