TURNBERRY, Scotland (AP) — The shock of white hair hasn’t changed much. The swing is pretty much the same, too, though these days people no longer crowd around the tee just to see how far he can bang it down the fairway.
They come to see Greg Norman for other reasons now, not the least of which is the blonde woman who watches from outside the ropes. As theater goes, the Chris and Greg Show is almost as entertaining as Norman himself in his prime.
A year ago they interrupted their honeymoon so Norman could play a little golf in England, and magic ensued. He hit the shots. His wife, tennis great Chris Evert, led the cheers. Together they plotted the next day’s strategy.
The impossible didn’t happen, but for once it wasn’t really Norman’s fault. This wasn’t the Great White Shark throwing up a five-shot lead in the final round to lose the green jacket he was all but measured for at the Masters in 1996, or Norman shooting 76 on the last day a decade earlier to lose the PGA.
No, the years simply caught up with him on a blustery Sunday when Padraig Harrington did things a 53-year-old man couldn’t, namely shooting 32 on the back nine to win his second straight British Open championship.
The difference this time was that the fans understood. They cheered Norman and his new bride for making the effort and for rekindling some memories of what once was and what might have been.
He’ll give them another chance to cheer when he tees off Thursday in search of something even he can’t define. He’s not predicting he will beat Tiger Woods, and has no illusions about holding the claret jug when it’s all over.
He’s in a race against time, something that Evert reminds him about every time she kicks him out to practice. It’s not a race he can win, but Norman seems OK with the idea that he can at least hold it to a draw for a few more years.
“She’ll say go work out, don’t forget to practice, don’t forget to do this, because she knows what it takes to get yourself in that position,” Norman said. “And she also knows that time is our enemy and sooner or later you won’t be able to compete at this level.”
If there was a place for Norman to make a final stand, this stretch of holes on the edge of the Irish Sea would be as good as any. His memories from Turnberry are all good, carrying none of the baggage that seemed to wear him down in so many majors.
He won his first major title here in 1986, shooting a 63 in the second round amid howling winds and never looking back. Playing with persimmon woods and a balata ball he put on what is widely regarded as one of the finest exhibitions of ball striking ever – marred only by a 3-putt on the final hole when he had a birdie putt to shoot 61.
“This one, everybody still talks about it,” Norman said. “I drove the ball exceptionally well. That was one of my fortes in my heyday. So I didn’t have a problem just pulling my driver out and just playing the whole golf course aggressively.”
Norman will be hitting the driver a lot again this week, but not necessarily by choice. While the younger players may hit long irons or 3-woods, he’s not the big hitter he once was and needs the big club to get enough distance to leave him with a decent approach shot.
His best hope is that the wind blows and the Open becomes more of a test of shotmaking than power on a course that has always rewarded players who can work the ball and use different shots. He’s not allowing himself to think past the moment, but that might get him to the weekend, at the very least.
He’s playing with no expectations, a dramatic change from his prime when everyone expected him to do far more than he did. Though Norman held the No. 1 ranking for long stretches of time and has 90 wins worldwide, only two came in major championships – both at the British Open.
If he was once tormented by his failures, he seems now to have come to an uneasy truce with them. The honeymoon with Evert continues, he has his son on the bag this week, and his biggest worry is the global recession’s impact on his business empire.
He won’t know until he tees it up for real how good his golf will be.
One thing Norman does know: Life couldn’t get much better.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org