SOUTHPORT, England — The putter blade rose at 6:20 p.m. local time, casting a tiny shadow along the yellowed earth of Royal Birkdale’s 14th green. As the wind howled and the heather danced and a nearby sea tossed and turned, Greg Norman struck a pose with that putter, and when the ball went in all of Birkdale shook.
Chris Evert, Norman’s new bride, followed in the cold. Nick Faldo, Norman’s old rival, walked out of the clubhouse for a glimpse.
“How come he still has that putting stroke at 53?” Faldo asked. “Where’s the fairness in life?”
If Norman in contention after the first round of the 137th British Open made for a nice little story, and his being contention after two rounds made for a better little story, what does his two-shot lead over Padraig Harrington and K.J. Choi going into the final round signify?
Norman could be on the verge of turning the sports world upside down and righting a dozen wrongs from his career. A Norman win would arguably top Tiger Woods’s U.S. Open triumph from a month ago, and it might even surpass Jack Nicklaus’s 1986 Masters triumph at age 46. Nicklaus hadn’t won a major in six years when he shot 30 in the gloaming on the back nine at Augusta National and won his 18th professional major title. Norman, seven years older than Nicklaus was then, hasn’t won a major in 15 years.
Norman, the once and perhaps future king of golf, is doing the time warp.
“I walked to the first tee nervous today,” said Norman, who shot two-over 72 to stand at two-over 212, two shots ahead of K.J. Choi and Padraig Harrington. “I hadn’t felt that way for 10 years.”
It was 12 years ago when Norman frittered away a six-shot lead on the final day of the Masters, the biggest blemish of his star-crossed career. He never led a major after 54 holes again — until now. After three rounds of brutally difficult golf, including a Saturday when no one broke par and winds kicked up to 48 miles per hour, Norman sits in position again, either to win his third major (and third claret jug) or break more hearts.
“My routine is not going to change,” said Norman, who has downplayed his chances all week but now acknowledges he has a chance to win. “I’ll have a good night’s sleep tonight, believe me. My routine is not going to change at all.”
Can he hold onto his lead? Can he become the oldest winner of a major, topping Julius Boros, who at 48 won the 1968 PGA Championship?
“I can’t answer that question now,” he said. “We’ll find out tomorrow.”
Norman, who trailed Choi by a shot going into the third round, pulled his opening tee shot into the fescue left and made bogey, but almost everybody else was struggling, too. David Duval made triple bogey on the first hole and shot 83. Camilo Villegas shot 79, Rocco Mediate 76, and Choi 75.
Evert said of Norman: “I could tell this morning he was a little nervous, but he embraced the pressure instead of shying away from it. I hope he can do that tomorrow.”
Norman has credited Evert with helping to bring balance to his life. Earlier in the week, he said his “being” was “beautiful,” and his golf has mirrored that peace of mind. Facing cold crosswinds and players half his age, Norman has been able to carve shots like he did in British Open victories at Turnberry in 1986 and Royal St. George’s in 1993.
A 5-iron from 120 yards. A 7-iron from 104 yards. Low punches that clung to the dunes line and below the wind.
“He’s not strained like he used to be,” said Evert, a winner of 18 tennis grand slam events who was known for her stamina and steady calm. “I’d like to ask him how he feels, but what worked for me might not work for him. We’re different people and I don’t want to impose.”
Through three rounds, whatever Norman is thinking about is working, even as the hospitality tents have rattled and swayed. Few sounds could match the roars heard around the 14th green, where Norman rolled in that 10-foot birdie putt to tie Choi for the lead. When Choi needed three putts from off the 15th green, Norman had the lead to himself.
Norman made sturdy pars on 15 and 16 and reached the par-5 17th hole in two, his approach shot nearly reaching the correct level of the green before trickling down a swale to a lower shelf.
From 30 feet, Norman left his eagle putt a couple of turns short. He tapped in for a birdie 4 and a two-shot lead over Choi and Harrington.
On the 18th hole, Norman’s tee shot settled nicely into the first cut of rough to the left of the fairway, but he pushed his approach short and right of the green. Norman scrambled out of trouble, hitting a deft chip over a bunker that almost rolled in. He tapped in for an easy par and the pole position in the final round, where he will be paired with Harrington, the defending champion.
Can Norman hold up?
“We all know where he was the last time he had a lead going into a major,” said Faldo, who was in that final group at Augusta, shooting 67 and winning the Masters while Norman shot 78. “This would be massive. It’d be phenomenal.”
Asked if Norman’s close calls in the past might help him Sunday, Faldo said, “Mistakes — that’s how everybody learns in life.”
If Norman were to win his third claret jug, that blown lead in the 1996 Masters would no longer be the first line on the resume. Norman would be looked at differently by history, by the fans and, probably, even by himself.