SOUTHPORT, England — For a guy who claims he plays little and practices even less, Greg Norman defied Father Time and tough conditions at Royal Birkdale Friday to end up a shot off the lead in the Open Championship.
Norman posted a second-consecutive even-par round of 70 and trails K.J. Choi by a shot. He holds a one stroke lead in the clubhouse over Retief Goosen, Mike Weir and Camilo Villegas, who shot a 65 this morning to finish at one-over-par.
In cool, damp and gusty conditions — a beach day for this seaside resort town compared to Thursday morning’s downpours — Norman opened with a birdie on No. 1 and recovered from a groan-inducing double-bogey on the par-4 sixth with successive birdies on Nos. 7 and 8. On the back nine, Norman relied on his still potent short game, with a terrific bunker save for par on No. 16 and dropping a long par putt on the final green.
After the first round Norman said he still had low expectations for a tournament he has won twice. He repeated that mantra today, but his body language is telling a different story. His stride down the fairways is almost predatory, and he visibly winces when putts fail to fall.
For the thousands of fans following him, it’s clear that the Shark still loves the hunt.
The gallery loves it, too. The 1986 and 1993 Open champion was supposed to be a footnote here. It’s been years since he made news on the course, but he’s been generating plenty of it off the course this summer, thanks to his new wife (tennis legend Chris Evert), a costly ($103 million) divorce settlement with his former wife, and even for getting busted by local cops for talking on his phone while driving.
On the first tee on Thursday, Norman was a nostalgia act, something like watching nearby Liverpool’s favorite son Paul McCartney sing “Hey Jude” and remembering when. Even Norman considered the Open to be more of a warm-up for the British Senior Open next week at Royal Troon, which is the only Open he was supposed to contend in.
But by the time Norman reached the back nine on Friday at one-under-par, the gallery had grown so huge it was almost impossible to see his shots as fans scrambled across sand dunes for a better look. “C’mon, Greg!” was a familiar cry.
Following his round, Norman said he’s still keeping his expectations low for the weekend, but he’s enjoying his unexpected reappearance on the game’s main stage.
“Of course you feel like you’re stepping back in time,” Norman said. “My expectations were nearly nil coming in. With the wedding [Norman and Evert married last month], getting ready for the British Open was the least of my worries.”
But while he’s not ready to think seriously about a successful run at one more major, Norman said he thinks players in their late 40s and early 50s can compete in majors, if they stay physically fit.
“Your body doesn’t react to what your mind wants it to do,” Norman said of playing at age 53. He credited tennis, which he plays more than golf these days, with keeping him in better shape. When Norman contorted himself down into the bunker on 17 with the flexibility of a much younger man, playing partner Woody Austin told him, “You can thank Chris Evert for that.”
Evert, who says she “plays every shot” with her husband, followed him in the gallery Friday and enthusiastically cheered. Talking to reporters afterward, she said she was willing to let Norman be McCartney, but she wasn’t going to be Yoko.
“I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want you guys to blame me if he doesn’t play well,” Evert joked.