Norman: I can walk away with head held high

Norman: I can walk away with head held high

Norman finished at nine over par.
Robert Beck/SI

SOUTHPORT, England — Maybe it was too much to ask for anyway, the tortured history too deep, the rust and the age and the demons too much to overcome. As Greg Norman made his way to the first tee at Royal Birkdale on Sunday, even his new bride, Chris Evert, wondered what the day would bring. Sundays, after all, have always been a little dicey for Norman.

“Ready for a fun day?” Evert was asked by a reporter as they headed to the first tee.

“I don’t know if fun’s the word,” she replied before disappearing into a gallery of thousands.

Once more for Norman on a major championship Sunday, it was not fun. Instead, there were three bogeys to begin his round, another at the sixth, and three more in four holes to start the back. After three days of fairways and greens and a free-and-easy putting stroke, Norman finally looked all of his 53 years. His two-shot lead heading into the final day was gone, and so was the 137th British Open championship, won by Padraig Harrington for the second straight year.

“I’m disappointed,” said Norman, who was bidding to become the oldest major championship winner and top Julius Boros by five years. “I can walk away from here being disappointed, but I can walk away from here with my head held high because I hung in there. It wasn’t meant to be.”

This wasn’t the same as 1996, however, when Norman blew a six-shot lead in his prime to lose the Masters. This was a part-time golfer reaching back for former glory and falling short. Some may look at Norman’s final-round, seven-over-par 77, which left him six shots in back of Harrington and tied for third with Henrik Stenson, and see the same player who held seven 54-hole leads in major championships before Birkdale, cashing in only once (the 1986 British Open championship at Turnberry).

But Norman doesn’t see it that way.

“Where does it rank in [disappointments]?” he mused. “Probably not as high as some of the other ones. Quite honestly, I’m sure I surprised a lot of people. What happens if I won? Then I might have had to be out here playing more golf, and maybe that’s what I didn’t want to do anyway. That shouldn’t be any excuse.”

Norman didn’t mean it as such, but he has maintained all week that this was a cameo, not a comeback. He will play in the British Senior Open at Royal Troon starting on Thursday and in the United States Senior Open at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs starting on July 31.

“That’s it,” he said. “I don’t plan on playing any more golf after that for awhile. I don’t have anything on my schedule. I have a lot of other work to do, so I’ll wake up tomorrow and in a couple weeks’ time we’ll see how I feel.”

Norman says he did enjoy the week, even if he didn’t enjoy the last day. Australian flags were unfurled at nearly every grandstand on Sunday, and shouts of “Come on, Greggy!” and “Come on, Shark!” filled the air like old times. When Norman saved par by rolling in a 25-footer on No. 14 to stand three shots behind Harrington, he said he believed he still had a chance to win. But Harrington closed with fury, making birdie at No. 15 and eagle at No. 17 to claim a four-shot win over Ian Poulter.

Though Norman fell short at the tape, he said he believed there were lessons to be taken from his showing, especially that “people should take stock no matter how old,” he said. “You can chase a dream. Even though there’s failure at the end of it for me, I still put myself in position to really show a lot of other people that you can go do something if you really want it.”

Norman might say he’s a part-time player and that his business interests and domestic bliss outweigh his competitive yearnings, but that will be tested come next April.

When he tapped in for bogey on the 18th hole to finish tied for third, there were consequences.

The top four finishers, and ties, in the British Open receive automatic invitations to the Masters, the tournament that has broken Norman’s heart more than any other. Norman will be 54 then. Will he return to Augusta in springtime, with the azaleas and dogwoods and all of those ghosts?

“Time out, OK?” Norman said with a smile. “I’ve got a lot of water to go over the dam to get to that.”

You’ve got to believe that Norman will accept the invitation. Sharks, of course, are all about the hunt.