Norman rolls back the years at Royal Birkdale
It was July 2008 and Greg Norman felt he needed a little links golf practice to prepare for the challenge awaiting him at Royal Troon in the Senior Open.
Twice a winner of the Claret Jug, the 53-year-old former world No1 had the option, as a former Champion Golfer of the Year, of playing in The Open at Royal Birkdale the week before teeing off in Scotland – and he could think of no better way of honing his game.
To say his expectations for Birkdale were low would be an understatement. And yet by the end of the week the Australian had written another chapter into the long and storied history of the oldest and most coveted of the major championships.
For the first three days, in brutal weather conditions, Norman held the golfing world in thrall. With a commercial business to run, he hadn’t played in a major championship for three years and had barely picked up a club in the interim. But, the true champion that he was, the Great White Shark could still show the youngsters a thing or two.
A 500-1 outsider at the start of the week, Norman came within nine holes of lifting the Claret Jug, only for the golfing gods finally to settle on a back-to-back winner in Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, rather than ennobling the oldest winner in Open Championship history.
It is the wonder and the romance of The Open that ‘golden oldies’ get a chance to shine. Links golf brings its own unique challenges and those with experience to burn often do well. When the wind is up and the rain is lashing down, as it was on the first day at Birkdale, players of Norman’s ilk have the ability to surprise. Driving distances suddenly become less important than course management.
It would be fair to say that Norman had the benefit of an afternoon start on the first day, when the conditions had eased. Even so, a level par round of 70 was mightily impressive and left him just one shot off a lead that was held by Graeme McDowell and Rocco Mediate.
Some players, Harrington among them, thrive in bad weather. They do so, they say, because they expect half the field to struggle mentally. Norman, likewise, rose to the challenge with another 70 in the second round. Those who had expected him to fall away were forced to think again. He was accompanied every step of the way by his new wife – Chris Evert, the former Wimbledon tennis champion – and he revelled in the spotlight.
“This is the best Open I’ve played in,” said Norman, the Champion in 1986 and 1993. “Maybe there are young players who haven’t experienced these types of conditions before. They are learning a new aspect of the game.”
It didn’t get any easier. So strong was the wind on the third day that no one broke par and nine players had scores of 80 or more. Norman, however, was in his element. He used guile, imagination and immense skill to compile a round of 72 that gave him a barely credible two-shot lead heading into the final round, where he was paired with Harrington, the immensely popular defending Champion.
When Norman opened with three bogeys in the fourth round to Harrington’s three pars, the Australian went behind for the first time. Another dropped shot at the 6th took him two behind, before Harrington bogeyed three on the trot from the 7th to give Norman a one-shot lead at the turn. The dream was still on.
The inward half, however, belonged to Harrington, who had birdies at the 13th and 15th holes and a spectacular eagle at the par five 17th. With Norman bogeying the 10th and the 13th, his race had effectively been run. A bogey at the last was just another dagger to the heart in his round of 77. In the end, Harrington, with a 69, won by four shots over Ian Poulter, who made a late charge, and six over Norman and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson.
For the romantics, the result may have been disappointing. Norman, however, was grace personified. “I’m not as disappointed as I was in the 80s or 90s (when he was at his peak), that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s a different disappointment. When you put yourself in this position, you want to close the deal. At the same time you have to take stock of the situation.
“I don’t grind it out on the golf course any more. I don’t practice, practice, practice. I just play when I like to play and practice when I like to practice. Do I have to go and work on something? Not really, because I’m not planning on playing too much golf.”
For the record, Norman finished tied fifth the following week at Royal Troon. It was quite a fortnight.