— SOUTHPORT, England -
A reminder of athletic glory from another era, Chris Evert, was outside the ropes. But that wasn’t all Greg Norman brought with him to Thursday’s opening round of the 137th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
No, sir. Norman provided a little bit of yesteryear’s dazzle inside the ropes, too, shooting an even-par 70 to sit in a tie for fourth after one round.
Oh, he may be 10 years removed from his last victory of any note and 15 years separated from the second of his Claret Jugs that put a splendid frame around his career, but Norman at 53 still has a presence — a duende, if you will — that is hard to put into words. So you simply must watch, and when the viewing is as splendid as it was on a demanding day for golf — what with whipping wind and pelting rain — it reminds you that hard as it is to believe, there was indeed a time before Tiger Woods when giants commanded our attention.
Great White Sharks, even.
That is the nickname that helped launched a clothing line, one of the many profitable ventures that dominated Norman’s interests and hastened his exit from full-time PGA Tour duties many years ago. Wine, turf, real estate, golf course architecture, airplanes, helicopters, yachts ... all of that pulled him away from golf, too, in such a manner that by the time he was 40 years old, Norman couldn’t have been considered a full-time golfer.
Not that anyone could have ever blamed him, of course. After all, there were all those millions of dollars.
He was a Renaissance Man, of sorts, an interested observer/investor/creator of all things under the sun — or so it seemed. But if you wanted him for only his golf, you always felt a bit cheated. He was good, yes, but he should have been better. He won a lot, yes, but he should have won more. He provided thrills, for sure, but damned if he didn’t script a bunch of heartache.
To a generation of golf fans who think Woods is the only one who can tickle the fabled Grand Slam, take note some day of Norman’s 1986 season and don’t laugh when it is suggested he was agonizingly close to winning all four majors that incredible season. How many green jackets should be hanging in his closet? One? Two? If you said three or four, no one who was part of his era would argue with you.
How did he not win the U.S. Open in 1984? The same way he didn’t win a number of other major championships.
But here was the true glory of Norman: He invented resiliency. OK, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he only refined it, but for sure he lived it. Never did he run from the questions or try to duck the realities of so many final scores that didn’t go his way. Though he stands just 6 feet tall, Norman always appeared to be much larger in real life, his power dominating, his aura remarkable.
That is what was so cool about a brutally difficult first round to this 137th British Open, because no matter that Norman has a dozen reasons why he shouldn’t be that competitive on the golf course, there’s one that keeps your eyes glued to him.
“The man can still play,” said Tony Navarro.
Navarro has caddied for more years than he’d care to remember — for the game’s best players, too — and he was on the bag for one of Norman’s British Open triumphs, not to mention more than a dozen other titles worldwide. But Navarro wasn’t able to see too much of Norman’s two-birdie, two-bogey round that got him within a stroke of the lead. That’s because Navarro caddies for Norman’s protégé, Adam Scott, and they were two groups behind the 53-year-old, also shooting 70, by the way.
What Navarro would have seen was a guy whose sense of the game appears to be fully intact, whose ball-striking, while not overpowering, is still pretty darn good, and whose putting stroke appeared capable, if not dazzling. But most of all, Navarro would have seen what thousands of diehard golf fans saw, even through the rain and wind — the man can still push the passion to the surface on occasion.
No, it’s not there for most weeks, but this is not most weeks.
“There’s something about this event that stimulates you,” said Norman.
He first made an appearance in this championship as a 22-year-old, though at Turnberry that summer of 1977 he was a footnote in a heavyweight match in which Tom Watson won a duel in the sun with Jack Nicklaus. What that championship did, however, was ignite in the Aussie a burning love affair with this links golf. When the British Open returned to Turnberry in 1986, Norman authored one of the great rounds in major golf history — a second-round 63 that fueled his stirring five-stroke win.
As he walked amid the dunes of Birkdale and navigated treacherous winds and a biting cold, it was easy for today’s golf fans to wonder how he was surviving such conditions. Just maybe the answer is, he knows how, but even Norman would laugh. He’s aware of this truism: people today too often forget that the game wasn’t invented in 1996 when Woods turned pro and great golfers didn’t coincide with the arrival of courtesy cars.
“When somebody says, ‘What’s the toughest conditions you’ve ever played in?’ and I say, ‘Turnberry, 1986,’ I know some of these kids might not have been born in 1986. That’s an exaggeration, but when you relate back to that, you’ve got a lot of experience under your belt.”
Which is why Norman couldn't have cared less about the moans and groans of golfers who had been beaten up earlier in the day, their scores of 82 and 83 proof positive that the game isn’t fair, that officials are out to get them, that it’s getting more difficult by the week to play golf for millions of dollars. Norman wouldn’t have paid attention, because he knows better than a hundred of these whining golfers put together that the game, like life, isn’t supposed to be fair and that learning to deal with the heartache is a big part to it all.
Sure, he had great practice at it.
The fact that he mastered it is what makes him the legend he is.