This year’s British Open wasn’t so much a walk in a blustery park as a stroll down memory lane. And we can thank Greg Norman for the memories.
This Open championship might as well have been played 15 or 20 years ago, when Norman enjoyed his greatest prowess as a golfer. Whenever a major championship rolled around, the Great White Shark could be found circling.
And, ultimately losing.
Almost always. He did win two majors-Open championships at Turnberry in 1986 and at Royal St. George’s in 1993.
The rest ended in defeat. Usually, devastating defeat.
Norman didn’t just lose majors; he’d be vanquished in spectacular fashion. No one else in the history of the free world has managed to lose all four majors in playoffs.
Norman even took playoff losses to excruciating depths. He stood by as Bob Tway chipped in from a greenside bunker to win the 1986 PGA championship. Bob Tway, for gosh sakes. His only major title.
The next spring, he stood hopelessly by the 11th green as Larry Mize made that incredible chip to win the Masters. Larry Mize, for gosh sakes. His only major title.
The year before that, he actually had a chance to ruin Jack Nicklaus’ storybook finish at the ‘86 Masters. This time he did it to himself, blocking a 4-iron way right, behind the patrons’ seating. Another agonizing loss ensued.
And who could forget his ultimate loss, to Nick Faldo at the ‘96 Masters? This became perhaps the single most hideous collapse in the recorded annals of golf history.
But through it all, bearing every single defeat, Norman remained a good sport, always praising the winner, thoughtfully analyzing is own shortcomings and never hiding from the press.
We hadn’t seen much of Norman over the past decade. There was the occasional Presidential misstep at his palatial Florida residence, a divorce, and recent marriage to Chris Evert. But not much in the way of golf.
That’s why the Open results were such a shock. There he was, tied for third at level par, only one stroke off the pace. Not bad for anyone, let alone a 53-year-old part-time player.
Especially considering the conditions, which included wind, and rain blowing sideways. The players didn’t hold their umbrellas over their heads; that afforded no protection. They held them at their sides, against the wind. Summer remains just a rumor beside the Irish Sea.
“I would be surprised if he kept this up, considering how much he plays golf,” Evert told Larry Dorman of the New York Times. “He had no expectations today. He was relaxed, just played golf, and played great.”
He played just as well Friday, shooting another 70, remaining one stroke behind. “Of course you feel like you’re stepping back in time,” he told Dorman. “My expectations were almost nil coming in, to tell you the truth. I hadn’t played a lot of golf. Well, I am playing well, I am doing it, but I haven’t been there in a long time.”
Norman slipped to a 72 on Saturday, but in the fiercest wind of the tournament, that was good enough for a two-stroke lead. “I’d put it in the top three hardest rounds I’ve ever played under the circumstances,” he told Dorman. “It was just brutal.”
Funny. Brutal’s the exact word to describe Norman’s round on Sunday. He teed off for the final round of a major with the lead for the eighth time in his life. He’s now lost for the seventh time.
You knew exactly what was coming, but you couldn’t look away. The lure of déjà vu proved overwhelming. He found a pot bunker on the first hole. Bogey. Missed the green on the second. Bogey. Drove into the rough on the third. Bogey. He also bogeyed the sixth for good measure.
Given the lead thanks to Norman’s largesse, defending champion Padraig Harrington played the gracious opponent. He bogeyed 7, 8 and 9.
So there stood Norman on the 10th tee, holding a one-shot lead. Would that the scene had faded to black right there. But that wouldn’t have been Norman. He had to make it tortuous. And he came through, with four more bogeys to finish six shots behind Harrington, slipping into a tie for third place.
“I’m not as disappointed as I was in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, that’s for sure,” he told Gene Wojciechowski of espn.com. “It’s a different disappointment. Of course, when you put yourself in a position, you’ve got the lead, of course you want to close the deal, there’s no question about it. But at the same time, you’ve got to take a little stock in the situation, and again, reality.”
His gallant effort drew praise from the champion. “As myself and my caddy were discussing, gee whiz, you’d be happy to drive the ball like him at any stage of your career, let alone at 53 years of age,” Harrington remarked at the presentation ceremony.
“His driving, his putting, everything about his game is excellent. And it just shows that any of these great champions, when they show a bit of interest, when they have a little bit of spark back, they can really play the game.”
Just like back in the day.