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Norman conquest lights up Birkdale

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Rob Hodgetts | 14:29 UK time, Friday, 18 July 2008

James Blunt wrote a song about being back in a nightclub in 1973. Well, Greg Norman is dancing to a tune that takes us back to 1993.

Or 1986, the years of his two Open triumphs.

It's doubtful whether there were many people in the world who thought the 53-year-old Australian would be leading the Open after his second round at Royal Birkdale.

Least of all Norman himself. "I had no expectation whatsoever," he said.

The fact is, Norman just doesn't play that much these days. He's more of a businessman, spends more time on the tennis court than the golf course and has had his mind on other things in preparation for his recent marriage to tennis legend Chris Evert. He last played in the Open in 2005.

But after something clicked in practice at Skibo Castle last week, the Great White Shark's second straight 70 in friendly conditions on Friday morning kept up his push to become the oldest ever Open champion.

Walking the back nine with Norman, I spotted all the familiar old traits. The fast, powerful swing. The broad, strong-looking shoulders. The blonde mane flowing from beneath his cap. The steely, ice-blue eyes. The confident but casual strut that wouldn't look out of place in a cowboy film. The touch of the hat and the wide-mouthed silent "thank you" to acknowledge applause.

Up close, the sideburns looked greying. And when he doffed his cap there was the suggestion of some thinning on top. His beige slacks poking out from beneath his blue waterproofs also made it look like he was sporting those fireman trousers with the reflective strip around the bottom.

Greg Norman salutes the crowds at Royal Birkdale

And in caddie Linn Strickler, 58, Ben Crenshaw's former bagman and a real old-timer in the profession, Norman seemed to have unearthed another relic from a bygone age.

But, for these two days at least, Norman's golf game has been the same as it ever was. And so has the crowd's affection for him.

Spontaneous outbursts of "C'mon Greg" rang out and there was plenty of whistling and even some whooping (though that could have been directed at Evert, somewhere in the gallery).

I was going to mingle among the crowd to get a flavour of the atmosphere, but in the end the numbers streaming after Norman forced me to pull rank and don the golden armband to walk inside the ropes. (We don't do it to show off, it's the only way to see each shot and get a good feeling for nuances of mood and expressions.)

His group - with Robert Karlsson and Woody Austin - attracted arguably the biggest press following of the week so far, perhaps with the exception of Sergio Garcia. And the phalanx of photographers were only interested in one of the trio.

It reached the point where you almost needed a second VIP armband to see through the media masses, not unlike a round with Tiger Woods, though with much less security.

When Norman made a putt, the crowd roared and the trademark teeth shone out from beneath his cap. The only thing brighter at Birkdale was Austin's Hawaiian shirt.

The old competitive juices were clearly flowing, and whether or not he was trying was not in question. He missed a makeable birdie on the short 14th and retreated to the edge of the green to mark his card, shaking and nodding his head as he took part in some secret inner dialogue.

On the next fairway, the old man briefly clutched his right knee, and we feared the body was letting him down, but that was the last we saw of it.

Those piercing eyes bore down on someone rustling in the crowd around the 15th green, a stare that would have given Paddington Bear a run for his money. And you couldn't help thinking that if any argy-bargy broke out, the fit-looking Norman would more than hold is own.

The first wobble came with a second shot dragged into a left greenside bunker on 16, giving him an awkward stance.

"You want to thank Chris Evert for the way you were able to stretch out in there," the colourful Austin said to him.

But in complete silence broken only by the fluttering of the flag, Norman splashed out to eight feet and drained the putt to more cheers, before blowing out his cheeks in relief.

On the long downwind 17th, a good birdie chance, Norman's wheels finally seemed to have fallen off. He drove into thick rough and was lucky to bunt his second shot out. "Stop, sit down," cried even the hardened hacks as the ball scampered into the rough on the opposite side of the fairway.

From there he spooned his third shot short and then pitched into a bunker before holing a nerve-jangling six-footer for bogey.

Norman still led by one going down the last and even before he reached the grandstand lining the green the raucous clapping, cheering and whistling started.

He removed his cap to acknowledge the fans, and if you didn't know any better you'd have thought he was walking towards the green in the final round with the title secured.

But Norman had saved one blast from the past for the end. Many British golf fans remember him for folding to Nick Faldo in the 1996 Masters when leading the Englishman by six going into the final round.

So, when he lamped his first 30ft putt about 18 feet past the hole, we thought he'd finally cracked and demonstrated the fragility he was sometimes accused of.

"What's he doing? The idiot," muttered the pressmen.Norman admitted afterwards the adrenaline and the emotion of the reception walking up 18 got to him.

But he had the last laugh and drained the one coming back to save par and retain his lead.

The massive final roar completed the fairytale and the grin was brighter than ever. What gnashers. What a story.



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