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Greg Norman, with caddie Linn Strickler, flashed his vintage form Thursday afternoon at Royal Birkdale. (Redington/Getty Images)

Norman keeping expectations low after stellar start

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For all his major heartbreaks in America, Greg Norman has often thrived in the Open. He was at his shotmaking best again Thursday, and sits right off the lead.

By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent

SOUTHPORT, England - His mind still wants to play. His body just doesn't want to practice.

He says it's had enough. Enough surgeries. Enough six-hour practice sessions. Enough grinding. Enough.

Yet when you put Greg Norman on an Open Championship course like Royal Birkdale, when nature cranks up the wind and sprinkles in some rain, when you give him time to settle in and find a comfort zone - well, magical things happen.

Like an opening even-par 70 that jolted a wind-whipped Thursday leader board and left him tied with Australian protege Adam Scott one shot off the first-round lead.

You can't really be that surprised, can you? Norman's done this before. A few times, actually.

Just not at age 53.

"I've got to keep my expectations realistically low, to be honest with you,"
said Norman, who tied for 18th at both the 2002 and 2003 Open Championships and was sixth in 1999 at Carnoustie. "I haven't played a lot of golf.

"Even though (ABC/TNT commentator) Judy Rankin and I talked about it going down 13, it's just like riding a bike. But even riding a bike sometimes after a long time you're a little wobbly. I've just got to manage the process the best I can."

On one of the toughest days ever at an Open Championship, Norman made a strong case for 53 being the new 33. For a day, at least.

The man who tied for sixth at the Senior PGA Championship in May, the man who had barely picked up a club until he and new wife Chris Evert retreated to Skibo Castle after their honeymoon for four days of quiet practice, took what the course gave him. He let his experience guide him and played it safe, taking a thought process from his Skibo sessions and applying it here.

"When I went out on the golf course it stayed with me and felt great, felt very natural for me,"said Norman, who had eight one-putt greens. "These conditions are very, very trying, and all I'm trying to do is put the clubface square on the ball. I'm not really trying to maneuver the ball that much. I'm trying to put the ball on certain parts of the greens, take what I've got, whether it's a 20-footer, or if I hit it close, great."

When he won his two Open Championships in 1986 and 1993 - and came ohsoclose so many other places, especially Augusta - he would put the ball in position, working off an apex or the middle of the green to the flag. But that requires practice and time he doesn't have. Not with all his business ventures. Not with the family. Not with his newest sport -
tennis -
where he definitely can't keep up with his wife.

But Norman is a shotmaker. He sees a bump-and-run into a green, he takes it. He doesn't try to force a wedge. It's a feel thing, a touch that he's found playing Opens for more than a quarter of a century. It's the least wobbly part of getting back on that bike.

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Perhaps that's one reason he's so relaxed, so comfortable this week. Another reason? His new life with Evert and her boys and his children.

"He's just playing so relaxed," Evert said.

The two of them watched a bit of the morning rounds and Evert said it would be a day for a lot of patience. She also called the weather, which improved dramatically.

"We did get the better side of the draw, no doubt about it," Norman said. "But at the same time, when you watch it in the morning you feel sorry for the guys, but there's times when you say, 'Well, I've been there before. I've been on that side of the draw, too.' You've got to take it, it all balances out, and you have to take advantage of it."

Norman did. The greens weren't too fast, something that played into his hands and his lack of competition.

"Under these conditions, you feel like you can give the ball a little more of a hit with your putter,"
he said, "which is a good feeling when you haven't had a lot of tournament play under your belt."

Birkdale brought out the best in Norman as well as five-time Open champ Tom Watson and 1998 champ Mark O'Meara, both of whom shot 74s. At 53, 58 and 51, respectively, they're the oldest players in the field. There's nothing coincidental about it.

"I that I think this is the best British Open I've ever played in, and I think the golf course has been set up by the R&A about the fairest and toughest I've ever seen,"
Norman said. "It doesn't really favor one particular player or style of player. It favors every style of player.
That's why it gives an opportunity for somebody like myself to get out there and play and put a good score on the board."

At times, he looked like the Great White Shark in his prime. The swagger. The snap at the end of his swing. The putts. The galleries.

The smile flashing across his face.

"The atmosphere here, the excitement, it changes,"
he said. "Like coming down 18 after five and a half hours of golf, the way people receive you, you don't get that anywhere else in the world. It's a phenomenal experience. It gives you a little more juice than what you normally would have."

But Norman is realistic. He's not entertaining thoughts of a third Open Championship. Not yet anyway. But he was savoring yet another moment on the world stage at a championship he loves.

"Today he was one of the best in the world,"
Evert said with a soft smile.

But tomorrow? Augusta National taught Norman how quickly things can change in this game; how cruel it can be. So when someone mentioned it would be absurd to think about another Claret Jug, Norman nodded.

"I'm not even going to put my head in that position,"
he said. "Tomorrow is another day.

"I want to make sure that first tee shot gets off the tee the right way. I mean, it's the toughest opening hole tee shot I've ever experienced knowing what lurks right there, so you just approach it that way. That's the way I approached my golf before. No matter what situation that I was in, I just approached it one shot at a time."

And never more than now.

Tomorrow, he'll likely get the worst of conditions - the same cold rain and driving winds that terrorized the morning wave Thursday. It will test that patience, that comfort zone and his seemingly not-ready-for-prime-time game.

Then again, you never know. Back in 1986, Jack Nicklaus made 46 look like the new 26.

"If I give myself a chance at the end of the tournament, either nine holes or six holes or the last 18 holes I feel pretty good about my chances, then you start to think about it," he said. "But you don't sit here on Thursday afternoon at 6:30 or 7:00 at night and think, 'Okay, Sunday is around the corner and I'm there.'"

Instead, you walk through the door to face the harsh lights of few more television cameras and another round of questions.

And at the end of the day? You smile and savor yet another moment in a Hall of Fame career. You think about what's important and pause to remember how much you believe in yourself, your family and your game.

And as you fall asleep, you hope like hell you have a few more moments like Thursday afternoon left in you.

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