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On history's eve, Norman stays in the present
Greg Norman knows he can rewrite the record books if he can close out an improbable victory on Sunday. But to get there, he says, he's got to focus on the shot at hand.
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
SOUTHPORT, England - Greg Norman knows what people are saying.
What's he doing on the top of the leaderboard at the 137th Open Championship? How can a 53-year-old man who's played more tennis than golf this year be competitive against players half his age? When will the bubble burst and reality set in?
Padraig Harrington, though, knows better.
The Irishman who starts the final round at Royal Birkdale trailing the ageless Aussie by two strokes played an exhibition against Norman at Doonbeg, a Norman-designed course in Ireland, several years ago. He saw first hand that the course designer still had game. Ditto for the final round of the 2003 Open Championship at Royal St. Georges, where Norman, then 48, bested Harrington 68 to 69.
"He knocked the socks off me in Doonbeg, and you could see he wanted to play golf that day," Harrington recalled. "I've seen him at other times turn up at golf courses that he's looking at the design of the golf course and he's got other things in his mind. Like anybody else, if you're not there, it doesn't happen.
"But when he wants it, and he's as fit a 53-year-old as there is, so once he puts his mind to it, he certainly can play. He hasn't lost any of his ability. ... Royal St. Georges, the tougher the shot got, the more he enjoyed it, the more he was into it. It just goes to show it's really a question for a lot of guys later on in their career, their interests move on, their goals in life change.
"But Greg seems to be back thinking about it this week, and he's well capable of putting it together as he's shown in the first three rounds, and I don't think anybody should expect anything but good play from him tomorrow."
Norman, for his part, is trying to keep those expectations low. The closer he gets to a third Open Championship, though, the improbable one that would make him the oldest winner of any major, the more difficult it becomes.
"I've obviously got a chance tomorrow," he said. "But there's a lot of golf to be played, 18 holes to play around here. Padraig Harrington obviously played well today to get himself in the position he's in. He obviously played extremely well the last 36 holes. K.J. Choi, very impressed with him today, his demeanor, his attitude, his ball striking. ...
"I've got to go out there and play my game, and I'll answer a lot of different questions tomorrow night if I have to."
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Norman came to Royal Birkdale with his bride, Chris Evert, on an extended honeymoon, barely two weeks after their lavish island wedding. He's relaxed, rejuvenated. Even though he said Saturday's round, given the gale-force winds and unrelenting course, was one of the three hardest he'd ever played, Norman smiled easily and acknowledged the cheers of an adoring crowd.
"I'm going to keep that same mindset," he said. "Obviously I played well enough to put myself in this position. That comes from a good, safe, happy mind in a lot of ways. I'm very content in my mind, but at the same time, I have the lead now, so I'm going to go out there with the same mindset tomorrow and it's going to be tough again.
"You've got to stay focused and stay in the present of whatever you're doing. ... You really don't pay attention to anybody else out there because you've got such intensity doing what you're doing just to get yourself around the golf course under these conditions, you really don't know where you are until the end. That's probably going to be the same case tomorrow."
Prior to coming to Birkdale, Norman had only played 19 competitive rounds this year. His best finish, a tie for sixth, came in a Champions Tour major, the Senior PGA Championship. He spent four days practicing at Skibo Castle, where Madonna and Guy Ritchie wed, but his preparation was mainly for next weeks' Senior Open Championship at Royal Troon.
And then Norman stepped into his own private time machine and flipped the switch.
"I'm not surprised, even after all that time off," Rocco Mediate said. "Look what Tiger did after time off. These are special players. He's won two of these babies already, after all."
When Jack Nicklaus, the man who came from behind at Augusta National in 1986 to beat Norman and at the age of 46 become the oldest Masters champion, was at Birkdale on Friday, he was asked about the Aussie's unlikely bid. The Golden Bear said that given the opportunity, he knew Norman would know how to close.
Told later of Nicklaus' comments, an appreciative Norman understood.
"I think only the individuals who have been there before know what you do," he said. "It's like seeing shots I hit today from 120 yards with a 5-iron. The yardage was mentioned to me, but I didn't even pay attention to the yardage. I already saw the shot, I knew that was the shot I had to play to get the ball close to the hole, and I did that probably three or four, maybe five times today.
"That's how you like to be. If the conditions are tough tomorrow, I'm going to have the same mindset and just visualize the shot before I even know what a yardage is. And at the same time, I've been saying this all week long, too, you've just got to hit the ball solid. No matter what you do, hit it square, make sure the ball starts off in the right direction."
And more than likely Norman will know starting off at 9:20 a.m. ET just where his mind is, too.
"I'll be honest, I walked to the first tee nervous today," Norman said. "I hadn't felt that way probably, you know, for 10 years maybe, maybe even longer, when I walked to the first tee. So I was excited about being there. I wanted to be there.
"And I think that was the perfect indicator, again, to say to myself, okay, you know what, you're excited, you're in a position, you want to be here for a reason. Now you've got to stay with yourself and stay focused and get yourself stimulated, and I hope I walk to the first tee feeling the same way tomorrow.
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to be because it's a little different situation, and I hope I can keep it going."
Just like Harrington said.