Control the key for upbeat Norman

Guy Hodgson reports from Shinnecock Hills on a revitalised Australian's quest for a first US Open golf championship
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When Greg Norman tries to put his finger on why he is a better player now, the expression "controlled aggression" tends to crop up. He is no longer, he says, the wild man of the fairways which will reassure at least one potential member of the gallery at the US Open this week.

Nine years ago, the last time the tournament was held at this course in New York state, Norman, who until then had been regarded as one of the more easy-going golfers, snapped. "You're choking" someone shouted from alongside the 14th fairway and the Australian went after his inebriated critic with the force of one of his drives. Eric Cantona it was not, but the potential was there.

"If you have something to say to me, say it after the round when I can do something about it," Norman stormed and the inference was that a cozy little chat would not have followed. It is not an episode he does not enjoy recalling - "I have nothing to say," he replied to a question referring to it yesterday - and, indeed, the whole 1986 tournament seemed to have slipped from his mind.

"I can't remember a whole lot about the entire four days," he said. "Which is strange because it's a major championship. Maybe when I get put on the course the shots will come back.''

Maybe they will not, too, because his amnesia is probably part of a defence mechanism constructed in a year which he had more reason than most to look back on with mixed feelings.

In 1986 he achieved what the Americans refer to as the "Saturday Slam" by being the third-round leader in each of the four majors. The fact that just one, the Open at Turnberry, remained within his grasp after the final day left a jagged tear on his reputation until he claimed his second Open two years ago.

Yet if Shinnecock is not a treasured memory, Norman, 40, hardly suggested yesterday that it has dented his confidence. After a win and fourth place in the previous 10 days, it was hard to imagine him being more upbeat.

"No, I wasn't surprised I won the Memorial Tournament," he said. "I was fresh after a five-week break, I was enthusiastic and, after working out, I was physically fit. The Friday before I told my wife 'I'm ready to go. I wish the tournament was starting this weekend'. I wasn't suprised at all."

Norman spent his holiday diving and fishing, a break he allows himself to compensate for playing in Australia in winter when his American opponents are normally resting, and he has returned with his game rejuvenated to a point where he rates it at seven and a half out of 10. Bearing in mind he estimates his final-round 64 to win the Open at Royal St George's two years ago as a nine, he feels in ominously good shape.

Norman and Britain's Nick Faldo are regarded as the most likely winners of this centennial US Open, an expectation he enjoys. "I'd rather be a favourite than be a forgotten horse somewhere in the back," he said. "It's not a handicap because I always put that type of pressure on myself anyway. Finishing second, third or 20th doesn't make much difference to me, I'm going for the win.

"I have been on the top of my game going into tournaments before and it doesn't always come off for you. You've got to try and stay patient and keep your game controlled. I really don't foresee things just falling apart and disappearing.''

Control again. He returned to the theme when he was asked whether he is a better player now than nine years ago. "Yes, I think I am, he replied. "Now I'm in my forties I feel I have gone a little higher up the ladder. I'm not as wildly aggressive as I was in my twenties and thirties. My whole thought pattern on the course is better now, I'm more in control. I really don't attack a lot of putts like I used to and leave four and five footers coming back.''

The crowd, if not the US Open trophy, will be safe from his clutches this week.