GOLF / 123rd Open: Norman ready to show teeth in his defence: Champion has bite to match his golf while Montgomerie is happy playing in his own pool

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The Independent Online
CONSIDERING that not so long ago Greg Norman's courage under fire was so suspect that his nickname had been neatly transformed into the 'Great White Flag', it is a near miracle that he will tee off as firm favourite here in tomorrow's Open Championship.

But whereas the Australian used to have the image of the man most likely to poke his nose above the trenches and decide to leave the heroic stuff to others, he has now earned golf's equivalent of the Purple Heart. To win the Open last year, when most of the world's great golfers were poised on his shoulder waiting for a slip, was Boys Own material. The shark is perceived to have teeth again.

'It was the finest round of my career,' he said yesterday after applying the upper coats in preparation for his defence. 'To beat everyone else when the top six or seven players in the world were playing at the top level for four days made it special. The fact it was Sunday in the British Open more so.'

Norman, who previously had blown more promising opportunities to win major championships than any current player, hit a seven-under-par 64 that day and as he rates that above the Open record-equalling 63 he shot at Turnberry en route to his only other major victory, in 1986, quantifies the valuation. That earlier round also partly explains why expectations are so high this week.

On the horses for courses basis, Turnberry could hardly suit Norman better. He won by five strokes eight years ago even though he was hardly favoured by the weather and he could not have been more enthusiastic over being back. 'This is the best condition I've ever seen an Open course to be in,' he said. 'Fantastic. The greens are receptive to shots and the fairways are 20 feet wider. If the weather stays docile - overcast and a little rainy - the possibility is there that someone will shoot another 63.'

Since his win at Royal St George's, Norman has overtaken Nick Faldo in the world rankings and won the Players' Championship. He has also spent a long time contemplating his achievement as the Open trophy has pride of place in his home. 'There's no better feeling than sitting on your desk and looking at the claret jug,' he said. 'It sits there and does not move. I'm one of 150 players who want the opportunity of doing that.'

Norman will be partnered by Ian Woosnam and Mark Calcavecchia when he launches his defence tomorrow, and as Faldo and Ernie Els, the newly crowned US Open champion, are in the group ahead, there are no prizes for guessing where the Ailsa Course will be most congested.

Which suits the man carrying home hopes nicely. Colin Montgomerie, who lost out to Els in the US Open play-off at Oakmont, wanted to be low profile at the start and he got his wish, if the highly vocal well-wishers of most of the Scottish gallery can be described as such.

'I wanted to keep away from Greg Norman, John Daly and Nick Faldo for the first couple of rounds,' he said, 'because I like a quiet start without the pressure of big crowds.' Whether his partners, Gordon Brand Jnr and Chip Beck, appreciate the backhanded insult remains to be seen.

They start early tomorrow morning, which also meets with Montgomerie's approval. 'I went out at 7.30 today and there was not a breath of wind so an early draw is good for me,' he said. 'You have a chance to make a good start because the last thing you want is to have to play catch-up golf.'

Jose-Maria Olazabal, another early bird with an 8.20am tee-off, was more concerned with the draw from his tee shot than the draw in the field. He took seven drivers with him on his practice round yesterday and seemed none the wiser which he would use in anger.

'The driver is the weakest club in the bag,' he said while explaining that he jettisoned the metal variety that took him to a US Masters victory in April a month ago. 'I'll practice with them again and maybe select a few of them. I don't know how many I'll have in the bag tomorrow.'

The man with the earliest opportunity, however, is Gary Emerson, the 30-year-old professional from Salisbury and South Wilts, who will get the 123rd Open under way by striking the first ball at 7.15. 'It's probably just as well,' he said. 'I don't think I'd be able to sleep anyway.'

Tee-off times, page 31

(Photograph omitted)

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