Golf: Norman's Open in doubt over back problem

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A strong case can be argued for Nick Faldo, or even Gordon Sherry, winning the 124th Open Championship, the 25th to be played over the Old Course, purely on the grounds that they are not hors de combat. Yesterday Greg Norman, who was also considered to have an outstanding chance, revealed that he was in so much discomfort he might not play.

Norman said he was "overgolfed". Not this week, he isn't. The Australian did not have a practice round yesterday or the day before because of a bad back, and has been reduced to walking the course instead of playing it. Mark "a round of golf is a good walk ruined" Twain would have sympathised.

The other day Tiger Woods was waxing lyrical about the improved physical state of the modern golfer. "Just look at Greg," the willowy Woods said. "He's 40 and in great shape." No he isn't. "The game of golf is not conducive to natural movement," Norman said. "The swing is a very unnatural motion, and I have had this sore back since the US Open in 1991 when I started my serious work-out programme. Every player has aches and pains in the back, neck and shoulders."

Everybody knows golf is a pain in the neck, but unless you get hit by a ball or an albatross it is hardly life-threatening. Norman thinks differently. "You won't see a top athlete give a half-hearted effort," he said. "You guys don't have any idea how hard it is. We are not machines."

Norman, beginning to sound like the principal character in The Prisoner, added: "We are human beings. You cannot comprehend what it takes to sustain that level of consistent play. I am happy and fortunate to be able to do that."

What a lot of people cannot comprehend is the enormous amount of money players like Norman make in a week, let alone a year. "I have played too much golf in the last seven weeks," he said. "As to my back, only time will tell." Norman had last week off and the week before that he played in the Murphy's Irish Open at Mount Juliet. He did not have to play in Ireland, but an appearance fee of $350,000 [pounds 225,000] might have influenced his decision.

Norman flew to Waterford from his home in Florida, and when he alighted from his private jet he "stretched a little" and felt a twinge. The weight of such a large cheque is enough to put anybody's back out. Yesterday Norman was having a massage and heat and ice treatment so at least, if he lasts that long, he should be acclimatised for a Scottish weekend.

Norman is due off at 8.45 in the first round this morning with Sherry and Tom Watson and will hit a few practice shots first. "He will be able to tell us very quickly whether he can play or not," Michael Bonallack, secretary of the Royal and Ancient, said. "He will not play if there is any doubt."

Watson has won the Open five times on virtually every links except St Andrews, and is one claret jug short of Harry Vardon's record. The odd thing about Vardon is that he, too, failed to win at the home of golf. Watson's Achilles' heel has been an obvious vulnerability on the greens. In Bernhard Langer's view, if the wind does not blow and alter the nature of the Old Course, the Open will come down to a putting competition, but then that is often the case.

St Andrews looks surpr-isingly green, certainly greener than other links courses which at this time of the year generally have the appearance of Wimbledon's Centre Court on day 13, and the fact that the greens are slow is something Watson will appreciate. Bonallack actually took the trouble to deny they had dyed the grass.

In a practice round earlier in the week, Watson and Arnold Palmer took pounds 10 off Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd. "We beat the young guys," Watson said. "Arnold and I have an average age of 55, Nicklaus and Floyd 53 and a half." Yesterday Watson and Nicklaus played with the 21-year-old Sherry, and he upstaged them with a hole in one at the eighth.

"I have videos of Jack Nicklaus at home, so to meet him was fine," Sherry, who studies biochemistry at Stirling University, said. Fine? "I don't know what is happening at the moment," the Amateur cham-pion said. "When I have time to reflect, it will sink in."

Sherry thought that Colin Montgomerie and Sam Torr-ance would go close, but he did not entirely rule out his own chances. "I hit it as well as anyone," he said, "and I'm getting stronger mentally. I must go for it." At 500-1, he said he might wager a quid on himself, perhaps the same pound he took off Tiger Woods last week for finishing ahead of the American Amateur champion.

Considerable sums of money have been laid on Curtis Strange, the record holder here, and Davis Love, second in the Masters and fourth in the US Open. However, Sporting Index, the spread-betting specialists, say they have taken a "bundle" on Faldo. When he won over the Old Course five years ago, he shot a record aggregate of 270. When Nicklaus won here in 1970 it was 283, and in 1978 the Golden Bear's total was 281. In 1984, Seve Balles-teros triumphed with 276.

Faldo, runner-up in the Scottish Open, said: "In 1990 I had a chance on every putt inside 20 feet and I holed a lot of them. That was the key. Also my irons always seemed to be just right. I feel my game is in good shape right now. It is where I want it to be." If the man who has spent more time fine tuning than the Royal Philharmonic thinks his game is spot on, the bookmakers should brace themselves.

"I would like to achieve more," the 38-year-old Faldo, who has won three Opens and two Masters, said. "I just wanted to play golf and be my own boss. I wanted an outdoors job and I found it." It was, of course, the sight of Nicklaus on television playing Augusta National that inspired the 13-year-old Faldo to take up golf. It was just as well that he wasn't watching a programme on window cleaning.