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Golf: Open 99: Hard cases can crack Carnoustie

SOMETHING ON which a number of notable past golfers are in agreement is that good fortune will be less crucial to the outcome of the 128th Open Championship than dogged application.

History, they say, should be taken into consideration. Leaving aside Tom Watson, who was a fresh face on the block when he won in 1975, the four others who overcame Carnoustie's evil contours - Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan and Gary Player - were not only terrific players but hard cases. They took what the course had to offer and came right back at it.

This came up yesterday in a conversation with Dave Thomas, who lost the 1958 Open at Lytham St Annes after a 36-hole play-off against Peter Thompson, and tied for second place when Jack Nicklaus won at Muirfield eight years later. "At the end of the week there will be a winning score and a champion," Thomas said. "Carnoustie is a tough golf course, to my mind the toughest in the world, so it wasn't necessary to change anything, but it's there to play and the winner will be a guy who doesn't give it an inch."

Before a ball was struck you could sense that any number of players had talked themselves out of contention. "They are going to the first tee already five over," someone remarked.

It is unlikely that this applied to Nick Faldo, but his form of late has been so poor that not much hope was held out for him. The general consensus was that Faldo, a three-times winner, might not be around for the weekend. By early afternoon yesterday this was no longer a possibility but a fact: he had missed his first cut at The Open in 24 starts.

Faldo was in no mood to discuss this debilitating experience but he had plenty of cause for reflection, because he had found himself playing behind a group that included Greg Norman. The last of Faldo's six major titles was achieved in 1996 when he made up six shots on Norman in the final round of The Masters and beat the Australian by five.

Both are now in their 40s but if time waits for no golfer it was kinder to Norman yesterday, slowing respectfully to a crawl for him. Faldo went one way, Norman the other. Up ahead, Norman was holding firm in more benign conditions, picking up a birdie at the fourth to reach the turn in 35. Behind him Faldo was again beset by demons.

Going off at seven over, by no means out of contention, Faldo immediately found a bunker and dropped another shot. Worse came at the next, three visits to the rough leading to a double-bogey. Time was when Faldo heard nothing but cheers, now it was the sound of silence, broken by a sympathetic shout of encouragement: "Come on Nick," someone called from behind the rope, "you can still do it."

Faldo's response was to birdie the third and par the fourth after making a fine recovery from the rough. A shot to no more than five feet set up another birdie chance at the fifth but the ball slid by and Faldo angrily thrashed his putter over the grass.

It was slipping away, his mood was dark and despondent. "Poor fella," a spectator said. "Jesus, when it goes doesn't it go? Perhaps it has gone for ever." By the turn the blue number signifying bogeys against Faldo's name had risen into double figures and it was only a matter of by how much would he fail to qualify for the final two rounds.

Norman, meanwhile, was writing a different story. His career is a mass of contradictions. A huge money- winner but only two majors - The Opens of 1986 and 1993 - when he should have won three times as many. That and the notion that he chokes in a crisis.

Norman's demeanour on the course was that of a man in full possession of his emotions, untroubled by the effect of occasional errors. Were we looking at the winner or at least someone who will go close tomorrow? Norman didn't just stride purposefully after the ball, he sauntered after it.

Three successive birdies on the back nine took Norman briefly into the lead at plus one, but he slipped back when the course punished him with a triple-bogey at the 17th.

Norman felt that he didn't deserve such brutal admonishment: "The tee shot was only three paces off the edge of the fairway but I never moved the ball with my second shot. I don't know what happened but it went back into the divot hole. Either the club went right underneath or the club never reached the ball. Obviously, I didn't hit it. I don't think I deserved something like that."

Norman had noticed a distinct change in atmosphere. "Cheers were coming from around the course and that gave you a lift," he said. "People were making birdies, not struggling to make par. That was the difference between today and yesterday. It was nice to hear the cheers again and to make some birdies."

The Australian's round of 70 was one better than the target he had set himself. "Going out there today my ambition was to get it around in 71 [par], so the seven at the 17th was really painful," he added.

Norman let the 1989 Open slip away to Mark Calcavecchia when he carelessly drove into a bunker that wasn't thought to be in play. The following year Nick Faldo annihilated him on the third at St Andrews.

In 1993 Norman appeared to have laid his choker's reputation to rest with a brilliant final round that brought victory at Sandwich. Now, on the toughest of all golf courses? "I'm happy with where I am," he said. Come the final round who knows? For Faldo, the final means an afternoon in front of the television.