Golf / The 121st Open: Norman poised to drive out of slump: A former champion is determined to become a contender again. Tim Glover reports from Muirfield

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHILE Nigel Mansell was winning the British Grand Prix at Silverstone last Sunday, his alter ego Greg Norman was making a killing in a skins game in Valderrama. Norman, Ian Baker-Finch, Ian Woosnam, Fred Couples and Jose-Maria Olazabal played in Spain in a challenge match underwritten by a South African bank and the diversion proved particularly lucrative to the Great White Shark.

There were huge sums on offer to the winner of any hole but from the sixth to the 16th it was stalemate. Then Norman sank an eight-foot putt for a birdie and, the 'skins' having accumulated, won dollars 360,000 ( pounds 190,000). It is twice the sum Norman would receive were he to win the Open Championship which starts here tomorrow. Norman thinks he can win this week and he hopes that Mansell will be at Muirfield on Sunday to lend moral support.

Five years ago Norman arrived at Muirfield for the Open after watching Mansell win the British Grand Prix. It is more than a mutual admiration society. 'We're very close,' Norman said. 'Nigel is the brother I never had. He's helped me through some bad times and I've helped him.

'Apart from your family there are very few people in the world you can really talk to but Nigel gets it out of me and I do the same thing for him. He was down in the dumps a few years back and was desperate to get the car he deserved. I kept telling him to hang on and that it would eventually happen for him. We understand the pressures involved.'

While Mansell has emerged from the pits, Norman's career remains chequered. Six years ago he led all four majors going into the final rounds but he won only one of them, the Open at Turnberry. He was the clear leader in the world rankings and the view was that Norman would collect titles as easily as he collects Ferraris. He has seven of those and six years on from Turnberry he has just one major memory. The rest is too painful to contemplate. He has been gutted so often another Australian golfer called him the Great White Fishfinger.

If it is true that Norman has been denied by a number of improbable finishes it is equally true that on other occasions he has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

As slumps go this one has been long and deep. Norman has dropped to sixth in the world rankings and it is more than two years since he won on the US Tour. A television commentator at the Australian Open asked Bruce Edwards, Norman's caddie, if Norman was on heroin.

'In London it's worse,' Norman joked. 'I've even had to deny I'm a cocaine addict.'

He only played in the Masters this year by invitation; he failed to qualify for the US Open. Two weeks ago he was second in the Western Open in Chicago; on Sunday he cleaned up in Valderrama.

In keeping with the Norman image, whenever he won a skin he celebrated with his six-year-old son, Gregory. Gregory is not tall enough for high fives so he and Greg indulged in low fives. This may go down well in Palm Beach but I doubt whether Muirfield is ready for it.

At the age of 37 Norman says he has come to terms with the twin imposters. 'I needed to take stock of myself. I am stepping back to 1978 when I had to achieve to enjoy success and win my place in the major championships. I have not put the time and effort into my game and I did not practise nearly as much. I don't think it was laziness, I just had a lot of other things to do. You cannot channel your energy in one direction when you have four or five other channels open.

'I had worked extremely hard for 10 years and reaped a lot of rewards. I wanted to enjoy them. I learnt a lot about myself. The reasons why I am on this planet and why I want to stay on it. Jack (Nicklaus) helped. He told me he knew exactly what I was going through because he had felt the same after not winning for 14 months.

'I had got bored and frustrated with the game. Now I want to play. I have concentrated on getting back into the same routine I had for 12 years.'

Norman earns around dollars 10m a year in endorsements and this year he could afford to drop McDonalds despite their offer of a bigger contract.

'No longer am I going to pick things off the money tree and say 'that will do',' he said. 'I have a lot of pride and self-esteem and I love to play this game. That's enough in my equation to come back and be successful. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could win.'

Mansell's exploits have helped. They met during the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide in 1986. They played in a pro-am together and Norman ventured the opinion that Mansell was good enough to qualify for an Open. This mutual respect thing has gone far enough.

Comments