Golf / The Open Championship: Norman salvages a career on the rocks: Queenslander regains crown

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The Independent Online
FOR A has-been he did sensationally well. Greg Norman, the self-styled Great White Shark, had grown so sickeningly accustomed to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory that he was sorely tempted to pack in the game. 'I was thinking,' he said, 'of concentrating on designing courses.' On Sunday afternoon, when he set a better score than any golfer in the 122-year history of the Open Championship, the thought of retirement could not have been further from his mind.

Norman, born in Queensland 38 years ago and an Americanised resident of Florida, was in grave danger of suffering from the Bill Rogers syndrome: a one-Open wonder. Rogers, a Texan, took possession of the old silver claret jug at Royal St George's in 1981. At the time it was the best thing that ever happened to him. Subsequently it became the worst thing that ever happened to him.

Rogers, managed by Mark McCormack's company International Management Group, flew around the world at the speed of Yuri Gagarin and disappeared from serious golf just as quickly. Norman won the Open - I wish to goodness he would stop calling it the British Open - at Turnberry in 1986 and it was supposed to be the launching pad of a superstar. What happened to him is something that only the captain of the Titanic could sympathise with.

The log read: 1984: Norman lost the US Open in a play-off to Fuzzy Zoeller; 1986: Norman led all four of the major championships going into the final round and won only one of them; 1987: he had the Masters at his mercy at Augusta until Larry Mize holed a shot that he could not repeat in a lifetime of Sundays; 1989: Norman shoots the lights out in the final round at Royal Troon and is beaten in a play-off by Mark Calcavecchia.

'I was as low as low can be,' Norman said. 'I was ready to quit.' Norman had gone down Rogers' Road in that he was making far more money off the course than on it. His game disintegrated along with his confidence. Then the multi-million-dollar man looked at himself in the mirror and spoke to the reflection. 'What do you want?' he asked himself. 'I just want to be back,' the figure in the mirror replied. What Norman set about doing was what Nick Faldo, who systematically shot him down the order in the world rankings, did in 1985. Faldo did not think he had a swing that could stand up to the pressure of winning a major title and he went to David Leadbetter for a major overhaul of his game.

Norman did a similar thing with the American coach, Butch Harmon. 'He changed everything,' Norman said. 'My swing, my putting, everything. I've worked harder than I did when I was 21 or 22.' And his mental approach was different. Norman has had a ludicrously erratic season: he won the Doral Ryder Open, was joint 31st in the Masters and missed the cut in the US Open at Baltusrol after being in contention in two tournaments on the American Tour.

The key, perhaps, is that he was second in the Western Open a couple of weeks ago. To the betting public, and the critics, he may have been an outsider but inside he was supremely confident and this was reflected by almost everything he did. He made the journey from Broome Park in Kent to Royal St George's in a red Rolls- Royce. On Thursday he made the worst possible start with a double-bogey six at the first hole and proceeded to set a record Open aggregate of 267, 13 under par and nine shots better than Rogers' total here 12 years ago. On Sunday evening he made the best possible exit, flying home in his private jet with the silver jug for company. For the next two weeks he will take his boat, named Aussie Rules, from Florida down Mexico way. Fishing and not thinking about golf, he said. Not even his wife, Laura, is allowed on board.

Norman can afford to take two weeks off. The victory will make him about pounds 5m richer and McCormack, who manages him, could barely disguise his enthusiasm during his commentary for BBC television. 'The leaderboard is absolutely incredible,' McCormack said. At that point the five men at the top were all his clients.

Norman's extraordinary scoring here may be partly down to the fact that Royal St George's, with a hard par of 70, was softened up by rain but Norman had a jungleful of monkeys to get off his back, not to mention a gorilla called Faldo.

Faldo, on his 36th birthday, mounted a tremendous defence of his title, a 67 putting him at 11 under par for the championship, but the man immediately in front of him stayed in front with possibly the greatest round of golf played in the climax of an Open championship. Faldo, probably more than any other player, had gutted Norman. Not only did he relieve him of the status of world No 1 but he kicked him when he was down in the 1990 Open at St Andrews. Paired together in the third round, Faldo scored 67, Norman 76. The Australian was transposed, but the day before yesterday he was transformed.

'I didn't hear too many roars behind me,' Norman said, referring to the crowd following Faldo. The only time Norman looked at the leaderboard (at least that is what he said) was at the 17th hole at which point he had a three-stroke lead. It was reduced to two when he missed a tiny putt but Norman service was resumed when he safely negotiated the 18th. Norman was playing with Bernhard Langer who, like Faldo, shot a 67. Langer's biggest clanger came at the 14th where, after brilliantly birdieing the 13th to get himself back into the hunt, he drove out of bounds on the right, on to the Prince's golf course. On a hole where he was expecting a birdie four he took a double-bogey seven. That would have knocked out most players. But Langer, like Faldo, did not give an inch. The German birdied the next two holes to get back to 10 under par but nobody among the leaders, not even Norman, could take strokes off the 17th and 18th holes.

No matter. When they walked down the 18th fairway Norman, after finding the green with his approach shot, held his putter triumphantly aloft in his right hand and basked in the emotional reaction from the crowd. Langer's putter was at half- mast. Behind them, Faldo knew the game was up but he was still determined to finish in style, which he did, somehow salvaging a par at the last after a poor drive.

Faldo, who held a one-stroke lead over Norman after the third round, graciously accepted defeat. The only thing wrong with a 67 is that it does not compare with a 64. 'It's easy to handle it when you're playing well but when you're not it really wears on you,' Faldo said. He was referring to Norman's career. 'He's had a real rough ride from quite a few people.'

Norman received the claret jug from Gene Sarazen, who won the Open at Prince's in 1932. 'I watched every shot,' Sarazen said, 'and it was awesome.' From a Prince to a Queenslander.

(Photograph omitted)