Golf: The Open - Norman ready to do battle

Former Open champion expects a tough week. By Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
IT IS EASY to chart Greg Norman's decline. In April 1998 he was ranked third in the world, now he is 35th. The line on the graph goes in one direction and it is not the flattering route. But he could be worse off. Much.

Ten days ago the Great White Shark was contemplating arriving at Carnoustie for the 128th Open Championship with borrowed clubs after a thief broke into his garage on Jupiter Island, Florida, and stole his tournament and back-up sets. He was still going to come, but he would not have competed.

Dreading is a better word than contemplating because trying to play any course while attempting to familiarise yourself with new clubs is bad enough. But in a major, and with rough so thick and high you could lose your caddie in it, the situation would have been hopeless.

Fortunately for Norman the thief realised what he had taken and returned the clubs a day before Norman left for Europe. "I was up all afternoon and most of the night making a new set," he said. "They were stolen by a guy doing an extension on the house and one of the roofing contractors decided to take them to the local driving range. I don't know what he was going to do after that. I don't think he realised what he had until he saw his face plastered all over the television screens and decided to bring them back. I left the next morning but I believe he has been arrested."

Had his roof been completed? "He finished it," he replied. "It was a good deal." Then he added: "It's probably leaky."

Even with his proper equipment, Norman is not enamoured with Carnoustie. The 44-year-old Australian won one of his two Opens at Turnberry in 1986 when the conditions conspired to make it the toughest of recent tournaments, but compared with what the golfers will face over the next four days he believes that was a pussycat.

Norman stopped short of apeing his compatriot, five-times champion Peter Thomson, who described Carnoustie as "unfair", but only just. "I'm sure everyone has heard different adjectives to describe the course," he said, "and they're all minor compared to what we're actually saying on the putting green and the driving range. I think brute has been used a lot.

"Trying to hit a driver into my hotel room would be an analogy I would make. That's about the width we have to hit into. This makes Turnberry in 1986 look like we're playing St Andrews. At least at Turnberry when you went off the fairway you could advance the ball a little bit."

Norman is about as big a fan of the Open as you can be but he believes the decision to add fertiliser to the rough has taken away much of the charm. "It's green when it should be thin and wispy," he said. "They've changed the characteristics of the course. If I sat here the winner with a score of 300 I'd be as happy as heck but 20 over par does not sit easily with the best player in golf. Eight over is going to be even par this week. If you gave me four 73s I'd take that, sit in the clubhouse for the rest of the week and just take in where my position would be. I'd probably end up winning by eight."

Norman has arrived about as fresh as you can be after playing in only four tournaments since the Masters. In some players you would fear this would leave him unprepared, in him it signifies ease of mind.

"I've learnt that under circumstances like this you really don't need to play a lot of golf," he said. "I'm only speaking for myself but I'm a strong believer that I get a lot more work in my quiet time, practising and playing rounds with my son. Once you get yourself in the position it's like riding a bike. It comes flooding back." As for his chances of attaining that position this week he was upbeat. "The state of my game is pretty good," he said. "I think I've got another British Open victory in me. I've a couple more years of solid golf in me."

He also painted a picture of the likely winner this week but refrained from uttering a name probably because the Identikit bore a striking resemblance to a hook-nosed, blond-haired Aussie. "The strong hitters, the aggressive hitters, the positive hitters are the ones you should look at this week," he said.

For aggressive, in 1993 his 267 was the lowest-ever four-round total in an Open. For strong, his 63 at Turnberry seven years earlier is the joint best score ever. He has the pedigree and, despite his decline in the rankings, he has the confidence. Pertinently, he also has his clubs.