Norman draws on experience to tame course

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The Independent Online

For a man who now spends more time flying aeroplanes and sailing boats than he does on a golf course, and has not won for five years, Greg Norman looks suspiciously like a contender. Accurate drives, imaginative approaches punched beneath a capricious wind, par-saving putts. While others were being blown away, a veteran Australian eased in two under.

Norman knew it from the first hole. Driver, eight-iron to 25 feet, opening birdie. Playing in the group ahead, Jerry Kelly had walked off the first green with 11 on his card. Following two groups behind, Tiger Woods would open his score with a seven after losing a ball for the first time since he was a junior. Disaster lurked, but on the course where he won 10 years ago - compiling one of the most memorable rounds in Open Championship history - he knew how to deal with it.

Playing only his third tournament this year, Norman rolled back the years. This was no token appearance. Pride saw to that. In preparation for the Championship he had practice sessions with the Florida golf coach Rick Smith - "To tighten things up'' - and came here with more confidence than was generally imagined. "I felt good about coming back here, with all the memories," the 48-year-old said, "and I guess I had an advantage over most of the other guys because I know my way around this course.''

In a practice round with Scott McCarron earlier this week Norman acted as the American's guide and mentor. "I showed him how to aim off to allow for the wind, little things like that," he said.

A feature of Norman's round was how he dealt with gusts that were never fully behind the players or into their faces, causing particular problems for one of his two playing partners, Jose Maria Olazabal, whose driving is not a thing of beauty.

The par five fourth brought a shot of brilliance. After a fine drive, Norman asked for a four-iron, settled over the shot and sent his ball whistling low to less than a foot from the pin. Eagle.

The Australian remains a popular player and a warm greeting awaited him at every green. People don't yell encouragement at the two-times Open champion. The applause is enthusiastic but somehow respectful. Yesterday it sat well with his demeanour. He didn't hurry and didn't appear to worry. "I can't imagine anyone will come off this golf course and speak about an easy day,'' Norman said afterwards. "There wasn't an easy shot out there.

"The course was there, bearing her teeth all the way round. If the overnight rain hadn't softened conditions I don't know what the scores would have been in this wind.," he admitted. "It was a tough day, no question. You hit some good shots which land in the middle of the fairway, and end up in the rough. You hit bad shots and they're really bad. There's no forgiveness. You had to be extremely patient out there.''

Doubtless encouraged by Norman's cool example, and calling upon their own vast experience, Olazabal and Justin Leonard hung on, both men playing fine recoveries after being lured into indiscretion.

As news of Norman's progress spread the galleries grew, many flocking ahead from watching Woods, swelling the greenside audiences. Reaching the turn at three under, Norman struck another blow for his generation at the par four 12th to take the outright lead.

It was everyone's contention that luck would importantly figure in the day's proceedings, scores affected by good and bad bounces. Norman's biggest stroke of fortune came at the 13th when his drive skated perilously past two forbidding fairway bunkers before running on a further 40 yards.

"You need things like that to happen,'' he said. "But, of course, I knew what to expect. There was no time out there when I thought back to 1993. I don't live in the past, in fact there wasn't a type of shot I remember playing 10 years ago.''

Norman's repertoire of shots enabled him to survive all that the course and the wind threw at him until a shot went at the 14th, on the day one of the most difficult holes. "It was no big deal,'' he said. "If I'd been given a 69 before I went to the first tee, I would have more than settled for it. The important thing was feeling that I could play to my standard.''

At the 17th, Norman found himself on a severe up-slope some 200 yards from the pin. He wasn't after a perfect strike, more of a semi-top with a two-iron that would keep the ball running low. Instead, he caught it full but still managed to make par.

Since no hole presented a greater degree of difficulty than the 18th, Norman wasn't surprised when it jumped up and bit him, dropping him back to two under, a stroke behind the South African, Hennie Otto.

Norman is closing in on 50 and famously rich but the whole urge to win came back to him. Tough as conditions were, he enjoyed the experience, thought it was fun. Not a word many used at this links yesterday.