Norman rolls back the years as Choi sets the Open pace

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The Independent Online

Through the wind and the rain, the howls and the wails, the carnage and the shattered dreams, emerged one of the game's most uplifting stories here last night. A 53-year-old was doing it for the old guys, for all those who figured the good times were in the rear-view mirror. Yes, Greg Norman was lying second in the second round of the Open. And he was clearly having the time of his life.

The scoreboard here at Royal Birkdale is certainly something straight out of his fantasy. There stands the champion of 1986 and 1993 on level par, just the single stroke behind the only player under par, K J Choi. A shot further back lies Camilo Villegas – a Colombian of all things – and then comes a group of seven including the defending champion, Padraig Harrington. It is Norman providing all the wow factor, though.

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What makes his feat seem all the more remarkable – as he so almost became the first man in his 50s to lead the Open – is that Norman has not played a major for three years or, for that matter, barely any golf whatsoever of late. In fact, since hitching up with Chrissie Evert last year he has concentrated mainly on playing her in tennis. Well you would, wouldn't you?

Norman's new bride was in the galleries that gave their pacesetter was one of the most rousing receptions in recent history of Open Fridays. Indeed, the standing ovation Norman received when he reached the 18th green was louder than many champions have experienced on a Sunday evening. And in many respects they deserved to be as the evergreen Australian has overcome conditions better than any of the supposed golden generation of professionals. Choi being the ominous exception.

The Korean is a major-winner in waiting with four things on his side this week. In no particular order, they are: the talent that has yielded seven titles on the PGA Tour; the rich vein of putting which inspired a 67 yesterday; a British caddy called Andy Prodger who knows everything there is to know about the links; and God. "He is walking up the fairways reading notes from his Bible," said Prodger. "I've always said he can win an Open and he can do it here this week." Believe it, Choi is as inspired as Norman.

So much so there were many professionals on their way home last night rushing to catch the highlights. Norman's was a master-class of seaside golf as he refused to let a double-bogey on the sixth perform its traditional momentum U-turn. Instead he pressed on with his putter at the rapier. Birdies came at the seventh and eighth and then a succession of fine saves rescued his back nine. On the 18th his recovery powers had seemingly run out when he charged his first putt a full 20 feet past. Nervelessly he converted the putt coming back for a par and a 70 and so the cheers rang out again.

"The ovation was probably why I hit the first putt too hard," he said. "My adrenaline was running just that little bit more. But the feeling was phenomenal. There was no question about it. The support was great."

The admiration was mutual; Birkdale was very thankful to have the return of the Great White Shark to rave about. On another day when the squalls and the gusts caused the spills to outnumber the thrills there was a strangely muted atmosphere on the Southport links. Villegas's antics in birdieing the last five holes for the week's best 65 went some way to maintaining the Norman euphoria. But when the afternoon starters went out so the emphasis changed from making birdies to making the cut. Until Choi and Harrington struck, that is.

The old grey place fairly lit up when Harrington eagled the 17th with a 25-foot birdie. As he advanced to three-over and then to two-over with a birdie on the 18th, the wrist injury that had threatened his withdrawal on Wednesday was suddenly a bad memory. The Dubliner is pilled up and pumped up and with those manic eyes of his is plainly in the mood. This 68 was an ominous statement from a golfing sadist who will relish the predicted gales this weekend. At the very least, Harrington has made a worthy defence and has honoured his casting as one of this Open's heavyweights in the absence of Tiger Woods. If only a few of the other "fancied contenders" could boast the same.

Geoff Ogilvy, the world No 3, was the first big-name casualty but Vijay Singh and Stewart Cink soon followed. There were inevitable mutterings of the awful-weather excuse, although once again the whingers should have taken a leaf out of Norman's yardage book. "Today was better than yesterday and, to be honest, I would not put the first round in the top five toughest rounds I've played in," said Norman. "I'd probably put it in the top 15. I put the first day at Turnberry in 1986 as the toughest."

Norman, of course, went on to win his first major that week and the question was inevitably asked yesterday whether he could win his last here? Norman did not say yes, did not say no, but simply said he would keep on doing what he's doing and attempt that impossible trick of not getting too caught up in it the hoo-ha. "If I'm still in the position come Sunday afternoon I'll think about it more," said Norman. "If that is the case hopefully I'll be able to pull off the shots."

It is a nice thought as Norman would become the oldest player by five years to win a major; yet it is probably a daft one, too, when one considers the form of Choi, the 45mph winds coming in and the imposing names waiting in behind Choi.

For Britain there is Graeme McDowell, who sidestepped a few disasters for a 73 that also put him on that grouping on two-over and Ian Poulter on three-over. In all there are 26 within six shots of Choi, telling themselves that last year Harrington came from six off the lead to prevail on the final day. They will first all have to get past Choi and, of course, Norman. The man with the silver hair and the golden touch. What a story that would be.

Beware the Shark: Oldest post-war winners of The Open

Greg Norman's exploits in Merseyside yesterday gave the 53-year-old hope of a third Open title following previous sucesses in 1986 and 1993. A victory tomorrow would make "The Shark" the oldest post-war winner of the event.

ROBERTO DE VICENCZO (44 years, 92 days)

The veteran Argentinian won the 1967 Open at Hoylake, carding 278 to win £2,100.

MARK O'MEARA (41 years, 187 days)

Took 1998 Open at Birkdale, beating Ben Watts in a play-off to win £300,000.

HENRY COTTON (41 years, 157 days)

Won his third Open at Muirfield in 1947, after previous sucesses in 1934 and 1937.

BEN HOGAN (40 years, 331 days)

Won 1953 title at Carnoustie with a score of 282 to compete his set of Majors.

BOBBY LOCKE (39 years, 227 days)

South African carded 279 at St Andrews in 1957 to win a fourth Open in eight years.