'Shark' wed to idea of third title

Boosted by his new wife, Australia's fiftysomething shows no sign of slowing down his inspirational charge
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The Independent Online

Love is irrefutably in the air and Greg and Chrissie are as content as those couples who used to drive around with their Christian names emblazoned on their car windscreens. But would it be enough to inspire Greg Norman, supported by his cheerleading new wife, Chrissie Evert, to actually claim the Claret Jug and become by some distance the oldest-ever major winner?

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Remarkably, for a character who represents the Saga community, the Great White Shark was still in contention last night. A glorious putt at the 14th, which was also an appropriate riposte to the elements, as he regained joint-leadership with his playing partner, KJ Choi, told you everything you needed to know about his form and desire. A hole later, he was sole leader.

Though much of the explanation is attributable to the fact that Norman enjoys playing this form of golf, it would be nice to believe that the endorphins created by passion have kicked in and are enhancing his game. Certainly, the player who wed Evert in a lavish bash in the Bahamas at the end of last month happily pays credit to the input of the missus. It makes a change from listening to the woes of those professionals who have gone through divorce with golf clearly attributed, if not directly named, as the "other party".

If the fifties are the new middle age then, at 53, Norman is clearly suffering a mid-life resurgence. Not bad for a chap who only turned up here, ostensibly, to warm up for the next two majors on the seniors' tour. He is more accustomed to playing tennis with his wife, also 53, back home in Florida than contesting a major, but for the last three days, at his 26th Open, he has been enjoying an extended honeymoon in the sporting and domestic senses of the word.

How the Royal and Ancient will be loving it, too. No Tiger Woods. Barely worth the contest. That was the attitude of some curmudgeons beforehand. The absence of the aura of Woods may have initially stripped the veneer off the occasion, yet just look at who has filled the vacuum. On the first two days Norman displayed a contempt for the gusts which returned to commit even greater mischief yesterday.

While some of the younger American dudes had spoken sniffily about the conditions, the 1986 and 1993 Open champion showed them how. Yesterday, he started on level par, one shot behind Choi, the halfway leader. Certainly Norman could not have had more vociferous support than he has enjoyed from the galleries. As he and his playing partner emerged, there could scarcely have been greatest contrast. The imposing Norman, 6ft but looking considerably taller, clad in a cream sweater and a white baseball cap, still had the easy stride of an Aussie beach bum.

The impassive Choi, 5ft 8in, clad virtually all in black, could have been an anonymous street-trader from his native Seoul. But that demeanour belies the Korean's talent. He finished eighth in last year's Open at Carnoustie and has recorded seven victories on the PGA Tour.

If the portents were not auspicious for Norman, neither was his drive from the first tee, which drifted into the rough. He ended up dropping a shot. Choi, despite finding sand in a greenside bunker, recovered for par and a two-shot lead.

At the second Choi's superb approach offered him a chance for a birdie, but his putt drifted narrowly wide. Indeed, on two out of the first three holes Choi, looking to become the first Asian to win the Open, had a chance for a birdie before being forced to accept par, although on such a day that was actually something to celebrate.

Norman, having bogeyed the first and third, dropped to third as the defending champion, Padraig Harrington, launched an assault which took him into second place. After the sixth, Norman was a further shot down. The concern, albeit briefly, was that, as in the past, he could self-destruct. He proved those fears unfounded.

Choi, too, began to feel the weight of leadership, and having missed a five-foot opportunity on the fifth found sand at the next and ended with a double-bogey six. The fates were unkind to Norman, whose short game was too often accompanied by "oohs" of disappointment from the spectators. Having seen his par putt on the third horseshoe out of the hole, he suffered a similar fate on the seventh, with a birdie beckoning. But as Choi conceded another shot on the eighth, Norman birdied at the same hole to put himself back in contention. On the back nine, his quality scarcely wavered.

In sport, there are eagerly awaited but always likely returns, like Freddie Flintoff's at Headingley. Much more rare are the unexpected and unlikely comebacks. Norman has, seemingly, been around as long as Fred Flintstone, although it was actually a mere 32 years ago that the Australian turned professional. Surely, it can't be "Yabba dabba do!" for one more day at this Open? Can it?

Watch the final round of the Open today on BBC2, starting at 11am

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