Storming Norman dazzles as Harrington keeps dream alive

Veteran defies 50mph winds to take two-shot lead over defending champion. By James Corrigan at Royal Birkdale
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The Independent Online

A brutal day on the links, in which 50mph winds threatened to blow the Open Championship off the edge of Southport, ended with a piece of golfing history being created. Greg Norman became the oldest player to hold an overnight lead in any of the four majors. And today he will be all out to dabble in some further record-book rewriting.

If the Australian can somehow maintain his two-shot advantage over the defending champion, Padraig Harrington, and Korea's KJ Choi then he will be crowned as the oldest champion in 148 years of the majors.

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Not only that but he would be the oldest by five years. It would be a remarkable finale to a remarkable Open, which on occasion has been almost too intense to watch. Yesterday it fairly oozed agony.

Congratulations to the Royal & Ancient for their courage in keeping play going just when it seemed certain to be suspended.Balls began moving on the green and Sergio Garcia revealed that the officials told him they were on the brink of sounding the hooter. "The problem was they knew the wind was going to keep blowing harder and harder and it wasn't going to calm down," said the Spaniard. However, the huge crowd were enjoying it, even if some of the field were situated in golfing hell. Phil Mickelson saw his hat fly off 50 yards into a bunker, while Anthony Kim watched his ball moveeight feet – the wrong way. It was in danger of descending into farce, but instead a rich drama broke out.

Norman was the lead character, just as he has been all tournament as he unashamedly showed off to his new bride, Chrissie Evert, in the gallery. The Great White Shark gobbled up Choi, the overnight leader, with a 72 that does not sound too special but in these conditions and under this pressure most definitely was.

Harrington matched him and must be today's favourite. If the Dubliner can prevail then he will become the first European to win back-to-back Opens in 102 years. Thinking about it, that would be just as outrageous as a Norman victory.

But there are others, not least Choi, who is not yet done despite a 75. With Norman, the would-be conqueror, now on two over there were inevitably those who would drag their way back into the hunt but, as it was, the turnaround was quite remarkable.

This must be the first time ever that a player who has shot level par has moved up from 38th to fifth. Ben Curtis, the 2003 champion, achieved that staggering feat, although Simon Wakefield's leap was no less commendable. The journeyman from the Potteries also shot a 70 and awoke this morning in the astonishing position of fourth as the leading Briton. But home interest today will not end there.

As well as Wakefield there is another Englishman in Ross Fisher with his intentions set on a life-changing prize. Two weeks ago the 28-year-old from Ascot, who was put on his way when winning a scholarship at Wentworth, won the European Open, and in a grotty final round showed enough class to hint at a glittering future.

It could have arrived earlier than expected as a 71 put him within two of Wakefield. After 10 holes he was on 10 over and at that stage 11 behind the overnight leader, KJ Choi. But thanks to three birdies in those final eight holes he was within touching distance. Topsy-turvy did not begin to describe it.

"Anthony [Kim] and I said to each other that we'd just been through 18 wars together," said Fisher. Kim is also in that group on seven over. Just behind is the young amateur Chris Wood, in a tie for ninth and advancing into the furthest reaches of dreamland. This could be Justin Rose all over again for the 20-year-old. Another day like yesterday and anything is possible.

The action began with many in Ireland ready to rename KJ "Killjoy". Yet to everyone else in the golfing world he had been a pleasure to behold in those first two rounds. A Choi to behold, even. The winds of a new dawn were seemingly sweeping over Birkdale as Asia readied itself to crown its first major winner.

Except it was not to be as straightforward as all that. Nothing like as straightforward. Two double bogeys in his first 10 holes, together with a bogey on the eighth, hauled him back to the pack, and when Norman birdied the par-three 14th the double champion had, amazingly, hit the front. Norman thought he had taken a three-shot lead on the 17th when his eagle putt headed for the hole, but it stopped a few centimetres short and he was forced to be content with the birdie. His smile confirmed that he was indeed content, and he was almost ecstaticwhen his chip for a birdie atthe last came within an inch of bringing down the grandstand.

Yes, Norman's startling trip down the fairways of his memory was still in full swing as he refused to let the ravages of time and the gusts derail him. The blast from the past had stood up to the blasts of the present, bringing the game to the very brink of one of its greatest stories.

That will not bother Harrington. He has the same impervious look as he did when coldly overhauling Garcia in that other golfing cannonball run called Carnoustie last year.

The wrist injury that had him on the verge of withdrawal is blessedly no longer a problem. "A steady day could be good enough," he said, plainly full of confidence. Easier said than done on links where the normal rules of engagement do not mean a damn.

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