x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Great White Shark hurting from Open

A third-place finish at Birkdale gives the Australian golfer Greg Norman hope that titles are still within his reach.

Greg Norman on the ninth fairway during the second round of the British Open Golf championship at the Royal Birkdale golf course.
Greg Norman on the ninth fairway during the second round of the British Open Golf championship at the Royal Birkdale golf course.

TROON // The 137th staging of the British Open saw thousands of golf fans journey to Royal Birkdale last week, and millions travel back in time. It was a tournament that allowed them to rejoice in the glorious escapades of Greg Norman, the swashbuckling Australian performer who has never lost the desire to engage with an audience.

Four days have passed since a third Claret Jag narrowly eluded him, yet the connotations of failure continue to live with this towering figure. Norman makes his debut in the opening round of the Senior British Open at Royal Troon today after showing his game is far from decrepit by finishing third behind Padraig Harrington in Southport. Norman led the Open by two strokes after three rounds, and was one stroke clear heading for the back nine on the final day, before Harrington decked his spirit with an unblemished finale.

He went terribly close to becoming, at the age of 53, the oldest major winner in history. Harrington's solidity was enough to see him defend his title, but one could not help feeling a sense of anti-climax after watching Norman wilt. The last time he played in such a tournament at Troon, in 1989, he ended the week riddled with dejection after slashing a ball into a bunker on the 18th hole that enabled Mark Calcavecchia to make off with the Open after a play-off.

In the bewildering world of professional golf, he starts this week nursing similar emotions. With his rugged looks and ferocity in thumping a ball, Norman looks as if he would be as comfortable in the Aussie outback as on a course. His instincts have hardly dimmed with the passing of years. What will pain him is the fact that it was not age or physical deficiency that did for him on Sunday, but rather some errant shots and wayward club selections. At one point, one could have been forgiven for thinking he had changed his name by deed poll in the UK to the "53-year-old Greg Norman" by repetitive TV and radio commentators.

It became annoying, because this was not some bed-ridden OAP trying to hit a ceremonial shot to open a US Masters. Norman may no longer play for a living, but he is vibrant. His sprawling business interests, work as a course architect and personal life, he recently married the former tennis player Chris Evert, are all blossoming. But then there is that feeling of loss that disturbs every great sportsman, especially one who was ranked as the world's best for more than 300 weeks in the 1980s and 1990s.

He has been touched by the messages of congratulations from fellow players, including his first email from the former Open champion Seve Ballesteros, praising his "shot-making ability". But Norman also conceded that failing to land the Open had gnawed at his soul as much as his other major failures. "It really hurts. Deep down inside it hurts, no question," he said. "No matter how old or how young you are, when you give yourself an opportunity - especially the more experience that you have under your belt, - you do feel it.

"The golfing gods were not shining on me the way I would have liked them to shine on me on Sunday. I was close to shooting a better score than I did." It was similar errors that seemed to blight him in so many of the majors, but this is not the time or the place to mull over what went wrong years ago. Normanshould be held up as an example of what can be achieved when talented individuals are fully focused on a prize.

While Harrington was proclaimed Ireland's greatest-ever sportsman by swathes of their local media, the story of Birkdale will be remembered as much for Norman's enduring class. For the romantics among us hankering after a bygone era, the sight of him failing to close out the final day was as painful as any of his previous relapses. He reflected on the 1996 US Masters, and his turmoil as Nick Faldo recovered a six-stroke deficit on the final day to win by five. Yet Norman is aware of his role in a grander tapestry.

"To me, the game of golf is more important than any player who ever played it. But there is the history of the game," he said. "It will be interesting over a period of time to think how the Open at Birkdale will be remembered. "Like the Masters in 1996 has been remembered in a different way than a lot of people would like to think they should be remembered. These are weird pages to add to the book."

Yet he is adamant that, on the right week at the right course, he can still compete for major titles. He is playing the US Senior Open next week, and will decide if he should accept an invitation to play in next month's USPGA championship. Here at Troon the man known as the Great White Shark will be well received. He is out with the defending champion Tom Watson and Sandy Lyle on the first two days.

"I remember saying last week that I was using the British Open as a warm up for the Senior Open, it should be the other way around now," added Norman. Winning this event would not make up for deflation Norman sampled at Birkdale, but it would be a good place to start. @Email:dkane@thenational.ae