- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

The aging Shark isn’t ready for dentures just yet.

Greg Norman emerged from semiretirement Thursday to show the limberbacks how golf was meant to be played in foul weather, posting an opening-round 70 at brutal Birkdale that leaves him just one stroke adrift of the leaders at the 137th British Open.

“I haven’t played a lot of golf recently,” said the 53-year-old, who had missed the cut in his five previous PGA Tour starts dating to 2005. “But it’s a little like riding a bike. … I’ve just got to keep my expectations very low.”

That’s likely to prove difficult for a player boasting 87 professional titles and claret jugs in 1986 and 1993.

Once a predator, always a predator, even a decade removed from his last memorable major assaults - a third-place finish at the 1999 Masters and a solo sixth at the British Open later that year.

Of course, nobody is expecting Norman to contend at Birkdale, perhaps not even the gregarious Aussie himself. Even insinuating that the Shark could smash the Grand Slam’s winning age barrier by seven years would be grounds for a straitjacket.

No, Norman’s opening salvo at Birkdale during conditions better suited for Big Ten football was illustrative of a more disconcerting development: the dichotomy between great players of his generation and most of today’s stars. Norman isn’t likely to win at Birkdale, but at least he knows how.

Forgive the fogyism, but watching “seasoned” players like Phil Mickelson (79), Ernie Els (80) and Vijay Singh (80) attempt to cope with 50-degree temperatures, sideways spit and 20 mph winds on the 7,173-yard, par-70 layout was a disgrace to all things links. It’s impossible to wage war with the elements on such a day armed with a high trajectory, a full swing and an empty head.

In such conditions, each and every shot must be improvised and then crisply struck according to one guiding principle: The air is your enemy, the ground your friend.

Sadly, golf on the PGA Tour no longer prepares players for such imaginative tests. In the United States and often on the European Tour, the game is a mindless, aerial onslaught of exacting yardages and station-to-station targets played with overly forgiving clubs designed to produce high launch angles and excessive spin. Give the game’s best in such circumstances an imaginative exam like Birkdale was Thursday and they implode.

“It’s hard to explain how much the ball gets taken off line by the heavy air,” Mickelson said after his 18-hole humiliation.

Norman needed no explanation, and neither did five-time British Open champion Tom Watson, who posted a 74 in nastier conditions than Mickelson.

“This course is a rarity in that it doesn’t require excessive length. That said, I couldn’t even reach three greens in regulation today,” said Watson, the 58-year-old who won the last of his jugs at Birkdale in 1983. “This was a very trying day, similar to [the opening round at] Muirfield in 1980. Weather like this really identifies the purest ball-strikers.”

Accordingly, it’s no coincidence that three Australians are among the six players at the top of the board. Players like Norman, Robert Allenby (69) and Adam Scott (70) grow up battling high winds on the links Down Under. Aussie Peter Thomson, who like Watson won five British Opens, collected two of his claret jugs in Birkdale’s wicked winds (1954 and 1965).

But even Watson, perhaps the greatest links player in history, taps Norman when asked to name the best the British Open has seen.

“Norman played the two greatest rounds I’ve ever seen at the British Open,” Watson said Thursday. “I’m not sure which was more impressive - the 63 at Turnberry [in the second round in 1986] or the 64 at Sandwich [in the finale in 1993]. Both were posted on very windy days. You just don’t see guys control the golf ball like that in those kinds of conditions.”

If it was rare then, it’s almost unheard of today. If he were present in Southport, perhaps Tiger Woods could manage it, though Scott and Spain’s Sergio Garcia (72) stand alone in the ball-striking category among today’s top players.

“Tough conditions sometimes are an equalizer,” Norman said. “Some of these kids might not have even been born for Turnberry in ‘86.”

Judging by Thursday’s full-field debacle, most of them still haven’t awakened to the ways of links golf.

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