Who needs Tiger Woods? Just when golf thought it had witnessed the ultimate in major theater with Woods’ triumph at the U.S. Open, Greg Norman erupts out of nowhere to provide the most surreal show in Grand Slam history.
Darn right the 137th British Open deserves an asterisk. Let the record reflect that at age 53, a golfing ghost once known as the Great White Shark surfaced from semi-retirement to leave golf gaping in disbelief at the 54-hole leader board at Royal Birkdale.
“I’m very, very happy in my mind,” said Norman after posting a 72 to claim a two-stroke edge over the field heading into Sunday’s finale as the oldest 54-hole leader in modern major championship history.
Julius Boros was 53 years, four months and 17 days when he took the tee as the final-round leader at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Norman will be 23 days older when he does the same Sunday afternoon with his sights set on his third claret jug.
“Extraordinary,” U.S. Ryder Cup captain and ABC analyst Paul Azinger said. “For Greg Norman to be leading this tournament is just mind-boggling.”
The aging Aussie leads despite a three-year hiatus from major championship golf. He leads despite being slowed by a decade of back and hip injuries. He leads despite arriving at Birkdale having not made the cut in any PGA Tour event, much less a major, since the 2005 British Open.
He leads in spite of the reality that he has spent far more time over the last year swinging a racquet than a golf club during his courtship and marriage to tennis legend Chris Evert. He leads in spite of a body that is two decades past its prime. He leads in spite of the most physically and mentally demanding conditions at any recent major.
He leads in spite of all logic and convention. And if he holds off K.J. Choi, defending champion Padraig Harrington and 16 others within seven strokes of his lead, he’ll shatter Grand Slam golf’s 40-year-old AARP standard (Boros was 47 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship)and reverse one of the most tragic legacies in the game’s history.
Until this week, an combination of major misfortune and final-round Slam swoons have highlighted Norman’s career. While his Hall of Fame resume includes 89 worldwide victories, including 20 PGA Tour wins, two British Open titles and a run of 331 weeks as golf’s No. 1, the Shark is best known as the game’s golden-locked Ahab.
His Saturday Slam in 1986, when he led all four majors through 54 holes but won only the British Open, ranks as one of golf’s most impressively ambivalent accomplishments.
But it’s his final-round fiasco at the 1996 Masters that would have defined his career had he not excelled this week. That Sunday at Augusta National, golf’s most popular player frittered away a six-stroke lead by the turn and finished at 78, five strokes behind Nick Faldo.
His epitaph could be rewritten Sunday at Birkdale if Norman can somehow rise above his age, the elements, the field and his history to post a final round worthy of the Open’s silver jug.
Norman’s record from the 54-hole major pole is atrocious; in seven previous attempts with at least a share of a Slam’s third-round lead, Norman has taken the victor’s bow only once (1986 British Open).
Half of those failures were due to self-inflicted, final-round wounds. Half were the result of others’ heroics. But all of that misery can be erased in 18 holes today.
Legends are often remembered for their final scenes. And after tormenting Norman like no player before or since, fate has gifted him with one last opportunity in the sport’s brightest spotlight.