- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

Thank goodness for Greg Norman.

The 47-year-old Shark sailed around TPC at Avenel in 67 strokes yesterday, lending a little star power to a relatively colorless leader board at the 35th Kemper Open.

"Obviously, my two wins in this event came at Congressional, but I've always played well around Avenel as well," said Norman, who trails first-round leader Franklin Langham by four strokes. "It's only the first day, but it feels good to get out there and get yourself in the game, get the competitive juices flowing again."

Like the charismatic Aussie, most of the 156-man field took advantage of the soft, windless conditions and assaulted the 7,005-yard, par-71 layout. Nobody met with more success than Langham, who tied the course record with a scorching 63. The 34-year-old native of Augusta, Ga., started on the back nine and took early command with a midround string of five consecutive birdies.

"It was one of those days you dream about," said Langham, who missed only one fairway and only two greens, carding birdies at Nos.11, 16, 17, 18, 1, 2, 6 and 7. "I drove it as good as I've ever driven it. And my iron play and putting were almost in that same category. That was some serious fun."

Langham perfectly fits the profile of most past Kemper champions. For one thing, he has yet to win on Tour, collecting four second-place finishes in his five-plus seasons. Seven of the event's last 13 winners have made the Kemper their first Tour victory.

"That can't be a bad omen," said Langham, who nearly won at Avenel two years ago, when he tied for second. "If that history works in my favor, great."

And like recent champions Rich Beem (1999) and Tom Scherrer (2000), Langham's superb play comes almost completely unheralded by recent performance. Just last October, Langham had arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow. He didn't touch a club until after Christmas, lost all of January and February to rehabilitation and didn't play his first event until March (Genuity Classic).

"I never got to the point where I said I'm not playing again, but I definitely was scared," Langham said of the experience. "It took me until the end of November until I could straighten my arm out again."

It's taken him far longer to straighten out his game. His first six starts this season yielded four missed cuts against a lone top-20 finish (tie for 17th at the Byron Nelson Classic). But yesterday, as so often seems to happen at the Kemper, everything came together for the somewhat anonymous youngster.

"You really appreciate days like this when everything seems to be clicking on all cylinders," said Langham, who now shares the single-round scoring record with seven others. "But out there, I didn't realize I had tied the course record. When it goes like this, you just want to keep it going."

Langham will have to maintain his roll for at least 54 more holes to keep the considerable crowd of players close behind him at bay. Avenel has absorbed more than 10 inches of rain over the last two weeks and is unlikely to play firm and fast over the next three days. With that in mind, expect more red-number barrages from a field that managed 60 sub-par scores yesterday. Six of those players, most notably three-time Tour winner Bob Estes (65) and world No.10 Chris DiMarco (66), stand between Langham and Norman. But nobody on the board comes close to matching Norman in the intimidation category.

Despite his age, Norman has as many Tour victories (17) as the rest of the 15 players clustered at 4-under or better combined. And despite his limited schedule this season, Norman has the lowest stroke average in the field at Avenel (68.8 in 21 rounds).

Norman's best chance for victory since the event moved from Congressional to Avenel in 1987 came in 1997, when he drowned his chance for a playoff with Justin Leonard in the pond fronting the 17th green moments after an intoxicated fan mocked him from the gallery.

That same year, Norman was riled by a starter who made a flippant reference to former President Bill Clinton injuring his leg during a trip to Norman's home (Hobe Sound, Fla). The angry Norman vowed at the time not to return. But after a four-year period of punishment, Norman is back, perhaps to collect an old debt from a stubborn layout that has left him with four top-five finishes and no laurels.

"I've never been a believer in one place owing you anything," said Norman, who is playing this week via sponsor's exemption after losing his Tour card last season. "But if I didn't think I could put myself in position to win the golf tournament, I wouldn't be here, trust me."


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