- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

SANDWICH, England — The Shark is circling at Sandwich once again.

A decade after carding an unforgettable closing 64 at Royal St. George’s to claim his second claret jug, Greg Norman staged a rousing renaissance yesterday on the quirky Kent links. Making just his third start of the season due to nagging back injuries, the 48-year-old Aussie proved he still possesses the solution to Sandwich, punching his way around the layout in 69 strokes.

“I’m delighted with my score. I worked hard. I was very relaxed. I putted well. And I could see the shots I wanted to hit,” said Norman, who is knotted with Davis Love at 2 under after the first round at the British Open, one stroke behind unknown first-round leader Hennie Otto. “It’s a hard golf course to get comfortable on, especially with this wind. There’s very, very few holes that are straight into the wind or straight downwind. There’s not an easy shot out there. This golf course keeps you off balance all day long.”

It certainly had that effect on most of the game’s elite players. Tiger Woods (73), Ernie Els (78) and Mike Weir (74), Nos. 1-3 in the latest rankings, played the 7,106-yard, par-71 layout in a combined 12 over.

Woods was lucky to claw his way to a 73 after the debacle that started his day. The 27-year-old star pushed his opening drive into the thigh-high rough lining the fairway of St. George’s par-4 starter. And despite an exhaustive search involving more than a dozen marshals, players and caddies, nobody could locate his Nike One. Woods returned to the tee, played his third shot into the same gruesome neighborhood and eventually walked off the first green with a galling triple bogey.

“It is frustrating when the forecaddies tell us they saw where the ball went in and heard it go in, but we just couldn’t find it,” said Woods, who slumped as many as 4-over before birdies at Nos.15 and 16 brought him back to relative contention. “It was a tough round of golf to try and always fight back, but I kept my patience and really grinded my way around this golf course.”

Grinding was the order of the day for the entire 156-man field. The softening effects of the overnight rain disappeared thanks to a steady gale that regularly battered the players with gusts of 25 mph. And not only did a freshening wind greet the players for the first time all week, it quartered out of a completely different direction than the last three days, diabolically rendering the practice rounds virtually meaningless. Given such a nasty combination of circumstances, finding Sandwich’s lumpy, reverse-canted fairways was a titanic task.

“The different wind was the hardest thing to adjust to,” said Phil Mickelson after a 74. “All the targets and landing areas off the tee changed today. In the practice rounds I was reaching the [par-5] 14th with a driver and a knocked-down 6-iron, today I played that hole driver, 3-iron, hard 6-iron.”

That shift in wind direction made experience the most valuable weapon in a player’s arsenal yesterday. It’s probably no coincidence that all four of the players at level par or better with a major title on their resumes — Norman, Love, Fred Couples (E) and Tom Watson (E) — also played in the 1993 British Open at Royal St. George’s.

“If you haven’t played these wind conditions before, it can throw you for a loop,” Norman said. “Hopefully, you’ve played here before to experience it. If you haven’t, it’s tough. It’s tough on your head all the way around.”

Norman drew on his victorious 1993 experience all the way around. His best shot of the day was truly a blast from the past, as he recalled the best approach to the par-5, fourth before snaking a punched 4-iron second shot to within 6 inches for the eagle which defined yesterday’s round.

“I had 194 yards to that hole, and I had basically four different ways of playing it,” said Norman, who claims to have taken only one full swing aside from tee shots, relying almost exclusively on a repertoire of stylish punch shots. “I remember playing it in 1993, to tell you the truth, a little bump-and-run 4-iron. It worked then, and it worked today.”

Unlike Norman and the three other former major champions on the board, Otto was playing rugby in South Africa a decade ago. Yesterday, the 27-year-old South African tackled Sandwich with his putter, using 26 pops to sneak around the links. Otto, a European Tour regular, hardly has made a peep in the professional golf world since 1999, when he won the Challenge Tour’s Phillips Challenge and twice finished runner-up (Russian Open, Warsaw Open) on Europe’s version of the Nationwide Tour.

Frankly, you have to wonder about a guy who plays his best golf in the shadow of the Kremlin. Perhaps Otto is destined to go the way of Rodney Pampling, the unknown who led after the first round of the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie only to post a second-round 86 and become the first leader in major championship history to miss the cut.

And if it were anywhere other than the British Open, maybe anywhere other than Sandwich, perhaps Norman’s chances would seem similarly remote. After all, he finished T65 in the only event he’s completed this season (Byron Nelson). Only last week he endured yet another round of injections to ease the pain in his back. And he’s 48, two years past the golfing age Jack Nicklaus made immortal at the 1986 Masters. Even if he didn’t carry golf’s most legendary catalogue of major setbacks in his psyche, he’d be an outrageous pick.

But for Norman, there’s something about Sandwich and the annual claret jug quest that seems to override age and competitive rust, strengthen a balky back and make the Shark smile through psychological scar tissue.

“When I came over here I kind of came under the radar screen very, very nicely, because my expectations weren’t that high,” said Norman, six years removed from his last victory (1997 World Series). “But my desires inside were high, and I was very excited about playing because links golf excites me. I enjoy chasing the ball around the golf course. I enjoy hitting the ball on the ground, and I enjoy hitting the putter from 10 yards off the green. When I get into that type of element and zone, it’s fun to me to play golf.”

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