Rob Tanner salutes the evergreen Greg Norman, whose guile and craft outshone the power of today’s young stars at Royal Birkdale this week.
The 137th Open Championship will be remembered for he atrocious weather and the re-emergence of a golfing great. Greg Norman is known as the ‘Great White Shark’ but he should be rechristened ‘Stormin’ Norman’ for the way he tamed the winds and rain all week - he has proven that sportsmen do have some longevity.
Ultimately, he may have fallen short and it might not be the first time he has faltered on the last day while leading a championship but the word ‘choker’ which has been aimed at the Australian so many times during his career surely cannot be used this time. It is eight majors in which he has led going into the final day and he has emerged the victor only once but this was under different circumstances.
‘The Shark’ was bidding to become the oldest winner of a major since Julius Boros won the 1968 PGA at 48 and, at 53, Norman had no right to be at the top for so long.
It has been a decade since Norman last won and he admits he hardly plays golf these days - he prefers to play tennis with his new bride Chris Evert and concentrate on his business empire. Gone are the days when Norman spent hours stood on the practice range but the part-time golfer has given his younger competitors a masterclass of how to play links golf.
In this era of space-age technology, which allows players to drive the ball further than they can see, it has been refreshing to watch the guile and craft of Norman outshine the power of today’s young stars. In his heyday, Norman was renowned for his long but accurate driving but then technology allowed players with less accuracy to level the field. Norman’s reign came to an end.
However, his unlikely comeback should not be under-estimated. Regardless of European football championships and Olympic Games, the fact that Norman has played so well is the sporting story of the year. It is the equivalent of John McEnroe reaching the Wimbledon final again, of Nigel Mansell leading the British Grand Prix and of Michael Johnson strapping on those gold running shoes once more and winning an Olympic medal. For seasoned sportswriters, it is the closest they will come to writing a fairytale.
If one word can sum up Norman’s success this week, it has been ‘patience’. While his younger rivals have taken on the wind and rain head on and tried to beat it, Norman has tried to court Mother Nature into becoming his ally.
‘Soft hands and soft arms are needed to play links golf’, Nick Faldo said and Norman demonstrated the gentle touch that has evaded many modern golfers, who spend hours in the gym and have forearms like Popeye. Patience was the key. Instead of going for the pin and finding trouble, Norman was content to find the green and let his putter do the rest. Instead of trying to force birdies, Norman waited for them and if they didn’t come, then par was good enough.
While many in the field would study the yardage before selecting their club, then stand scratching their heads as their ball fell desperately short, Norman ignored what his eyes saw in print and went with how he felt. Who else would play a five iron from 120 yards out but still land his ball just feet from the pin? Instead of measuring the course, Norman had the measure of the conditions. Instead of an instinctive and pugnacious predator, this Shark is a thoughtful and skilful hunter. If Jaws had shown similar traits, he would have eaten Roy Scheider.
It might be true in everyday life that we are all fitter and healthier for longer, that 40 is the new 30 etc, but in the modern sporting world where every new teen sensation is heralded as a Messiah and 30 is considered old Norman has struck a blow for maturity.
He probably is as fit and as lean as any 53-year-old in the world but he admits his body doesn’t quite do what his brain instructs these days. Instead, he has come to know his body and its limitations, and works with them.
He has taught his competitors a lesson or two and while Norman is likely to return to relative obscurity and throw the golf clubs back into the cupboard in favour of his tennis racquet his achievements this week have been a breath of fresh air.
No doubt, normal service will be returned and youth will once again dominate experience but Norman has shown that not every sportsman is washed up when he turns 30.