20 July 2008

He stood silhouetted on the skyline at the 17th tee. The wind, the sun, but not now all of his past was behind him. For Greg Norman was to send that drive right back to where the glory days had been.

The ball came high above us on the mound and bounced to rest in the very centre of the fairway. We scurried along to the natural, scrub-lined gallery which rings the hole. Norman’s second shot came laser-guided towards us to land in the crown of the green giving a putt for an eagle three. As he lined it up his shadow stretched out symbolically towards the hole. Yes he was putting back into the past. The eagle didn’t drop, but the birdie did.

A huge cheer from the crowd exploded skywards and a swallow soared upwards in salute. It seemed that all his life had led to this – one last, bold defying of the years to celebrate the new love of his life and his old love of the game. Greg Norman in the lead on a golf course; the blond mane beneath the cap, the barn-door shoulders, the sculpted waist, the padding-panther step; it was always the proudest walk in all of sport.

The record books tell us that it was 30 years ago that he first made the cut at St Andrews, 22 since he won at Turnberry, 15 when he scored again at St Georges. But the silhouette then and now remains the same. Raw masculine beauty in the older man usually has a touch of fraud about it, the mimicking of the macho swagger of youth without much hope of the power of delivery. But Greg Norman has always looked too good to be true. This week’s achievements to lead the Open field at Birkdale into its final day, just made it ridiculous.

How could he do it? How could he, at the age of 53 with no tournaments played last year because of knee surgery, with operations over the last decade on his shoulder, hip and lower back, come out with that old springy step and handle storm conditions which made young bucks tremble and the three years younger Sandy Lyle surrender his card after the opening nine? The answer did not have to be exhaustively sought. Chris Evert followed his every shot. She even came into the press conferences to hang upon his words like star-struck spouses are supposed to do. Love’s “many splendoured thing” can work wonders for the golf game, too.

The first sight of the middle-aged newlyweds walking round hand in hand and kissing as he came off the 18th green may have been a bit cheesy for some tastes but it soon became clear that the Great White Shark was getting a lot more than “feel good” relaxation from the new Mrs Norman whom he wed in the Bahamas only three weeks ago. “To be quite honest,” he said after amazing us all with that leaderboard-topping 70 in the teeth of the storm on Thursday, “I came here with zero expectations. My mind has been elsewhere over the last month and rightly so. I have spent more time practicing my tennis than my golf.” Chris Evert could play a bit of course.

Suddenly the jigsaw fits. The old hero doesn’t just get a fresh lease of life from his new beloved, he gets a work-out with one of the greatest athletes her sport has ever seen, an 18 grand slam winner who started her five years at No 1 before Greg even got his tour card. That he wants to please her is evident in his every answer. That she is fit enough to test him is clear in that she does morning instruction with juniors at her academy, plays with high school boys in the afternoon and is ready five times a week to take Norman on from the “18 handicapper” which he currently claims to be.

“He’s actually way better than that,” Evert said on Thursday. “Because he’s an athlete. He has great hand-eye co-ordination and not many golfers can run like he can. He’s very proud of having both a topspin backhand and a sliced one which he thinks is like Federer’s.” Wrinkling up her nose in zesty, romantic amusement, she added: “I am just here to relax him, but I can tell you he is in really good shape.”

As he strode emperor-like up the 18th the only old thing about him was his face. In repose the deep lines beneath the cheekbones make him look as ancient as a carving back in Roman times. But this was not repose. This was triumph with great waves of applause washing down towards him. As he floated in on them towards the clubhouse, his young man’s smile conjured up the ultimate time traveller’s trick.

On this day at least, Greg Norman had brought the past back again.

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