SOUTHPORT, England — Gusts that approached 50 mph required 53-year-old Greg Norman to manufacture shots from memory Saturday in the British Open, which he called among the toughest tests he has ever faced in golf.
It only got harder after he finished another chapter in this incredible script at Royal Birkdale.
Norman played the perfect pitch shot over a pot bunker to within a foot of the cup for par, giving him a 2-over 72 and a two-shot lead over defending champion Padraig Harrington and K.J. Choi.
With so much baggage behind him in the majors, Norman did all he could late Saturday not to look too far ahead. He is 18 holes from becoming golf’s oldest major champion, but wouldn’t bite when asked what it would feel like to win.
“Ask me that question tomorrow night if that happens, OK?” he said.
Norman is 1-6 when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead in the majors, his only victory coming at Turnberry in 1986. His career is defined as much by the majors he lost as the two British Open titles he won. How would he reply to those who said he couldn’t possibly win?
“I didn’t hear any of that,” Norman said.
All he would acknowledge was that he was at 2-over 212, in the lead at a major with an opportunity no one saw coming.
“I’ve got to go out there and play my game,” Norman said. “I’ll answer a lot of different questions tomorrow night if I have to.”
The facts in what seems like fiction are that Norman played the final eight holes without a bogey and emerged from a four-way logjam at the turn to leave himself one round away from a feat that might top Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open on one leg.
The rest of the details are hard to believe.
This is no longer the thrill-seeking Great White Shark who used to routinely beat up on the best players in every major until it was time to award the trophy. This is a part-time golfer who had not played in a major for three years. The only reason he entered this British Open was to practice for a couple of senior majors in the coming weeks.
“It is different, no question,” Norman said. “The players are probably saying, ‘My God, what’s he doing up there?”‘
He will be in the last group today with Harrington, who doesn’t see Norman as anything but a two-time British Open champion.
“When he’s interested, Greg Norman can really play,” said Harrington, who overcame his wind-blown mistakes with four birdies for a 72. “He’s well capable of putting it together, as he’s shown in the first three rounds, and I don’t think anybody should expect anything but good play from him (today).”
Norman and Harrington were the only two players among the final 11 groups to break 75.
No one broke par. Nine players failed to break 80, including David Duval, who was three shots behind until a triple bogey on the opening hole. His 83 matched his worst score in a British Open.
Former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk was tied for the lead until he took two double bogeys and shot 43 on the back nine on his way to a 77. Choi lost the lead for good with a three-putt bogey on the 15th and wound up with a 75.
The wind raged before dawn and was relentless, measuring 30 mph when the first player teed off at breakfast and holding steady at close to 40 mph during the heart of the third round — making it hard to appreciate what Norman was doing.
Norman is believed to be the oldest player to lead after 54 holes in a major. Julius Boros was 53 years and 3 months when he was tied for the lead in the 1973 U.S. Open, won by Johnny Miller at Oakmont. Boros is the oldest major champion, 48 when he captured the 1968 PGA Championship in San Antonio.
Maybe it was just a coincidence, but Jack Nicklaus was in town Friday. He was 46 and seemingly out to pasture when he shot 30 on the back nine at Augusta National in 1986 to win the Masters for a sixth time. Norman was a runner-up that year, naturally.
After two bogeys through three holes, leaving him three shots behind, Norman was 120 yards away from the green at No. 5 when he asked for a 5-iron before asking for the yardage.
“The yardage was mentioned to me, but I didn’t even pay attention,” Norman said. “I already saw the shot. I knew that was the shot I had to play to get the ball close to the hole. And I did that probably three or four, maybe five times today.”
He also showed some flair, each hole giving him confidence, peeling away time.
Norman hit driver over the corner of some mounding on the eighth hole, leaving him a short pitch to the green where he made a 10-foot birdie putt to get back in the game. Then came another 350-yard drive with the wind at his back, over the grassy humps, bending back toward the fairway and leaving a 6-iron into the par-5 17th for a birdie that stretched his lead.
“Obviously, I played well enough to put myself in this position,” Norman said. “That comes from a good, safe, happy mind in a lot of ways. I’m very content in my mind, but at the same time, I have the lead now.”
With a similar weather forecast today, anything can happen.
Davis Love III made the cut on the number at 9-over par, then made 16 pars, one birdie and one bogey in his round of 70 and moved up 54 spots into a tie for 15th. Kent State alum Ben Curtis, who won the Open five years ago, holed out for eagle with a 9-iron and hung on for a 70 to move up 33 spots into a tie for fifth at 7-over 217.
SATURDAY AT THE BRITISH OPEN
LEADING: Greg Norman, who shot 72 for a total of 2-over 212.
TRAILING: Defending champion Padraig Harrington and K.J. Choi at 214, followed by Simon Wakefield at 215.
SHOT OF THE DAY: 2003 Open champion Ben Curtis holed a 9-iron from 165 yards at No. 3 for one of only three eagles on the day.
HERE’S YOUR CONSOLATION PRIZE: Three golfers who started the day within three shots of the final pairing will get much earlier tee times today. David Duval shot 82, Graeme McDowell 80 and Camilo Villegas 79.
ALSO COMPETING FOR THE AARP TITLE: Norman is in position to become the oldest major champion, a distinction currently held by the late Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship.
NOTEWORTHY: No one broke par for the day, no one is under par for the tournament and neither is likely to change today, based on a weather forecast predicting rain early and blustery winds throughout the final round.
TODAY ON TV: 6-8 a.m., TNT; 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Channel 5.