September 21, 2014

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Jim Litke: The simple truth is it’s tough to win a major tournament in your spare time

SOUTHPORT, England — Greg Norman wasn’t haunted by his past or worried about his future.
He didn’t get old overnight or suddenly forget how to play.
No, the reason the wonderful, whimsical tale he authored for three days in the whipping winds and sometimes-howling gales along the Lancashire coast ended on a sour note is a lot less complicated than that.
A man does not go from his wedding to a posh resort, sandwich a couple of practice sessions between wining and dining his new bride and then go out and win the British Open.
The late Gloria Connors, who taught her son, Jimmy, how to play tennis and instilled in him a competitive streak a mile long, said it best. In 1974, he was engaged to the very same Chris Evert that Norman married in a $2 million ceremony just three weeks ago, and Mom persuaded her son that May to call the wedding off.
“Nobody,” she said at the time, “ever wins Wimbledon on their honeymoon.”
Norman, more buoyant than he had ever been after finishing second in a major, found himself forced to agree.
He began the day with a two-shot lead over eventual winner Padraig Harrington and bogeyed the first three holes. Somehow, he regained a one-shot lead by the time they made the turn, only to discover when he reached deep into the memory bank one more time that there was nothing left.
Instead of heartache at the end of this one, though, there was only calm reflection.
“You need to get off to a good, solid, rhythmical start,” he said. “I didn’t.
“It’s pretty hard if you haven’t played a lot of golf to really regroup with yourself and get yourself back going again. I failed in that regard. Do I have to go and work on something?” he added, smiling. “Not really, because I’m not planning on playing too much golf.”
After shooting three magical rounds of 70, 70 and 72, Norman relied on little more than guts to get around Sunday in 77. From the first hole on, the small tears in every part of his game got bigger and bigger; Norman hit just five of 14 fairways to put pressure on his approach shots and, as a result, hit only five of 18 greens.
Most tellingly, perhaps, he couldn’t make the nervy 5- and 6-footers to save par that he fearlessly canned the first three days.
“I can stand here now and say, yeah, I’m disappointed,” Norman said. “Where does it rank among those (other disappointments)? Probably not as high as some of the other ones. Quite honestly, I’m sure I surprised a lot of people.”
Considering he’s 53, he should have.
“But at the same time, immediately, I think about it now, what happens if I won? Then I might have had to be out here playing more golf, and maybe that’s what I didn’t want to do, anyway.
“That shouldn’t be any excuse for it,” he quickly added. “But it is disappointing, no question. It would have been a tough, hard battle today to shoot — what did Padraig shoot, 69 today? I would have had to shoot 71, and it would have been a tough 71 for me to shoot today.”
Still, when he walked up the 18th fairway alongside Harrington, the ovation was thundering and impossible to delineate. In a classy gesture, the Irishman stopped about 50 yards short of the green and stuck out his hand to Norman. They shook, then clapped each other on the back and walked into the roaring wall of sound, separating finally when Norman veered off to the right to play his third shot from the bunker.
“I did say to him coming down 18 that I was sorry it wasn’t his story that was going to be told this evening,” Harrington said afterward. “I did feel that, but I wanted to win myself.
“In this game you have to take your chances when you get them. But it would have been a fantastic story. Greg has been a great champion through the game, and, you know, another win at this time in his career would have been the icing on the cake.”
Norman’s showing this week didn’t erase all those past hurts, the half-dozen majors he had in his grasp beginning the final day and let slip by playing recklessly. And in a nice twist of fate, his tie for third here earned an automatic invitation back to the Masters, the scene of his most spectacular collapse a dozen years ago.
“Yeah, somebody just told me that.” Norman said.
Then he paused, stifled a laugh and put his hands together in a “T.”
“Timeout,” he chuckled. “OK? I’ve got a lot of water to go over the dam to get to that. But I’ve got to play next week (in the Senior British Open at Troon) and I’ve got a lot to look forward to.
“Hopefully,” he added, “Troon plays a little friendlier than this one.”
No doubt.
Norman walked away from the 18th green just as Harrington began celebrating. Evert was waiting for him, and the two walked arm-in-arm toward the scoring trailer. She turned back when they reached the door, then turned and smiled when a reporter asked whether Norman’s showing surprised even him.
“The whole week?” Evert asked and then stopped.
“Yeah,” she said finally. “He was surprised.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.