Open 2009: Norman tamed Turnberry to end his major wait

WHEN Greg Norman first teed up at Turnberry in 1977, he was 22-years-old. Suffused with the confidence of youth, the Australian reckoned the Ailsa was there for the taking.

The Shark was right, of course, since Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus went on to set the gold standard that summer. Norman, on the other hand, was 14 over par for three rounds and missed the 54-hole cut.

On returning to Ayrshire nine years later, Norman was just as confident about his chances of a first major success, though far more realistic about the test in front of him.

The combination of heavy rain, strong wind, narrow fairways and heavy rough meant the 115th Open was a test of survival rather than a celebration of the game's finer points.

Having come close on numerous occasions to securing one of golf's four most prestigious titles – there had already been missed opportunities earlier that year to win the Masters and the US Open at Shinnecock – it would have been an exaggeration to suggest the clock was ticking for the 31-year-old Norman in 1986. Nevertheless, when he flew to London on Concorde, the golfer was single-minded how much he wanted to see his name inscribed on the Claret Jug.

If all the talk was about breaking par during the "Duel in the Sun," the return of more typical west of Scotland weather led Lauren St John, in her biography of Norman, to surmise how second time around at Turnberry the golfer's primary concern was "not breaking his wrists."

Not that inclement weather or billowing rough bothered the Shark. "When I walked to the first tee of an Open Championship, and the weather was bad, I had an advantage," he said.

"I grew up in Australia, and we played with a lot of wind, and I understood how to play in it. Also, I made up my mind that I wasn't going to let weather frustrate me. It got to other guys."

Although he began with two birdies in the first three holes, Norman's assertion that the road to glory required a compass which avoided big numbers was detonated on the par-3 sixth when he ran up a triple-bogey 6. Still, on a day when the scoring average was above 78, Norman's 74 was pretty respectable.

"We were reduced almost to nonentities," he rued, "hacking along and trying not to take more than 5 at a par 4."

The gloom of the first day was replaced by more cheerful weather for the second round. When peering out of the window of his bedroom at Turnberry Hotel, Norman saw the sun was shining and began repeating the mantra of "blue skies and a 65" over and over in his mind.

"I said that often to myself to get myself going and I moved into top gear quickly," he remembered. "I birdied three of the first four holes. Everything seemed to flow.

"The ball was coming off the middle of the club and I felt really confident and comfortable with my swing. I liked the speed of the greens. There were no distractions. I was totally involved in each shot and that is when I am at my most dangerous.

"That day everything seemed just right."

With everything in place, there were even times on the back nine when Norman thought he might break 60. In the end, he should have carded 61 but three-putted the 18th for 63.

Those closing strokes hardly did justice to what had gone before and prompted Tom Watson to describe Norman's feat as "the greatest round ever played in a tournament in which I was a competitor."

George Brown, the links manager at Turnberry for the past 23 years, also remembers Norman's 63 as quite exceptional and reckons it's unfortunate the two more recent stagings of the Open on the Ailsa have to live in the shadow of the "Duel in the Sun.'

"With all due respect to the Open in 1977, that championship was made by the performances of two people," he said. "It wasn't down to the greenkeeping or golf course management or anything like that, it was just two brilliant individuals, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, competing at their peak.

"That was what made it such a special tournament and helped to make Turnberry's name as well.

"The story of the championship in 1986 was more complicated. The weather was very mixed from day to day, which had a big impact on green speeds and pin positions.

"The build-up to the tournament was unbelievably wet. We had massively vigorous growth and I recall walking round a couple of days before, doing a few little jobs, and it was raining with hardly a breath of wind.

"Now this is most unlike the west coast of Ayrshire, it almost felt tropical. The links was so still and the atmosphere was thick and misty. The water was hanging in the grass and my feet were soaked before I got to the first tee.

"Bearing all those circumstances in mind, Greg Norman's 63 must rank as one of the great championship rounds of all time.

"Only 15 players broke par in the second round, so for Norman to produce that record low round was tremendous."

The respite of the second round was not to last, mark you. The wind and rain returned for the third round and the scoring soared.

Norman began optimistically with birdies at the first and fifth which extended his lead over the rest of the field to five shots. The inward half, though, was torture and he took 40 blows before signing for 74.

"The difficulty of the rain was that you could not see," he reported. "It was coming down horizontally and every time I looked up to see where I was going, it hit you in the face and stung. Getting prepared to hit was the difficulty."

Keeping your grip on the club was no bargain either and twice, on the 12th and 14th holes, his hands slipped. Conditions were so miserable that even the hardy Scottish galleries had left in search of warmth and shelter.

The stand behind the 18th green when he holed out was all but deserted.

"Nearly everyone had gone," Norman recalled.

Just 24 hours later a very different scene would greet Norman. The sun was back, he holed out for 69 and 280 and was cheered to the rafters as he finished five shots in front of Gordon Brand.

Throughout his career, Norman was haunted by nerves in the final round of majors. This championship was no different and his caddie, Pete Bender, recalled in How We Won The Open, the sense of agitation which gripped Norman after the golfer hooked a drive on the seventh.

"With having all those years of experience I know when a player is nervous or choking, whatever people want to call it," observed Bender.

"I said to myself, 'Oh boy. It's getting to him. He's feeling the pressure. I tried to think of the right thing to say to him, so I said: 'Greg, do me a favour. You're playing too fast right now. You need to slow down a little'."

Norman initially ignored his bagman. So Bender tugged his cashmere sweater and tried to make the golfer laugh. It was the right strategy because on the eighth hole Norman hit a wonderful 4-iron to eight feet. The Australian relaxed, at least until the 17th green when he asked Bender to read a putt. "I'm so nervous I can't see the line," he admitted.

By now the support of the Scottish crowd was so feverish that Norman became emotional and would recall later how much it meant to have their support as he managed to secure his first major. "I'd never cried on a golf course before, but walking down the 17th and 18th in that final round at Turnberry, I was fighting to hold back the tears," he said.

"Especially on the 17th. When I hit my approach in there to about five or six feet, the people went crazy. That's the dominant reflection I have from winning the 115th Open at Turnberry – the people."