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On familiar ground

SOUTHPORT, England – Greg Norman felt a momentary twinge of pressure but stifled it immediately with his attention to detail and a deep breath.

The Great White Shark’s preparations were nothing short of perfect, and when the crucial moment came he held his nerve as an enthralled crowd looked on eagerly.

“I do,” he said.

When he walked down the aisle with former tennis champ Chris Evert in the Bahamas on June 28, Norman could not imagine that 2008 would provide any other event to rival this occasion for emotion.

With his playing career limited to cameo appearances, the 53-year-old two-time champion was a welcome and popular addition to the British Open field. But a contender? Not a chance.

Yet after two exemplary rounds of 70, the Australian’s name is sitting close to the top of the leaderboard, to the astonishment of fans, opponents and even the man himself.

Even those who suggested that Tiger Woods’ injury-enforced absence would add some unpredictability to the tournament could not have thought up a storyline as unlikely as this.

Just to put things in perspective, Norman first competed in the Open five years before Camilo Villegas, whose five-under 65 pushed him up to third spot, was born. Norman’s daughter, Morgan, used to date Sergio Garcia. Norman rarely practices and has played just six PGA Tour events since 2005, winning just over $17,000 in that time. And he played in conditions, especially on day one, that prompted another member of the 50-plus brigade, Sandy Lyle, to head home in disgust after nine holes of Thursday’s round.

Even Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, men who might have been expected to step up and challenge for a major with Tiger Woods laid up, crashed and burned spectacularly. On this occasion it was the man who handed over the world’s number one ranking to Woods who threw down the gauntlet, not the men who were probably denied several majors apiece by the Great One’s arrival.

“You feel like you are stepping back in time,” Norman said after his second round. “My expectations were almost nil coming in. I hadn’t played a lot of golf and we had a lot of preparations for the wedding. The least of my worries was getting out there and practicing and hitting golf balls. My mind has been elsewhere.”

Norman was the standout player in world golf for a long stretch from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, but often failed to find the tiny missing ingredient needed to get him over the line in the majors.

His two Open triumphs, in 1986 and 1993, were combined with eight second-place major finishes, including his infamous final-day collapse at the Masters in 1996 when he squandered a six-stroke advantage, losing to Nick Faldo.

Norman had an indefatigable work ethic, yet when it mattered the most it often seemed that he was guilty of trying too hard.

Now, after all the time away concentrating on his business empire and with a relaxed frame of mind, things are working in his favor almost by accident.

His marriage to Evert has clearly had an invigorating effect on his general sense of well-being and he has even found that the amount of tennis the pair play together has helped strengthen and loosen the creaking back joints that curtailed his full-time career.

“At a certain point in your life your body stops reacting the way your mind wants it to,” added Norman. “Often your lower back just won’t let you do it. I think all the tennis I have been playing with Chris is good for me because it keeps me strong and loose.”

Norman is not so much a circling shark these days, more a smiling assassin, clearly loving being back in the mix. The lifting of the self-imposed pressure has made him an altogether sunnier character, despite the gloomy conditions on England’s west coast.

The positive vibes drawn from his personal life have filtered into his swing, which is fluid and economical and can be relied upon once more.

And while asking Norman to sustain his form for two more days is surely too much, none of his rivals are prepared to write him off.

“He is probably the most experienced player in contention and he certainly knows how to get it done on these types of courses,” said world number four and fellow Aussie Adam Scott. “He has been through it all.”