As the bogeys came, rapid-fire, on the 1st, then the 2nd, then the 3rd hole of the final round of the British Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, and as Greg Norman's once-confident pace began to slow, and his head began to sink, and his eyes began to reflect doubt, not confidence, it was Mike Tirico on ABC who first mentioned the words "1996 Masters."
And it was fair to bring up, yes. The last time we'd seen Greg Norman in contention at a major was at a moment which will define him forever: a six-shot lead on a Sunday at Augusta National, frittered away, gradually, and then suddenly, for all the world to see. On that day a dozen years ago, Norman's legacy of near-misses, failures that seemed to matter as much as his successes, was sealed in eternity.
Greg Norman: Sunday choker. Aren't those the words we're supposed to etch on his career tombstone?
Except, this was different, this Sunday at Birkdale.
This was no choke at all.
In fact, the reason it was important to bring up the 1996 Masters was to emphasize, fully, just how different it was from the 2008 British Open. In 1996, Greg Norman was 41 years old and No. 1 in the world. In 2008, Greg Norman is 53 and a part-time golfer, at best.
He's an occasional Champions Tour visitor whose life's priorities right now seem, from an outside observation, to be: 1. Be happy with new paramour Chrissy Evert; 2. Continue to dominate the world of business in golf course design, wine and clothing; 3. Continue to be happy with new paramour Chrissy Evert; 4. Continue to dominate the world of business; 5. Sneak in a few sets of tennis with new wife; and 6. Play the occasional round of golf.
He came to Birkdale for fun, and for memories, and to get ready for the Senior British Open at Troon, and to wind down his honeymoon with the former Miss Evert.
And with that set of life's priorities, the Shark held the 63-hole lead at the Open Championship?
No, Norman didn't choke at Birkdale. Instead, Norman blew our minds at Birkdale, shooting 70-70-72 when the wind off the Irish Sea threatened to blow Birkdale off the map. Norman made us rapt at Birkdale, turned our skin to goose flesh at Birkdale.
Greg Norman: Tied for 3rd at Birkdale? Greg Norman, on Saturday night, bringing fans to their feet in roars at Birkdale? Greg Norman punching 5-irons from 120 yards, standing over putts for eons with his pant legs flapping in the wind before making his golf ball disappear, walking briskly and energetically and making us all believe in new love and old golf swings?
You can't make it up. Truth is, we owe Greg Norman our gratitude, not our sneering labels.
He couldn't possibly finish the story with a win. There were too many players younger than he, fresher than he, more competitively honed than he. His legs would surely grow tired, and they did. His Sunday instincts would surely be out of practice, and they were, as evidenced by his refusal to keep the driver in the bag. There's a reason why 53-year-olds don't win majors. It was Padraig Harrington's time, he played it smarter, and was more ready, and for that we say, well done, Padraig, and well-played. That he was gracious afterward, and praised Norman's week at the claret jug ceremony, spoke to the decency in his heart.
But what Norman could possibly do is make us all sit up and take notice at the major that was supposed to be invisible without Tiger Woods. In fact, what Norman did was remind the next generation of players what it's like to play with moxie and dynamism and confidence and flamboyance. He used to do it weekly when Tiger was still in high school, and nobody has done it since, other than Tiger. It was as if Norman were saying: This is how you play with charisma, lads. Follow me. It's a credit to his lasting star power that he still moved the needle the way he did. In a field without Tiger, he reminded us that golf could still have its magnetic figures.
There was a shot of Norman after the round, heading to the scorer's trailer, with his new wife, her arms around his waist. She gave him a quick smooch before he went in to sign for his 77, and you realized it all right there: Greg Norman, at age 53, is in a good place. His post-round comments – "Can I be down about this? Of course. But can I feel good about this, also? Of course I can" – spoke to a man at peace, understanding the deal, that it was a magnificent week, and some magic still exists in that old golf swing of his.
Greg Norman, in the final twosome at Birkdale on the Sunday. It was a helluva thing.
Broadcast moment of the week
"Either that … or these guys are the worst putters in the world." – Paul Azinger, after watching yet another putt on Saturday blow away from the hole.
I miss Azinger in the booth. His humor, referenced above, combined with his frankness, when he called Norman's consistent use of the driver off the tee "mind-boggling," make him one of the best voices in TV sports. Throw in a surprisingly strong Rookie of the Year performance by Tom Watson – the five-time British Open champ talked us through playing the wind and the mindset of a Sunday at the Open – and ABC's coverage was strong, quite strong.
Azinger even made sure to note that the top three finishers – Harrington, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson (tied for 3rd) – were European, already greasing the wheels for a Lou Holtz "woe is me" speech at the Ryder Cup.
Scorecard of the week
67-65-DQ – Michelle Wie, LPGA State Farm Classic. Disqualified.
Wie's story, already – and you can fill in your adjective of choice here – overwrought, ridiculous, sad and disappointing, took another turn Saturday: surreal.
She forgot to sign her scorecard Friday, and by the time she'd been alerted, she had left the scorer's area. Thus, she was in violation of the rules. Insta-DQ: Just add Wie's carelessness.
Granted, this is a goofy suggestion, but chew on it for a second. Is there something Freudian at work here? Does Wie NOT want to be where she is? First, came the rules violation at Bighorn. Next, the mysterious wrist injury while jogging, never fully explained. Now, a scorecard without a John Hancock.
She's either a young woman with brutal lapses in judgment, or she's trying to tell her parents something through her actions. Or, she's just got plain old bum luck. Then again, multimillion dollar deals with Nike, Sony and Omega don't really count as plain old bum luck. Either way: Come on, Wiesy! You're better than that!
Or, maybe not.
Mulligan of the week
There's Norman on the 10th tee Sunday, one-shot lead in hand. Harrington has just made a hat trick of bogeys. Norman has just steadied himself after four bogeys in six holes, and made three consecutive pars. And Norman … pulls driver on the par-4 10th.
In the booth, both Azinger and Watson first-guess the move, saying it's the wrong play, bringing too much trouble into play in the wind when pars will win him the Open Championship. Sure enough, Norman overcooks a drive into the rough and makes bogey, starting his slow, sure fall down the leaderboard.
Let's go back to the 10th tee, put the driver away, pull an iron … and give that man a mulligan!
Where do we go from here?
Back to the boring old PGA Tour, eh? After Birkdale, it'll be tough to summon the energy. Like you, I didn't pay a single lick of attention to the event in Milwaukee, my small Kenny Perry-styled protest in reverse. The boys are back at it at the Canadian Open next week. I'll end my protest and watch.
Meanwhile, the Greg Norman Travelin' Bandwagon o' Good Vibes heads to Troon for the Senior British Open, where he'll tussle with Tom Watson and continue the Honeymoon of the Year. Count me in.