Shark swims to the top

Cam Cole
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PGA/BRITISH OPEN Resurgent Norman 18 holes from history - and British Open title; Harrington two strokes back

The wind is heavy here, but until you've seen the might of it physically beat down the best professional golfers in the world, you don't fully grasp just how much it weighs.

Except, apparently, to that blast from the past, Greg Norman, who is floating through this British Open as though he's never left the place.

Greg Norman of Australia plays from the rough on the first hole during the third round of the British Open Golf championship, at the Royal Birkdale golf course, Southport, England, Saturday. - Photo by the Associated Press

Southport, England - The wind is heavy here, but until you've seen the might of it physically beat down the best professional golfers in the world, you don't fully grasp just how much it weighs.

Except, apparently, to that blast from the past, Greg Norman, who is floating through this British Open as though he's never left the place.

Saturday was one of those days that will always be part of the conversation whenever the topic of the worst wind in the 137-edition history of the British Open is debated - a day to survive the 50-m.p.h. gusts, if you could, or at least try to limit the bruises it inflicted on your psyche and your golf swing.

Most couldn't. A few stuck their noses into the teeth of the gale and fought it to a draw, or something close to it, and for their fortitude - in conditions that were so close to unplayable, Royal & Ancient CEO Peter Dawson's finger must have hovered over the "abort" button all day - they were rewarded with a precious chance today to win the Open at Royal Birkdale.

And lo and behold, the oldest of them was leading at sundown.

Norman, 53, fully seven years past the age when Jack Nicklaus's 1986 Masters victory made him the oldest winner of a major golf championship ever, takes a two-stroke lead into the final round, when conditions are supposed to lighten up just a notch or two.

The last time he led into the closing round of a major, Norman had six strokes over Nick Faldo in the 1996 Masters and still lost, so a mere two will not be characterized in this space as a "cushion."

But what a story the Great White Shark is poised to write, if he can somehow will his golf ball one more time through the perils of one of the great British links courses while paired with defending champion Padraig Harrington, 17 years his junior and two strokes in arrears.

Korea's K.J. Choi, who shot 75 Saturday, will play in the penultimate group with English longshot Simon Wakefield, who made a mercurial move up the leaderboard simply by shooting a par 70. They are two and three strokes off the pace, respectively.

But it's another five strokes behind Harrington before you find anyone with major credentials: Davis Love III - who made the cut on the number and then shot 70 to move up 54 places to a tie for 15th - and U.S.

It is Norman's championship to win, if his mind and his rarely used golf game don't betray him.

"I'd put it top-three hardest rounds of golf I've ever played," said Norman, who just missed a long eagle putt at the 17th and nearly holed a 30-yard chip for birdie at the last, keeping the pedal to the metal right to the end as he first overtook and then left behind Choi, the 36-hole leader.

"It was just brutal today," said the Shark. "It's so hard to start the ball 60 to 80 yards off the target line and just trust the wind. It is so heavy, and so strong, I've never seen the ball react the way it did at its apex. Once it got above the sand dune line, it was at the mercy of the elements."

Wind wreaks havoc

Saturday's playing conditions were, at times, so difficult as to border on the absurd.

Shots went sideways. Flagsticks were bent over so hard they seemed certain to rip the cups out of the ground. Balls were not just oscillating, but moving on the greens - and off them.

"I find it hard to believe Peter Dawson doesn't seem to know what is unplayable and what isn't," said Calgary's Stephen Ames, who began the day right in the hunt at 3-over-par and shot 78 to fall into a tie at 11-over with, among others, Mike Weir (74). "I asked an official how many balls have to blow off greens before you call it off? He said, 'Lots.'"

Earlier, U.S. phenom Anthony Kim, who's in the group at 7-over, five shots behind Norman, had waited "30 to 40 minutes" before daring to address a ball that had been marked and replaced, then blown "seven or eight feet back."

Almost everyone had a story. And many had a ruling, on a day when the average score was 5.76 strokes over par. Player after player strode to the No. 1 tee hopeful of keeping the ball in play, and walked off the first green muttering: "Here we go again." Scores went backwards, inexorably, all day and anyone who kept it near even-par made up enormous ground.

The lead oscillated, too. Choi nearly had a four-stroke bulge at one point and 15 minutes later, at the turn, was in a four-way tie with Harrington and Furyk and Norman, who never had it all to himself until the Korean bogeyed the 15th hole.

The conditions chewed up and spit out Colombia's Camilo Villegas, who struggled to a 79, and fell from third place to out of the picture.

"Obviously, I played well enough to put myself in this position. That comes from a good, safe, happy mind in a lot of ways," said Norman, who parried all questions about his past, or his future, preferring to stay in the present.

Norman's nerves

Can he conquer the nerves that once made him a frequent championship bridesmaid? ("I can't answer that question now. We'll find out.") What does he say to critics who don't believe he can finish the deal, having failed so many times before?("I haven't heard any of those things.") What about surpassing Nicklaus's feat of winning at age 46 - by seven years? ("I'll answer a lot of different questions tomorrow night, if I have to.")

He acknowledged that this doesn't feel the way it used to feel, when he regularly led majors in the 1980s and '90s.

"The players are probably saying, 'What's HE doing up there?" Norman said, grinning.

And everyone else, too. But perhaps not Harrington.

"I played with Greg at Royal St. George's (five years ago), and when he's interested, Greg Norman can really play," said the reigning champ. "He's as fit a 53-year-old as there is, and he hasn't lost any of his ability."

Or his creativity, either. He hit a 121-yard 5-iron shot and a 7-iron from 106 that were both things of beauty Saturday. Those come from the mind, and the hands, and Norman has still got plenty of both.

It's the nerve, well rested and untested lo these many years, that we'll find out about today.

Organizations: Royal Birkdale, St. George's

Geographic location: Southport, England, U.S. Korea Colombia

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