Jon Super, Associated Press
Greg Norman and his new wife, former tennis star Chris Evert, take a walk following a press conference after Saturday's third round of the British Open.

SOUTHPORT, England — The howling winds, sideways rain and crazy bounces of the first three days at Royal Birkdale were just the prelude. Now the real fun begins.

Greg Norman, one of the greats of his era, is back in the lead at the British Open at age 53 while still on a honeymoon with his new bride, Chris Evert, a decade after he was supposed to be toast. Wonderful story and all that.

But the really entertaining part?

He also happens to be the worst closer in the history of major championship golf. This is his last chance to unwrap his own hands from around his neck and shed the "choker" label forever, in the grandest way imaginable. Fair or not, what people always remember is the last act.

Either way, there is plenty of drama yet to come.

Guaranteed.

"My routine is not going to change," Norman said after a tenacious 72 left him two shots clear of Padraig Harrington and K.J. Choi. "I'll go and have dinner with people I've been having dinner with the last couple nights ... just go and have a nice quiet night with Chrissy and then we'll hit the sack and wake up probably about 8 or 9 in the morning.

"I'll have a good night's sleep tonight," he said, "believe me."

Frankly, I don't see how.

The last time Norman slept on a lead heading into the final round of a major was the 1996 Masters, and everybody knows how that turned out. He had a seemingly insurmountable lead of six strokes over Nick Faldo heading into the final round, shot the most painful 78 on record and wound up losing by five.

That was the last one he blew, but hardly the first. Norman led all four majors on Sunday morning in 1986 and managed to hold onto only one — the British Open at Turnberry — a feat that was sarcastically dubbed the "Saturday Slam." He's also lost all four majors in playoffs, and perhaps the only reason that feat hasn't been similarly dubbed is because a forgettable golfer named Craig Wood managed to complete it before Norman did.

None of that weighed on his mind during Saturday's resolute tour of these brutal seaside links. Facing gusts of nearly 50 mph, Norman played brilliantly, driving the ball through the wind with booming tee shots and cleverly keeping his approaches from 150 yards and in beneath it. He displayed the same imagination and fearlessness that marked him as special, first when he was a teenager learning the game on Australia's famed sand-belt courses, then when he burst on the pro tours as "The Great White Shark" half a lifetime ago.

Norman said afterward if someone had told him three months ago this scenario was about to unfold, his response would have been, "Oh, really?"

But a moment later, he said the recent swirl of events in his life — a messy divorce, followed by a storybook wedding to Evert, ironically, perhaps, the greatest closer of her era in tennis — had left him comfortable, confident and poised to pounce on an opportunity like this if it came along.

"That comes from a good, safe, happy mind in a lot of ways. I'm very content in my mind, but at the same time, I have the lead now, so I'm going to go out there with the same mind-set tomorrow and it's going to be tough again," Norman said. "You've got to stay focused and stay in the present of whatever you're doing."

If that sense of equanimity sounds familiar, it should. Norman was a seeker throughout his career, bouncing from extreme highs to lows and always in search of the middle ground. After the disaster at the Masters, he became pals with motivational speaker and infomercial guru Tony Robbins and described what he learned to a room full of reporters this way:

"Instead of being tough on yourself, you're good to yourself. And everyone in this room, in this world, should be good to each other every now and then and say, 'Hey, I'm going to reward myself instead of being tough on myself."'

And if that new-age rambling sounded familiar, that's because it was, too. In another of the most unforgettable rounds in major championship golf, Faldo also thrashed Norman on a Saturday en route to winning the 1990 British Open, sending the latter's career into a 27-month tailspin.

Norman also did more than his share of soul-searching after that one, saying an emotional TV interview with former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke finally helped get him back on track. Whether it was that, or the shorter swing that coach Butch Harmon advocated, Norman beat out the best field in memory to claim the 1993 British Open. He pronounced himself a new man then, too, and began studying Zen and the martial arts.

That long and winding road deposited Norman at yet another fork Saturday night. A reporter described the two paths with one question.

"You've won two Opens, but you've frittered away five or six great chances when you've led going into the final round," he said to Norman. "Are you going to be able to hang on tomorrow?"

Norman thought for a moment.

"I can't answer that question now," he said. "We'll find out."

So will the rest of us come today, when the weather is supposed to bring a little bit of everything — rain, wind and glorious sunshine — back into the picture.

Asked whether that would be a factor, Norman's player partner and defending champion Harrington said, "I have no idea what the forecast is.

"And going by the weather service over here," he added, "they don't, either."


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.