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GREAT WET SHARK; THE 137TH OPEN ALL THE ACTION & DRAMA ON A WILD AND WINDY 1ST DAY AT BIRKDALE Advantage Greg as Aussie legend tames the storm-hit links to put the quitters to shame.

Byline: BY NEIL McLEMAN

GREG NORMAN swapped the beaches of the Bahamas for the beast of Royal Birkdale yesterday - and insisted he felt right at home.

Three weeks ago the Great White Shark married fellow sporting legend Chrissie Evert in the Caribbean and hardly hit a golf ball before making his annual return to The Open.

But while younger men shamefully shirked the challenge of the seaside Major yesterday, the "revitalised" 53-year-old responded like a true champion in front of his watching wife to card a level-par 70 to sit just a shot off the lead.

He trails only Ulsterman Graeme McDowell, US Open runner-up Rocco Mediate and fellow Aussie Robert Allenby - all afternoon starters - after the brutal morning weather eased later in the day.

Norman, the Open champion in 1986 in 1993, is now only a parttime golfer alongside being a multi-millionaire businessman and smiling spouse.

But the former world No.1 has never lost his magical touch and conjured a level-par round of 70 yesterday in the gusting winds.

"There's probably a 45-degree difference in temperature from the Bahamas but tough conditions are sometimes an equaliser," said Norman, who claims he now plays more tennis than golf.

"Maybe there are some young players who haven't really experienced these conditions before.

"The toughest conditions I have played in were Turnberry in 1986 and some of these kids might not have been born then.

You relate back when you have got experience under your belt.

"Every time I come to the British Open, I feel it is the home of golf. I've always gravitated towards enjoying this game better here. And I think this is the best British Open I've played in and I think this is the fairest and toughest course I have seen."

Norman's divorce was also tough. He finally paid Laura, his wife of 26 years, EUR100m out of his billion dollar fortune only last week. But he reckons his new marriage has been worth every penny.

"I wouldn't say revitalise my golf game - I think it just revitalised my life," he said.

"When you're more relaxed and you're happier, then everything else is a bit easier. I would say it has had a rub-on effect on the golf, no question."

Evert, the winner of 18 Grand Slam titles compared to her husband's two Majors, said: "It is Thursday - there are three more days to go.

"I would be very surprised if he could keep it up with the amount he practices and plays. But today he was one of the best in the world. He had no expectations and was very relaxed.

"Obviously I would love to see him do it. It is the most consistent 18 holes I have seen him play in two years - I have never seen him so consistent."

Tiger Woods needed 91 holes to finally see off Mediate at Torrey Pines last month. The 45-year-old needed on-course treatment for his dodgy hip yesterday but still shot a 69. "I have no explanation for that whatsoever - no idea why that happened," he said.

"It's like I wanted to get back to the place where I was a month ago. Today was by no means pretty but I made every single putt. I chipped in at 17 which is a joke.

There's a certain person who you all know who isn't here who does that a lot!"

Retief Goosen, who accused Woods of feigning injury, wisely let his clubs do the talking yesterday with a 71 in the terrible morning conditions.

Ian Poulter admitted it was a struggle to stay calm yesterday in the dreadful conditions.

He carded a creditable two-over par 72 despite teeing off early in the worst of the weather.

"When the wind and rain is like it was on the front nine it's brutal," said the 32-year-old. "It's easy to let it get to you."

Compatriot Lee Westwood got off to a nightmare start as he dropped four shots in the first three holes but finished with a 75.

And Justin Rose, who memorably finished tied fourth at Birkdale in 1998 as an amateur, also slogged away for a 74 as he failed to make a birdie.

AND THERE'S MORE TO COME

TODAY Rain and sunshine. Wind 20mph. Visibility good.

TOMORROW Heavy rain with strong winds forecast. Visibility poor

SUNDAY Sunny intervals. Wind 13mph. Visibility very good

There's probably a 45-degree difference in temperature from the Bahamas to here

CAPTION(S):

SMASHER New wife Chris Evert praises Greg after his heroics on a day when stars like Justin Rose (right) were blown around.; BATTLERS Westwood (left) and Poulter braved the tough conditions - unlike Lyle (right) who threw in the towel
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 18, 2008
Words:781
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