SANDWICH, England -- After enough heartbreak, frustration and criticism to fill three careers, Greg Norman essentially reinvented his yesterday with the best performance of his life to win the 122nd British Open.
Crafting an all-but-flawless, 6-under-par 64, the 38-year-old Australian mastered both the pressures that have hindered him in the past and the harsh challenge of Royal St. George's in one of the greatest closing rounds in the history of major championship golf.
Norman's 72-hole total of 13-under-par 267 -- the lowest four-round total in a British Open -- put him two strokes ahead of Nick Faldo of England and three ahead of Germany's Bernhard Langer. Along with his second major title (he won the 1986 British Open), the victory earned Norman the long-awaited respect as a champion who can seize the moment rather than let it slip through his fingers.
"That was the best golf I've ever played in my life," Norman said, almost incredulous at the control he held over his shots and his emotions. "I never mis-hit a shot. I'm not a person who boasts, but I'm in awe of myself and the way I hit the golf ball. It was perfect."
It was the kind of heroic play that the golf world has been expecting of Norman since he lost the 1984 U.S. Open in a playoff with Fuzzy Zoeller. Perhaps unfairly, Norman has carried the burden of the super-talented player. When he failed under pressure, betrayed gaps in his game or even when he was beaten by the cruelest fate, Norman was criticized as an underachiever who lacked heart.
But after yesterday, Norman always will be perceived differently. In what will be considered the peak of his career, Norman lived up to all lingering expectations and even surpassed them.
In Faldo and Langer, he beat the two highest-ranked players in the world. His four-round total in the world's oldest championship broke Tom Watson's previous low of 268 at Turnberry in 1977, and his final round was the best by a winner, beating 65s by Watson, again in 1977, and Seve Ballesteros in 1988 at Royal Lytham.
Along with Ernie Els, who finished tied for sixth at 274, Norman became the only player in the history of the British Open to have four rounds in the 60s.
"He was invincible," said Langer, who watched every shot as Norman's playing partner.
Driving aggressively, but with a shorter, more compact swing than in his more calamitous years, Norman hit every fairway at Royal St. George's, usually leaving himself an ideal angle to the pin. Hitting his irons with the control and sense of distance he has sometimes lacked in the clutch, he missed only two greens in regulation. And as never before, Norman made every big putt he needed of less than eight feet, except for one. That came on an absurdly short, 14-inch putt for par on the par-4 17th.
Norman had looked at the leader board for the first time before hitting his birdie putt from 25 feet. He acknowledged that the sudden knowledge that he had a three-stroke lead, rather than a margin of one or two strokes, momentarily shook his concentration, and he spun the tap-in off the left edge of the hole.
In an instant, the miss vividly brought back all the impossible ways Norman has lost major championships: Bob Tway's holed sand shot at the 1986 PGA Championship, Larry Mize's impossible chip in the 1987 Masters and Norman's own poor judgment in sudden-death of the 1989 British Open at Troon, where he also had closed with a 64.
"My stomach fell," Norman said. But instead of being overcome by a flood of memories, Norman collected himself. "I told myself, 'Trust yourself, trust your swing,' " he said. And on the 468-yard, par-4 finishing hole, he pounded another drive down the middle. Finally, with the type of shot that cost him the 1986 Masters, Norman smoked a 4-iron from 200 yards to within 18 feet and a sure par.
Norman's assault was simply too much, even for Faldo. The defending champion and world's No. 1-ranked player, who began the day tied for the lead with Corey Pavin, put up a 67. But on a course that rain had softened from a survival test where par was sacred to a shooting gallery requiring a steady flow of birdies, Faldo was out of his ideal element against one of the best attackers in the game.
Norman's best golf is better than anyone else's. Outgunned even as he vainly kept carving iron shots around the pins, Faldo was relegated to waiting for Norman to make the crucial mistake that so often has been his undoing.
But when it didn't come, even the player Norman calls the most tenacious in golf had to concede.
"I didn't give up until the 18th tee," said Faldo, who was striving for his sixth major championship on his 36th birthday. "I needed a two, and that was just a little out of the question."
Not to Norman, who was beaten at Bay Hill in 1990 when Robert Gamez made a 7-iron approach on the final hole. He wouldn't accept congratulations until Faldo's 3-iron approach missed the hole.
The winner . . .
Greg Norman 66-68-69-64--267
. . . and followers
Nick Faldo.. .. ..69-63-70-67--269
B. Langer .. .. ..67-66-70-67--270
Peter Senior .. ..66-69-70-67--272
Corey Pavin .. ...68-66-68-70--272
Nick Price .. .. .68-70-67-69--274
Paul Lawrie .. ...72-68-69-65--274
Ernie Els .. .. ..68-69-69-68--274
Fred Couples .. ..68-66-72-69--275
Wayne Grady .. ...74-68-64-69--275
S. Simpson .. .. .68-70-71-66--275
P. Stewart .. .. .71-72-70-63--276
Barry Lane .. .. .70-68-71-68--277
Complete scores: 10C