POTOMAC -- There was a feeling during last week's Memorial Tournament that Greg Norman simply ran out of holes, that the momentum he had gathered early in the third round was lost in waiting to finish the rain-delayed and then rain-shortened event.
So after shooting a 5-under-par 66 yesterday at the TPC at Avenel, Norman was asked if it was just a continuation of what transpired at Muirfield Village. "First round of the Kemper Open, I wish it were the fourth round at Memorial," he said.
It didn't help improve his best finish of the season -- Norman was tied for second behind the eventual winner, Vijay Singh -- but it did help his chances to do something he hasn't accomplished since a month before his historic collapse at last year's Masters.
Win a tournament.
Norman shares the lead with his good friend and Florida neighbor, Nick Price. They are one shot ahead of three players: former PGA champion Jeff Sluman, fast-rising Paul Stankowski and Kelly Gibson. Six, including reigning British Open champion Tom Lehman and former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, finished at 3-under 68.
"I don't know why, I enjoy coming here," said Norman, whose last victory was at the 1996 Doral Ryder Open. "Maybe it's because I got married here. I know a lot of people. It's almost like a second home for me. It's comfortable."
Norman won the Kemper Open twice in its previous incarnation, during the seven years it was played down the road at Congressional Country Club. He tied for fourth here in 1987, didn't come back for three years after suggesting the par-3 ninth hole be blown up, then tied for fourth in two of his last three appearances.
But Norman's attitude isn't merely the result of knowing his way around the Capital Beltway. There were serious questions about whether losing last year's Masters would be the crushing blow to an already star-crossed career. When Norman missed the cut at Augusta this year, there were doubts that he could become a dominant player again.
"I explained last week, I've taken a lot of responsibilities off my shoulders," said Norman, 42. "I'm enjoying being out here a lot more. I get up in the morning feeling like I weigh 183 instead of 210."
The once glaring spotlight has been turned down several notches as a result of Norman's inconsistent play and redirected toward Tiger Woods. Norman also has delegated more off-course decisions to those who work for him, whether it's designing golf courses or his own clothing line. Those who thought he was the world's top player in ranking only didn't watch him play yesterday.
After getting his round off to a rousing start by holing out for eagle from 126 yards away with a wedge on the 622-yard, par-5 second hole -- the ball spun in reverse seven feet, hit the flagstick and dropped -- Norman had trouble backing it up. He three-putted from 25 feet for bogey on the par-4 fifth hole, then missed birdie putts of 10 and 15 feet on the par-5 sixth and par-4 seventh.
"On this golf course, it's difficult to force the putts," said Norman. "You have to be more patient here. You have to take what you get and move on to the next hole."
In Norman's case, it gave him birdies of 18 and 15 feet on the par-4 10th and par-3 11th hole. It gave him a bogey on the par-4 12th. It gave him another birdie on the 524-yard par-5 13th after Norman crushed a 3-wood to the back of the green, then two-putted.
It finished by giving him a 17-foot birdie on the short par-4 14th and another birdie when he hit a 6-iron to within a foot on the par-4 16th.
Price showed his own patience. After making nine straight pars on the front, Price had five birdies on the back as the course dried out.
It didn't hurt Norman that one of his playing partners yesterday was Nick Faldo, the main beneficiary of Norman's collapse at Augusta National last year. Playing with Norman for only the second time since that afternoon, Faldo started with a double bogey and bogey before finishing at 2-over 73.
Asked if his play this week sets him up for next week's U.S. Open at Congressional, Norman said, "You can't compare the two [courses]. They're like chalk and cheese. I'm not worried about the U.S. Open right now. Once Sunday night comes, I'll think about it. Win this week, I'll feel great going into next week. It's as simple as that."
A pretty interesting -- albeit wet -- weekend could be in the offing if many of the big names near or at the top of the leader board hold up. Price, who was ranked No. 1 in the world after winning the British Open and PGA in 1994, has rediscovered his game following a two-year drought. Stankowski is considered a potential challenger to Woods. Lehman was ranked No. 1 in the (( world for one week earlier this year.
The most compelling showdown would be between Norman and Price. Their estates are about a mile apart in Hobe Sound, Fla. Both have endured slumps in recent years, much the result of overloaded business schedules. Price ended his slump with a victory at this year's MCI Classic a week after the Masters. Asked yesterday about the problems Norman had in balancing his priorities, Price joked, "He took a page out of my book."
Now they seem to be on the same page.
Or at least in the same place.
Greg Norman 35-31-66
Nick Price 36-30-66
and selected followers
Jeff Sluman 36-31-67
Kelly Gibson 33-34-67
Paul Stankowski 35-32-67
John Daly 36-34-70
Fred Couples 36-36-72
Vijay Singh 37-36-73
Nick Faldo 39-34-73
Donnie Hammond 38-37-75
Fred Funk 38-39-77
Pub Date: 6/06/97