Faldo's got a 'funny feeling' Norman can pull off epic British Open win

SOUTHPORT, England -- Through scarves, mittens and throats made raw from the biting breeze, they stood and cheered the most unlikely of leaders as he made his way to the home hole Saturday at Royal Birkdale.

Greg Norman then calmly and coolly pitched the prettiest little shot you ever saw to within inches of the cup to assure his place atop the 137th Open Championship leaderboard through three rounds, eliciting more roars from the frozen fans, some of whom waved an Australian flag that whipped in the wind.

Standing behind the green taking it all in was The Shark's onetime rival and now perhaps his biggest fan, Nick Faldo, a three-time Open champion who -- if he wasn't clapping -- was doing a little dance inside.

"You think anybody could have dreamed of this?" Faldo said after the numbers went up on the board, which showed Norman shooting a 2-over 72 in brutal conditions to lead defending Open champion Padraig Harrington and K.J. Choi by 2 strokes.

"He looks amazingly composed. We saw what it was like out there today, but to hold your composure on Day 3 with these elements is seriously good self-belief," Faldo said. "Why make Day 4 seem different?

"Everyone else is grinding and spitting out fescue grass. And he's cruising."

Norman, 53, is in position to become the oldest major championship winner -- by five years. And this is the first time since the 1996 Masters he will go into the final round of a major with the lead.

Augusta National, of course, was the site of his epic collapse against Faldo, who shot a flawless 67 on the final day to overcome a 6-stroke deficit, aided by Norman's implosion and a 78.

Faldo needed no prompting to discuss that delicate topic.

"We all know where he was the last time he had the lead at a major after 54 holes," Faldo said. "If he can claw his way back 12 years after what happened in Augusta, wow, that would be phenomenal."

This time, there won't be a 6-stroke lead, but perhaps also missing is the expectation that Norman should win. After local bookmaker Ladbrokes had him at 250-1 to start the week, Norman's odds have shrunk to 4-1, along with Choi's. Harrington, however, is considered the favorite at 5-2.

That makes sense, when you consider Norman plays more tennis with his new bride, Chris Evert, than he does golf. He admittedly came to England with no expectations. His main goal was to get ready for next week's British Senior Open at Royal Troon in Scotland and the U.S. Senior Open later this month.

It is a far different scenario from Norman's prime, when he was the game's marquee attraction, expected to win every time he teed up. For all the talk about Norman's disappointments in majors, he continued to be there often, winning two Open Championships and finishing runner-up in the game's biggest tournaments eight times.

"It is different, no question," Norman said. "The players are probably saying, 'My God, what's he doing up there?' But they know I've played golf before and I've played successful golf before."

Harrington, 36, who won last year's Open in a playoff over Sergio Garcia, is ranked 14th in the world and in the prime of his career. He also shot 72 on a day when nobody broke par, a first in a major championship since the final round of the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock.

Choi, 37, has emerged as one of the game's top players, rising to 11th in the world this year. He has seven PGA Tour victories but has never finished better than third in a major. He would become the first Asian player to win a men's major championship. Choi shot 75 to drop from the second-round lead and marveled at what he saw in Norman.

"He's very imaginative, more imaginative than me," Choi said.

"As you get older," Faldo added, "you don't have to do so much. You don't have to be so clever. You play with what you've got. Don't get funny. He's been very impressive. Very good touch, especially on some testy greens. How come he still has the putting stroke at 53? Where is the fairness in life?"

Faldo, like many, struggled to come to grips with the magnitude of what a Norman victory would mean.

"With all that has gone on. … Tiger [Woods] not here, all the talk about that. Greg comes in here. … It's not like Greg to sneak in under the radar. You'd love to know what the little voice inside his head was saying at the beginning of the week."

According to Norman, it wasn't saying much of anything. And he tried to maintain his low-expectation approach, though he holds a 2-shot lead in the game's oldest tournament.

"I haven't been there for a long time," he said.

Faldo was there with Norman many times, including the 1990 Open at St. Andrews, where he dusted The Shark with a third-round 67 after they shared the 36-hole lead. But in 1993, Norman won his second Open, coming from behind with a final-round 64 at Royal St. George's to clip Faldo by 2 strokes.

Now, 15 years later, Norman is back again, a day away from what would surely go down as one of golf's greatest victories.

Can he do it?

"I've got a funny feeling he can," Faldo said.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.