Norman's defeat at Birkdale doesn't leave the same bitter taste

SOUTHPORT, England -- Greg Norman poked a key into locker No. 103, swung open the wooden door and began clearing out his belongings. Golf shoes. Golf balls. Golf gloves. Norman stuffed them into a half-dozen different zippered carry bags.

Just then a friend stopped by the Royal Birkdale locker room to say hello.

"Hey, buddy, how are you?" the friend said.

"Um, I'm like a whipped dog, man," Norman said.

He said it with a smile, but he's right -- there was a hint of exhaustion in Norman's voice. You'd be tired, too, if you'd arm-wrestled golf history for four long days.

Norman had come to Birkdale and the 137th British Open as an afterthought, a 53-year-old museum piece. He was supposed to stay long enough to shoot a couple of 80-somethings, miss the cut and turn in his courtesy Lexus by Saturday. Then it would be on to Scotland and next week's Senior British Open with the rest of the golf fogies.

Except that Norman shot an even-par 70 on Thursday, a 70 on Friday, and a 72 in Southport's wind machine to -- pause for gasps -- lead the real British Open after 54 holes. First, Tiger Woods wins last month's U.S. Open on one leg, then Norman injects some Botox into his golf game.

But leading a major after three rounds is like hitting five of the first six lotto numbers. You still need one more. Norman tried, he really did, but he couldn't overcome too many drives that dive-bombed into the ponytail-thick heather, or the four missed putts that came this close to dropping in, or most of all, Padraig Harrington and his final round of 69.

Harrington now has the Claret Jug two-peat, which matches the same number of Open championships Norman owns. As Norman cleaned out his locker, a BBC broadcast of the trophy presentation blared on a nearby television set.

"I'm not as disappointed as I was in the '80s and the '90s, that's for sure," said Norman, once the dominant player in the game. "It's a different disappointment. Of course, when you put yourself in a position, you've got the lead, of course you want to close the deal -- there's no question about it. But at the same time you got to take a little stock in the situation, and again reality."

The reality is that Norman shot 77 when it counted most. And Harrington didn't. ABC analysts Paul Azinger and five-time British Open champion Tom Watson took turns criticizing Norman's use of the driver on too many holes, but it's not like it was a radical strategy for him. Norman had been taking the big dog for a walk all week long. Why would he quit hitting it on perhaps one of the kindest weather days, relatively speaking, of the tournament?

Norman finished tied for third, which is about 1,000 places higher than anybody -- including Watson, Azinger and anyone else -- thought he'd finish. And Watson had been very complimentary of Norman's performance earlier in the tournament.

He had a two-stroke lead at Sunday's start, was tied with Harrington with seven holes remaining and ended up six strokes behind the Irishman. If people think that's a choke, they weren't paying attention to Norman's long-shot status or to how well Harrington played (32 on the back-nine gust bowl).

Yes, this now makes nine near-misses in majors for Norman. But this one didn't seem to have the same open-wound quality as some of the other disappointments. There was no Larry Mize standing nearby with a shaker's worth of Morton's. In short, Harrington won more than Norman lost.

"Hell, this was great," Norman said as he stood, as it turned out, in front of a black-and-white photograph of Watson. "I enjoyed it, no question about it. I enjoyed it as much or more as I've done in the past."

There would be no bouts of depression, no second-guessing. OK, if he had one shot back, he'd like another crack at the 3-iron he hit into a greenside bunker on the first hole. It resulted in the first of three consecutive bogeys.

But Norman wasn't going to beat himself up over this one.

"No, no way," he said. "Nope."

Norman's career always has been as transparent as plate glass. His successes, and especially his failures, were available in agonizing detail. But this week, and this latest blown lead, wasn't one of those failures. It wasn't the same because Norman isn't the same.

His new wife, Chris Evert, followed him for the entire 18 holes. You could see her in the crowds -- wearing a black leather jacket and light blue pants. She held one of those goofy-looking periscope boxes to see over the crowds. To finish third (along with a $500,000-plus paycheck) was like a bonus piece of wedding cake.

When he was done with the round, Norman warmly congratulated Harrington, stopped to kiss Harrington's wife on the cheek, then strode up the hill toward the clubhouse. Waiting there was Evert. They kissed, exchanged a few words, then walked arm in arm to the scorer's trailer.

I asked Evert what she told Norman.

"I told him he's a champion," she said.

Sounds about right. Claret Jug, or no Claret Jug.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.