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Even golf superstar had to earn his way to Open

Greg Norman, who has been busy lately with other interests, had to qualify locally for this year's U.S. Open.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


CITRUS PARK -- The small, awe-struck crowd gathered around the tee box at Old Memorial Golf Club as official starter Jennifer Ray made the introductions.

"Welcome to the 102nd U.S. Open sectional finals," Rays said, calling off the names of the morning's starring trio. There was Michael Adamson, an aspiring pro from Palm Beach Gardens; local hero D.J. Holland from Odessa who last made it to the Open in 1995; and the man they call "The Shark," PGA Tour veteran and World Gold Hall of Fame member Greg Norman.

"Play well guys," Norman said before setting off to work.

Although Norman has won two of golf's major championships and dozens more events around the globe, he started Tuesday's competition facing the same challenge as the other 76 players in the field. To get an invitation to the U.S. Open, Norman would have to finish in the top four.

The U.S. Open championship is just that; open to all. This year, 8,468 players attempted to qualify for the championship. Players at Tuesday's sectional had all made it to the final cut.

The Old Memorial event was one of 12 sectional qualifiers played around the country, with 81 spots up for grabs in the 156-player field. The other 75 spots were for golf's elites such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

During his prime, the 47-year-old Norman was in that group and dominated professional golf for more than a decade. But his game has faded some, and business interests -- golf course design, wine making, even a turf-growing venture -- have taken more of his time and attention.

So Norman flew into town in his private helicopter to tee it up with guys who came in sedans and minivans.

For golf fans, it was a rare treat walking the fairways with a man whose mastery of the sport is most often viewed from afar, either behind the ropes of a PGA Tour event or on television.

Like most athletes, Norman is larger in life than his image on the small screen. Well over 6 feet, he cuts a swashbuckling figure with his blond hair, rakish hat and broad shoulders.

Because of the heat and humidity, players were able to take advantage of an odd modification of pro golf etiquette. PGA Tour rules require players wear only long pants, but at the sectional event almost everyone, including Norman, showed up in shorts.

The gallery following the two-time British Open winner and his playing partners was modest at first, perhaps because of the 8:10 a.m. tee time. By the third hole of play about 30 fans followed him on each shot.

Cheval teaching professional George Beardsley, was there with a few of his students to learn from the best.

"It's not too often you get a chance to get this intimate a view of the best player in the world for 10 years," Beardsley said.

"It's nice to see the Shark in person. He's done quite well in this world, plus he can hit a golf ball," said Tim Haskett, a truck driver from Bradenton. Florida State Golf Association spokesperson Hillarie Mastandrea said attendance at last year's event was about 300, but the organization expected more than 500 fans this year because of Norman's appeal. "That makes this year unique," she said.

As the crowd following Norman's threesome grew, it was clear that Holland of Odessa had as many fans as the Shark. Holland got roars from the gallery for his birdie putts on holes where he actually outscored Norman.

"When he played in the Open at Shinnecock Hills (New Jersey), he met Mr. Norman so he was very happy to get the pairing here," said Holland's father, Dennis Holland, one of a half dozen family members and friends rooting for D.J.

Midway through the round, the gallery grew to more than 100 people and course officials had their hands full keeping them in check.

"So far so good," said FSGA staffer Aaron Skoviera, one of five officials charged with herding the masses from hole to hole. "It just keeps growing every hole."

After the first of back-to-back rounds, Norman posted a 4-under par 68, the low score of the day. With less than 30 minutes between rounds, players only had time for a quick bite and a few practice putts before heading out again.

It gave fans a chance to trade stories of the marvels they'd witnessed. "I couldn't believe it," said Peter Emmanuel, a financial adviser. "On No. 7, he (Norman) rolled in an 18-footer for birdie and in the background you could here some guy announcing the school lunch menu over a loudspeaker. He didn't even move."

Norman's other playing partner, Michael Adamson, appreciated the Shark's amiability. "He's really a great guy," Adamson said, fueling up on a burger and sports drink between rounds. "And he's really personable. He'll talk to you."

But Norman, who won the sectional by one stroke and will play at the U.S. Open in Far Hills, N.J. next week, wasn't the star in everyone's eyes.

"I'm here to see my uncle play," said Jennifer Pesce, niece of Tampa golfer Doug LaCrosse. "He's a great uncle and he's been working really hard to qualify. And he just turned the big 5-0, so we hope this will be a birthday present for him."

And what about Norman? "We're going to look for him too," Pesce said.

-- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at mabe@sptimes.com.

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