SOUTHPORT, England —Tiger Woods on crutches was supposed to be a chance for someone else to seize the spotlight at the British Open. Greg Norman wasn’t the guy anyone had in mind.
Neither was David Duval.
Indeed, Royal Birkdale proved to be fertile ground for fairy tales on Friday.
K.J. Choi rolled in a 25-foot birdie on the final hole for a 3-under 67 in more gloom and wind along the Irish Sea, giving him his first lead in a major championship. It will be the second straight year he plays in the final group at the British Open going into the weekend.
But the biggest surprises were right behind him, starting with a pair of British Open champions who once were No. 1 in the world.
Norman barely touched a club in the month leading up to his 26th appearance in golf’s oldest championship. The 53-year-old married tennis great Chris Evert three weeks ago, and a trip to England counts as the tail end of his honeymoon.
He wound up renewing his love affair with links golf, delivering great escapes over his final three holes for an even-par 70 that put his name atop the leaderboard for most of the afternoon until Choi birdied the final two holes.
Choi was at 1-under 139, one shot ahead of Norman.
“My expectations were almost nil coming in, to tell you the truth,” Norman said. “My expectations are still realistically low, and I have to be that way. I can’t sit here and say, ‘OK, it’s great. I’m playing well and I’m doing it.’ I am playing well. I am doing it. But I still haven’t been there for a long time.”
His last victory was 10 years ago in Australia at the Greg Norman Holden International. He hasn’t been this close to the lead at the halfway point of a major since he was leading the ‘96 Masters.
Duval knows that feeling.
His last victory was the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan at the end of 2001, the year he won his only major at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. What followed was a mysterious slump that included a half-dozen coaches, precious few rounds under par and an aloof player who found happiness in marriage and children.
For those waiting for another collapse, Duval never showed a hint of it.
He chipped in for birdie at No. 11, kept damage to only a bogey when he found a pot bunker off the tee on the 13th, and bounced back with another birdie on the par-3 14th.
“I’ve been working toward greatness, not just getting back to making cuts and managing to play halfway decent,” said Duval, who had made only one cut in 11 starts this year before arriving at Royal Birkdale. “I’ve been trying to take the long route and the hard route and try to get back to greatness.
“That story is yet to be told as to whether I can get back to that point or not,” he said. “But that’s what I strive for.”
This wonderful story unfolding at Birkdale still has a long way to go.
It starts with Choi, a 37-year-old from South Korea who didn’t think much of golf until a high school teacher handed him an instructional book by Jack Nicklaus. A seven-time winner on the PGA Tour—the most of any Asian player— he overcame a bogey on the first hole to play flawlessly in a steady 20 mph wind and occasional squirts of rain.
“I think today was probably my best round I’ve ever played at the British Open,” said Choi, who trailed Sergio Garcia by two shots going into the third round at Carnoustie last year before finishing in a tie for eighth. “Everything worked the way I wanted it to.”
The best finish belonged to Camilo Villegas of Colombia, whose lone victory came last year in Japan.
A marketing dream, Villegas is known as “Spider-Man” for splaying his body horizontally to read putts at surface level. He made everything over the final five holes—all birdies—for a tournament-best 65 that left him two shots behind.
“Let me tell you, when you get on the first tee, you never think about a score,” said Villegas, who got into the British Open as an alternate when Kenny Perry decided not to come. “You just think about every single shot because you don’t know how bad it can get, when the weather is going to get like it was yesterday morning. So you’re just trying to grind every single shot. And that’s what I did.”
Villegas was at 141.
Duval and a half-dozen others were at 2-over 142, which is where more fairy tales in the making reside.
Padraig Harrington normally wouldn’t fall into that category, but the defending champion injured his right wrist and wasn’t sure he could even tee it up Thursday. The Irishman said there was only a 50 percent chance he would finish his first round.
And the odds he would play his final four holes in 4 under and shoot 68 and be three shots out of the lead?
“As long as I could play, I was happy,” Harrington said. “The wrist injury took some of the pressure off me, but it definitely was a nice distraction to have, assuming that I was going to go and play.”
Now he’s in decent shape as he tries to become the first European to win consecutive British Opens since James Braid in 1905-06.
Others at 142 included former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, Robert Allenby, Graeme McDowell and Alexander Noren, a Swede who attended wind-blown Oklahoma State.
Twenty players were within five shots of the lead, a group that includes Jean Van de Velde, the Frenchman made famous by his follies on the final hole at Carnoustie that led to triple bogey and cost him a claret jug. He was at 4-over 144.
“This whole tournament is likely to be sorted out in the last nine holes, and you just want to be in that hunt,” Harrington said.
Sergio Garcia, the pre-tournament favorite, has some work to do. He was moving into contention until hitting sideways on the 11th hole on his way to a double bogey, and he had to settle for a 73 that put him six shots behind.
Ernie Els was lucky to still be playing. He missed a 5-foot par putt on the final hole for a 69 and figured he had missed the cut. He wound up making it on the number, but he might need a new putter on Saturday considering how hard he threw his into the ground as he stormed off the 18th green.
Lee Trevino is the only 36-hole leader at Royal Birkdale to win the British Open, perhaps opening up more possibilities.
Considering what Norman and Duval have done over 36 holes, anything can happen.
Norman’s most dramatic shots weren’t even for birdie. With his feet planted on the edge of a pot bunker on the 16th, he leaned down and scooped out a shot to 6 feet to save his par. Then came a 12-foot putt on the 17th to make bogey, and he finished it off with a 20-foot par putt from the fringe on the 18th.
At a packed press conference, Norman was asked if he anticipated being in this position when he arrived at Royal Birkdale.
“Nope,” he said, flashing those pearly whites. “I’m not going to say anymore.”