Asian giant Choi leads as ‘Honeymooning Shark’ lurks close by

July 19th, 2008 - 3:14 am ICT by IANS  

By V. Krishnaswamy
Southport (Britain), July 19 (IANS) Asian superstar Kyung-Ju Choi grabbed the sole lead with back-to-back birdies at the finish, even as the ‘Honeymooning Shark’ Greg Norman lurked close by, just one shot behind at the midway stage of the British Open at the Royal Birkdale Friday. As the weather alternated between bearable and the unbearable, 38-year-old powerlifter-turned-golfer Choi finished with a three-under 67 and at one-under 139 for 36 holes, he was the only player under par in the field.

The morning saw Norman shot a superb second even par 70 to be even par for two rounds raising hopes of a dream story of a third Major win coming in 15 years after the second.

In the first Major championships without Tiger Woods since 1996, the leaderboard had yet another charismatic and colourful character in 26-year-old Colombian Camillo Villegas, who was making his debut at the Open after coming in as a first reserve. Villegas shot a stunning 65 with five birdies on the last five holes to make up for is first round 75.

Later in the day defending champion Padraig Harrington, who had even said he would have pulled out of any other tournament except the Open, gave no indication of troublesome wrist, as he had a sensational finish gaining four shots over last four holes with a birdie on 15th, an eagle on 17th and yet another birdie on 18th to be in a share of fourth place.

Harrington was placed alongside the three first round leaders, Rocco Mediate (73), Graeme McDowell (73) and Robert Allenby (73) besides Jim Furyk (71) and Alexander Noren (70) and David Duval (69), who also turned the clock back after years of struggle since his 2001 British Open win.

Choi for long seen as the first Asian likely to win a Major missed the cut at Birkdale on his Open debut 10 years ago, but has since emerged as one of leading players in the world. Winner of seven titles on the PGA Tour, he has come close to a Major before, but never actually won.

“This was probably the best round that I have ever played at the British Open, everything worked the way I wanted to,” said Choi. “The key thing right now is to maintain my body condition and to try to finish it out. My swing is very good this week … very powerful and simple. I feel good.”

Down the ladder, Phil Mickelson picked himself from the bottom after shooting 79 on opening day to come in with a 68 that will see him stay on for the weekend. Ernie Els at nine-over as also Lee Westwood just about squeezed in and Colin Montgomerie was relatively better off at eight-over for two days after his 75.

However 58-year-old Tom Watson (76) who won quite a few hearts was out at 10-over and also headed home was Vijay Singh (71) with his first 80 doing the damage,

Choi, whose only top-10 in eight appearances at the Open came last year in Carnoustie, who had a 72 in the first round opened with a bogey in the first hole. But thereafter he did little wrong and did not flinch from his path even as many a big name kept falling of the page.

Choi got that shot back on the third and then steadily parred the next nine holes before finding a birdie on the 13th. He then duly reached the par-5 17th in two to set up a 50-footer for an eagle, and completed a birdie to first join Norman in lead at even par for the tournament.

On the 18th and final, he was again on the green in two and then rammed home the 18-footer for another birdie and with it came the sole lead.

Earlier in the morning, Norman when asked if he had expected to be on top when he started the week, Norman shot back immediately, “No” and smiled. Continuing he added, “My expectations are still realistically low.”

Villegas’ presence was no less theatrical. The immaculately - dressed Villegas, who goes down almost horizontally while reading his putts on the green, was not even born when Norman made his Open debut in 1977 and he was just four when the Australian won his first at Turnberry in 1986. Yet they came together on Tuesday to play a practice round.

Norman won the first of his two Majors in 1986, the year his new bride, Chris Evert won the last of her 18 Grand Slam titles in tennis. And on Friday, time and again Norman kept referring to the positive influence his new wife, ‘Chrissie’ has had on his already successful life even as the still-stunning looking lady sitting at the back of the interview room kept beaming.

From his birdie at the first hole, Norman played superb golf. Tied fourth behind the three leaders, Norman went ahead with a opening birdie. As the rest of the field struggled he progressed imperiously. He then came across the treacherous par-4 6th, where he dropped a double bogey. But he quickly recovered his ground with birdies on the seventh and eighth with a long putt to get back to under par.

His finish was once superb. He hit a remarkable bunker shot at the 16th when he had to stand outside the bunker and crouch low to reach the ball. He later said, “Playing tennis with Chrissie has helped me stretch like that”. Looking for a birdie on par-5 17th, he drove into the rough and then put his approach into the front right greenside bunker. He managed to escape with a bogey after hacking from one rough to another.

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