Shark sighting at NEC Invitational

Norman shares first-day lead, leaner Tiger one stroke back

Posted: Friday, August 24, 2001

AKRON, Ohio -- For those wondering whether Tiger Woods is in a slump, perhaps they should take stock of Greg Norman.

Woods has finished out of the top 10 in his last five tournaments.

Norman has gone four years without even winning on the PGA Tour, part of that brought on by surgeries on his hip and shoulder. The Shark hasn't led after the first round in 43 tour events, dating to the 1997 Kemper Open.

One minor adjustment in his putting stroke Thursday suddenly made Norman feel like a contender again, and his 5-under-par 65 gave him a share of the lead with Jim Furyk after one round of the NEC Invitational.

''This is as confident and as good as I've felt in two years,'' said Norman, whose last PGA victory was at Firestone in 1997.

Woods didn't do too badly himself.

Tugging at his pants to mock the fact he has dropped nine pounds over the past eight days -- from the heat at the PGA Championship in Atlanta and food poisoning earlier this week -- Woods strung together three birdies and was among four players at 66.

''I was kind of worried about my stamina, but I've been all right,'' Woods said. ''Today was pretty close to how I have been playing the last couple of years.''

Still, an interview rarely goes by without the word ''slump'' being mentioned.

''Even the best players in the world are going to go through phases where they just really are not playing well,'' Woods said.

Norman has been in one of those phases.

True, he is no longer the dashing figure in the straw hat who contended for majors on a regular basis and won the British Open twice. He is 46, has gone through major surgery twice in the past four years, juggles his golf with a sprawling business enterprise and even sent his daughter off to college this year.

Then again, he had an 82 in the Masters and in the first round of the Memorial. He failed to hold down a top 50 ranking and missed the U.S. Open. The death of a close friend knocked him out of the British Open.

But he still thinks he can win. Maybe even this week.

''Even in the down times, like the middle of this year or the last couple of years, I've never lost sight of that,'' Norman said. ''As long as I still feel like I can win, I'm going to stay here and still play.

''I feel like I'm going to play a good round tomorrow, and that's a good feeling to have.''

Furyk continued his strong play with a bogey-free round, capping it off with a 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole.

Once in danger of not making the Ryder Cup team, Furyk took care of that with a runner-up finish in the Buick Open, then had a chance on the weekend at the PGA Championship until he tied for seventh.

''I don't think there's a huge difference between the way I'm playing other than I am scoring real well,'' Furyk said.

Norman found something in his game last week before the PGA Championship, but still struggled with his putting. He spent close to an hour Wednesday evening stroking 10-foot putts, working on releasing the blade.

The light came on as he played the 10th hole Thursday.

''Once I got my shoulders a little more elevated, all of a sudden the putter started to release,'' Norman said. ''I missed two short putts and I said, 'It doesn't matter. I've got it now. I feel great.'''

He made a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-3 12th and his 30-footer on No. 17 put him at 6-under and in the lead.

A drive left into the trees led to a bogey on the final hole, but it hardly dampened the Shark's enthusiasm.

''My past has been a phenomenal past, and I like my future,'' Norman said.

Woods' future still looks OK, too.

Coming off his longest streak of tournaments outside the top 10 -- five, including the last three majors -- he made his 66 look easy Thursday. Then again, Woods won by 11 strokes at the NEC Invitational last year with a record 259, his lowest 72-hole as a professional.

A victory this week would be an unprecedented third straight at Firestone.

''I feel like I'm starting to put things together,'' Woods said.

The last guy who had food poisoning on Monday of a tournament week and went on to win was Phil Mickelson at the Buick Invitational in San Diego.

''Hopefully, it will be the same way for me,'' Woods said.

Tied with Woods at 66 were three Europeans -- Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn. The World Golf Championship event is for players from the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams, plus the top 12 Europeans from its Ryder Cup standings.

Mickelson, trying to bounce back from a devastating loss in the PGA Championship, was in a group at 67 that included Ernie Els and Ryder Cup hopeful Ian Poulter of England.

PGA champion David Toms was another stroke back, followed by British Open champion David Duval.

Woods mustered up enough strength -- not to mention a little magic -- to survive some shaky moments off the tee.

He was under the trees in the left rough on the fourth hole, blocked from a clear shot at the green. Aiming about 70 degrees right of the green, Woods slashed it at with an 8-iron and whipped his body around for a sharp draw. The ball landed 20 feet from the cup.

On the next hole, after another drive into the left rough, he took such a strong swipe that he cut into a thick tree root under his ball that he didn't know was there.

Once he got his drives straightened out and a few putts began to fall, Woods was right in the mix on the course he dominates.

Norman used to know that feeling, too, and is starting to believe he'll get back.

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