POTOMAC - He still has his fans, lining the fairways in their "Shark" hats and shirts. He still has his aura, emanating from his steely-eyed stare. And yesterday, in the opening round of the $3.6 million Kemper Insurance Open at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel, Greg Norman showed he had something else.
Playing in only his seventh tournament of the year and his first in more than a month, Norman shot a 4-under-par 67. His climb into contention - he was at 5-under and briefly tied for the lead - certainly helped spice up an otherwise drab leader board.
Norman is four strokes behind first-round leader Franklin Langham, who tied the course record and his PGA Tour career low with an 8-under 63. Bob Estes is two strokes behind. Five others - Chris DiMarco, Brian Watts, Jay Williamson, Willie Wood and Brian Gay - were three strokes back.
Now comes the tricky part for Norman - staying in the hunt. At 47 and a non-exempt player for the first time in 20 years, Norman hasn't won a tournament since the 1997 World Series of Golf and hasn't been in serious contention since he made a run in the Masters in 1999 before finishing third.
Can he still win when his playing schedule has been so erratic?
"Oh, yeah. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could," said Norman, whose best finish this year was a tie for 23rd in the Houston Open. "I don't think infrequent play is the ingredient for not winning, because I know in my career I've taken five or six weeks off and come out and won the next week.
"I think if your heart is still in the game, no matter how long you've been out of the game, you should be able to step up and be able to compete. ... The hard part about coming back after a long period of time is actually getting yourself in the position ... where come Sunday you actually feel that little bit of movement in the stomach."
Norman showed he has lost none of his nerve - or recklessness - on the par-5 sixth hole. After starting on the back nine and making the turn at 3-under, then making an 18-footer for birdie on the par-4 fifth hole, Norman put his drive on the right side of the sixth fairway. Most, including longtime caddie Tony Navarro, figured he would lay up.
Seemingly blocked by a 100-foot tree that protects the right side of the green, Norman cut a 3-wood over a creek and onto the left side of the green. He narrowly missed a 35-foot putt for eagle, the ball stopping a couple of inches left of the cup. The birdie lifted Norman to 5-under and gave him a share of the lead.
"I was a little on the upslope," Norman said of his approach from 228 yards. "It was like a normal, swinging 3-wood, and I could see the shot and felt good about it. Even if you laid up, it wasn't going to be an easy pitch shot, anyway. Fortunately, I hit a beautiful shot right there."
Was it another case of Norman going for a shot he shouldn't have played?
"Not in my mind," said Norman. "The caddie would have liked me to lay up."
After hitting his approach 20 yards left of the green on the par-4 seventh, Norman saved par by nearly chipping in and then making a 10-foot putt coming back. The only blip on his scorecard came when he bogeyed the par-4 eighth hole after his second shot found a green-side bunker.
"I played very well today," said Norman, who is tied with eight others at 4-under. "I had the right feel for the golf course today. It was really there to be had this morning. It was very nice conditions, not much to be concerned about."
It certainly looked that way to Langham. Like Norman, Langham was playing in his seventh event of the year after undergoing elbow surgery last October. He had missed the cut in four tournaments, but began to see some progress when he finished tied for 17th last month in the Byron Nelson Classic.
Looking to win his first PGA Tour event in a six-year career, as well as become the tournament's third straight first-time champion, Langham used five straight birdies to vault into the lead. Langham, who also started on the back nine, began his run on the par-4 16th and ended it on the par-5 second.
"I feel I've been building up to something good happening," said Langham, 34, who missed birdie chances to break the record on both the par-4 eighth and par-3 ninth holes. "Last week, I missed the cut at Memorial by a shot, but I didn't really play that bad."
Asked about the possibility of following Rich Beem (68) and Frank Lickliter (70) as first-time winners in this event, Langham said, "It can't be a bad omen, but every week you go, you try to get yourself prepared so you can win every week. And if that works in my favor, great. It's not something I think about."
With only two players here ranked in the Top 20 - neither named Tiger Woods - Norman could find himself back on the marquee in an event where he won twice when it was played at nearby Congressional Country Club. Since the tournament moved here in 1987, Norman has tied for fourth three times and third once.
Does Avenel owe him one?
"I've never been a believer in one place owing you anything," said Norman, whose career has been known as much for his heart-wrenching - or just wrenching, as happened at the 1996 Masters - defeats as for his 56 wins around the world. "I know I played well around here. I've never played well enough to win."
The leader ...
... and selected followers
Jose Maria Olazabal...36-34-70
Complete scores. [Page 3d]