Norman and Villegas: Not So Strange Practice Partners
SOUTHPORT, England -- They might seem like strange practice partners, but Greg Norman has made it a tradition of passing down some of the knowledge given to him from Raymond Floyd and Jack Nicklaus when Norman was a young lad playing major championships in the '80s. And so it was that Norman and Camilo Villegas went around Royal Birkdale on Tuesday, the 53-year-old Australian and the 26-year-old Colombian with a respect for the game and a yearning to soak up links-game wisdom from a two-time Open champion.
It's kind of like Paul Newman working with Tom Cruise, or Bruce Springsteen with Justin Timberlake, but nothing was lost in translation between the sex symbols of different generations. "He had some good advice," Villegas said. "And obviously when somebody like that tells you something, you'd better listen."
Villegas listened and learned, shooting the round of the tournament by closing with five straight birdies for a 65 that NEARLY placed him in a Saturday pairing when the guy giving him the lessons, Norman. Instead, Villegas plays with Rocco Mediate. "His attitude and demeanor on the golf course is just great," Norman said of Villegas. "He knows he's got a lot of pressure on himself, too, because he's a good player and he hasn't won a major. He'll talk about it. He wants to be there, and he wants to win, no question."
The biggest takeaway Villegas brought to the course this week: "Don't try to fight the wind in this tournament." Camilo didn't, choosing to take more club, like he did at the 14th to start his run by chipping a 5-iron under the wind.
After a bogey-bogey start, Villegas used that birdie in the middle of his back nine to set off a Norman-like run punctuated at the 18th when his pitching-wedge approach from 176 yards would have gone over the green had it not bounced off the flagstick.
Considering he qualified as first alternate when Kenny Perry elected not to compete, Villegas handled his first British Open with the calm of a veteran. "I looked at my caddie and said, 'Listen, we just got a little luck here. Let's take advantage of this one and close it out.' " Villegas did, from 20 feet for his eighth birdie of the round.
Norman and Villegas met at The International in 2004, when Norman stuck out his hand and introduced himself. Villegas got the invite from Norman to compete in the 2007 Merrill Lynch Shootout. The bond was solidified when Villegas won the recent Canadian Skins Game in a field that included Norman, Fred Couples and Mike Weir.
It's not unlike the mentoring relationship Norman took on with Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia. Norman and Scott still send text messages to one another.
"I think it's a responsibility of all great players to hand down whatever message you can to the younger generation," said Norman, who was 22 when he played his first British Open, at Turnberry in 1977. "I hope they're willing to be open-minded and accept it as friendly advice without them feeling like I'm telling them what to do. I like the young guys. I like to see them do well."