Sanderson Farms Championship

C.C. of Jackson

The Loop

The Growler and The Shark

SOUTHPORT, England--Greg Norman's caddie during this magically improbable week--the classically grizzled Linn Strickler--is making a comeback of his own at Royal Birkdale.

Strickler, 58, who first caddied on the PGA Tour in 1972 and whose resume includes bosses such as Curtis Strange, Fred Couples, Craig Stadler, Nick Price, Payne Stewart and Ben Crenshaw, had been out of the professional golf loop. Taking a break from a year of short-term gigs for players like Robert Gamez, Tommy Armour III and Phil Blackmar, Strickler was "raking traps for 150-handicappers" this spring at posh Sebonack Golf Club in Long Island.

One day in May, "Today" show host Matt Lauer showed up with a guest, his good friend Greg Norman. Strickler had caddied for Norman in practice rounds a couple of times in the early '90s when filling in for Bruce Edwards, but he was surprised when Norman started inquiring about his availability.

"I'm holding my sand-divot filler and my rangefinder, and the Shark asks me if I want to caddie for him at the British," said Strickler. "When he wondered if the club would let me go, I said, 'I don't care if they let me go or not. I'm going.' "

The week has been a dream for Strickler, who characterized Norman's place at the top of the leaderboard on Friday as "H.G. Wells stuff." On Saturday evening after turning in his bib, he acknowledged a "You're doing a good job" from Chris Evert and reflected on his journey in golf.

Strickler was just out of Vietnam, where he saw combat while assigned to work with bomb-sniffing dogs, when he noticed that an old softball league teammate, Jim Barber, had finished second to Tom Weiskopf at the 1973 Philadelphia Classic. "I called him up and said, 'Congratulations, Barber. You've got a new caddie.' "

Strickler loved the life, and his jaunty, confident style soon made him a favored employee for A-list players. He won tournaments in the early '80s with Strange, who Strickler firmly contends "hated a bogey more than any golfer in history." When Strickler moved on to Couples, he earned the nickname The Vacuum because of the way he could spear Couples' underhand club flips with one hand. It was with Couples in 1984 that Strickler had his biggest win, the 1984 Players Championship.

Strickler became permanently known as The Growler because of a raspy baritone that matches his Clint Eastwood squint. Veteran caddies love repeating Strickler's exchange with a young Payne Stewart, who noticed in their first round together that every yardage given to him from the fairway ended in either a zero or a five instead of a more precise number. "How come?" asked Stewart. Growled Strickler, "Because you're not that good."

In England, Strickler made a striking visual match with Norman. Both are the same height, lean and share a prominent facial bone structure and weathered features. "He's not his caddie, he's his daddy," noted one tabloid headline. One literate spectator called it "a 'Picture of Dorian Gray' thing."

"I really don't know why Greg asked me to work for him," said a grateful Strickler, on his way to nearby Liverpool on Saturday night to watch original Beatle Pete Best perform. "His son, Gregory, was going to come but had to change plans, and Tony Navarro is committed to Adam Scott. It was just a whim, but now it's a fantasy."

Suddenly, Strickler's reverie was interrupted by a golf writer blurting "Can Greg really win?"

"What have you been watching?" snapped The Growler. "Most assuredly. Most assuredly."

*--Jaime Diaz