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THE 60TH MASTERS // Near-perfect Norman

He reveres this tournament as all the greats of the game do, despite its cruelness to him.

Nobody would blame Greg Norman if he kept a chip on his shoulder about Augusta National. Instead, he just let it fall right off.

At the place where he has seen a few green jackets slip through his grasp, Norman tied the course record Thursday in the opening round of the Masters, firing 63 that included nine birdies in his last 12 holes.

He became just the second player in 60 Masters to shoot so low, matching the score Nick Price had for the third round in 1986. But it yielded only a two-shot lead over Phil Mickelson.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give it a 9. I'd put it right up there with a handful of great rounds I've played," said Norman, who hit 16 of 18 greens and 12 of 14 fairways and needed just 27 putts.

Norman, who missed the cut in the past two PGA Tour events, shot the 18th 63 in major-championship history. He also had 63 during the second round of the 1986 British Open, which he went on to win.

But Norman, 41, despite a 70-win total that includes two British Opens, never has won a major in the United States. This would be a good place to start. "I've always said it's the greatest golf tournament in the world," Norman said. "I feel good and comfortable."

The 92 players in the field were treated to warm, windless conditions, giving them plenty of roll in the fairways but plenty of challenges on the greens.

"It was perfect," said Arnold Palmer, 66, who shot 74 in his 42nd Masters.

"I don't think you could ask for better conditions to play. But the greens are slick. If you're not careful, it can get away from you."

Yet 32 players broke par, and the leaders killed the back nine. The top 10 players combined to go 15 under par on the front nine but 30 under on the back.

Scott Hoch had 67 to tie Bob Tway for third place. Lee Janzen shot 68.

Five players _ Nick Faldo, Scott Simpson, Vijay Singh, Brad Faxon and David Gilford _ tied for sixth at 69.

But nobody mastered Augusta like Norman, who has seven top-10 finishes here but no lifetime invitation. He finished second to Jack Nicklaus by one shot in 1986 and lost to a Larry Mize chip-in in a playoff in 1987.

"I got my speed back in my body," Norman said. "I was hitting the ball longer. The other day I was playing with Tiger Woods and he hit it by me by about 50 or 60 yards. It makes you feel a bit inferior. But it all came back today."

It was just the second time in 15 Masters appearances that Norman opened with a score less than 70. The other was in his first appearance, in 1981, when 69 sent him on his way to a fourth-place finish.

Mickelson also had his best score at Augusta, but this is just his fourth appearance. He charged to the lead early in the day, making birdies on four of the last five holes.

"It was a fortunate, a very fortunate round," said Mickelson, who has seven PGA Tour victories at age 25 but seeks his first major championship.

"I felt like if I could shoot 3 or 4 under it would be a great round. That's what I was aiming for. But I had a couple of opportunities where the ball ended up below the hole.

"When I first came here as an amateur, I felt like I should be firing at every pin. I've learned to not fire at every pin. I've tried to play a little smarter."

They stand on different sides of the ball, but Norman and Mickelson address it with the same gusto. They possess crowd-pleasing power, but it is their precision that is being praised.

On frighteningly fast Augusta National, where so many players slip and slide as if they were playing on ice, they skated to the top, careful not to take that bone-crashing tumble.

They made just one bogey between them and found the perfect positions to place their ball on the greens.

Not everybody did. Defending Masters champion Ben Crenshaw shot 77. Fred Couples, who won the Players Championship two weeks ago, shot 78. U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin had 75, PGA Championship winner Steve Elkington 76.

"The golf course did play difficult," Norman said. "It is not that easy. Obviously, you've got to make some putts. You've got to be careful. It played fast, it played firm."

Norman birdied the last three holes on the front nine to take the turn in 33. He made four in a row starting at the 12th. Even when he hit his poorest drive of the day, a hook at No. 14 that hit the trees and left him 220 yards from the pin, Norman nailed a 4-iron thatstopped 3 feet from the hole. At the 15th, he had an 18-foot putt for eagle but settled for a tap-in birdie.

After a two-putt par on the 16th, he finished with two more birdies, hitting a sand wedge approach to 10 feet at the 17th and an 8-iron to 24 feet at the 18th.

"When you get into the type of roll that I got into, it feels very comfortable," Norman said. "Hey, let it happen. Let the reins of the horses go and let him run as fast as he wants to run. That is what I did. I wanted to get as much under par as I could."

And he did.