COOLUM, Australia -- Tour rookie
Popovic, who revealed after his round that his father is battling incurable cancer, birdied his first four holes at the Palmer Coolum Resort, and later had a string of five birdies in succession.
Fellow Australian Scott Strange shot 66 and was alone in second, followed by 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy and OneAsia Tour regulars Zhang Xinjun of China and Singapore's Choo Tze-huang, who carded 67s.
Rory Sabatini of South Africa shot 76.
Norman flew by helicopter with resort owner Clive Palmer to the Gold Coast for a private function later Thursday.
"Greg was trying to soldier through and clearly it wasn't possible ... he was quite ill," PGA of Australia chief executive Brian Thorburn said.
Popovic, who won last year's qualifying tournament to secure his card for 2012, looked set to break the course record of 62 when he was 8-under after 12 holes. But after eight birdies and a bogey, he shot par the rest of the way in, including a testing four-footer on the last.
"It wasn't the best of conditions, but after last week at the Australian Open I got used to hitting a lot of wind shots," he said.
"I didn't really want to attack the flags, but after a while I talked to my caddie and we decided to start hitting straight at them."
The 25-year-old Popovic said he only realized he was among the leaders early on his final nine.
"Through nine, I sort of thought I might be up there, then on the second (his 11th hole) I saw my name up there on the leaderboard. And I thought it might be time for a few more birdies. It didn't happen, but I'm not too disappointed."
Popovic said he's had a tough year. His father, Radi, who gave him his start in the game, is battling a form of incurable bone cancer.
"You are unsure of when the actual day will come, but he is a strong man and a very stubborn man and I think he'll be here for a little while longer," Popovic said.
"He doesn't have too much energy. Last week he came up to Sydney but he just sort of saw my first tee shot and when I came through nine and that was it. But he will be in tears today."
Strange has played on both the European and Asian tours recently, but failed in his qualifying attempt for Europe next year and his status in Asia is also not guaranteed.
"I have always been on the right track, even in Q-school," said Strange, who won the 2008 Welsh Open on the European Tour.
"If I managed to roll putts in there, I would have had my European card back. But that is the nature of the beast -- live by the sword, die by the sword. "
His scheduled for 2013 is uncertain.
"I want to play the One Asia Tour and probably the Asian Tour if I can, but I will be playing a lot more in Australia because my schedule will allow me," he said.
Zhang, a member of Team China, the country's national golf squad, missed the cut at last week's Australian Open at The Lakes in Sydney. He didn't take up golf until he was 17.
"These last two weeks have given us the opportunity to play against the best Australian players like Adam Scott, but also international stars like Justin Rose," said Zhang, who rated his best shot Thursday a 156-yard 9-iron to 10 feet on the tough, water-lined ninth hole at the resort.
The Palmer-owned resort and the PGA of Australia were not able to come to an agreement to keep the event at the Sunshine Coast course, so it will move elsewhere next year in Queensland state.
Golfers this year were greeted by a giant tail-flipping, roaring replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur between the ninth green and 10th tee, part of billionaire mining magnate Palmer's plans to turn the resort into a theme park.
"I'm astonished. I never thought I'd see a dinosaur on a golf course," Zhang said. "During the practice round its eyes were moving and his tongue looked, well, almost real. It certainly makes the course look different."