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COMMENTARY

The Norman Conquest: Sharing His Collapse

April 21, 1996|THOMAS BOSWELL | WASHINGTON POST

Ten years ago, when Jack Nicklaus at 46 won his sixth Masters at Augusta, Ga., everybody who watched him felt uplifted, strengthened, maybe even ennobled. Last Sunday, Greg Norman lived the opposite experience. And so did we. Watching him blow a six-shot lead in the final round made millions of people empathize with the sorrow of the Shark as they'd once identified with the glory of the Bear.

A decade ago, we exalted in Nicklaus showing his composure, his experience and his smile as he walked the final holes "holding back tears" of joy as his proud son carried his clubs. He was an example of the strength we hope to find in ourselves when we need it most. Nicklaus summoned himself to the task.

A week ago, we clenched our jaws for Norman as we shared his discouragement and ebbing bravado. He lived out our fear that, in a crisis, we won't quite know ourselves, or control ourselves, well enough to prevail. He was all of us when we fail--again--and still don't know why. "I always try to learn from my failures," said Norman. "But I may not want to learn from this one. I screwed up enough this time that I may want to leave it alone."

Plenty of us may want to leave this one alone--just put it to bed.

After the Masters, winner Nick Faldo said he hoped that "the little darlings in the media tent will go easy" on Norman. Faldo needn't have worried.

Ironically, Norman seems to need kid-glove treatment less than any athlete in many years. After he'd given so many gracious post-Masters interviews that it seemed he might stop random motorists on Washington Street to give them his version of the disaster, Norman was actually getting a little slap-happy.

"Green?" he said into a TV camera, his hair a bit disheveled and his grin on crocked. "Don't you hate green? Does anybody like green ?"

Who'd want a green jacket, anyway? It clashes with the Norman collection.

You wished Bill Buckner, Marv Levy, Ralph Branca and, especially, the late Donnie Moore, could have been there to share that confident laugh with Norman. Nobody takes a punch like the Shark.

Which is good. Because not many athletes have ever done a better job of throwing away a really big one. Norman probably owed some taxes Sunday; but he is going to keep paying penalty and interest on his 78 in the final round at Augusta National for much longer. Does Willie Shoemaker joke about standing up at the 16th pole in the Kentucky Derby? Bill Buckner once entered a Boston restaurant and a guy rolled a grapefruit across the floor toward him, yelling, "Here, Billy. See if you can catch this one." Buckner walked out.

Norman is lucky in one respect. He'll never feel that he let down teammates or a league or a city. This was a crime without a victim, as long as Norman doesn't make himself one. And that's never been his inclination.

Asked how anyone could possibly keep from "dwelling on" such a collapse for a long time, Norman's eyes grew flat and hard as he said: "Just watch."

What will happen to Norman now? He vows to keep playing for years. His legendary determination and physique should let him stay competitive at least as long as Nicklaus, Ray Floyd and Hale Irwin, who all won majors past age 45. Obviously, Norman needs to do something. Last year's U.S. Open, when he went from a two-shot lead after 36 holes to a seven-over-par weekend, plus this Masters, is certainly enough indication that he may have a problem.

What on earth is it? Everybody and his dog must have a theory. The feeling here is that while Norman has enormous self-esteem, he lacks self-knowledge. Not as a person. Just as a golfer. Norman has always thought that he was a bit better than he is. Not much. Just a little. Also, he thinks he's less affected by pressure and tension than other top golfers. Even on Sunday, he said: "I never felt tight. I didn't feel any tension. I just lost my rhythm."

Maybe we're dealing with an Australian macho thing. Whatever the case, if Norman thinks he wasn't doing a classic golf gag, then he should watch the tapes. It's subtle, Greg. You don't stand there shaking in your spikes. You don't grip the shaft till it bends. Golf is sneaky and subliminal. The extra tension in your hands slows down your clubhead speed just enough that your iron shots start landing a couple of yards short of their normal distance. You decelerate the putter head just an instant earlier than normal, producing those horrifying putts that are perfectly dead on but die across the cup mouth.

Norman has every symptom. But he won't take the normal Sunday medicine. And what is that, pray tell? Accept the fact that you're choking even though you can't sense it. Don't play the same way you did on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Give yourself an extra margin for error, especially in the lead.

Norman made a list of all his iron shots that landed "two feet, two feet, two feet, six feet, eight feet" from the exact spot he'd aimed.

Well, of course. That's how it's been for 100 years. That's why Bobby Jones built those Sunday pin positions on ledges and peninsulas that are just a pace or two tighter than those used on other days. It's diabolical. It's golf.

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