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JIM MURRAY

To Some, He's Always a Champion

November 14, 1996|JIM MURRAY

Before there was a Tiger Woods, and after there was an Arnold Palmer and a Jack Nicklaus, there was a Greg Norman.

Golf's Job was a sight to behold on a fairway. The shock of cotton hair, the flashing blue eyes, out-thrust jaw, he was a combination Fearless Fosdick and Frank Merriwell. Wasp-waisted, broad-shouldered, he had the eyesight of a circling hawk and the boldness of a bank robber. They didn't make the hole he couldn't eagle, the course he couldn't drag home to the cave with him. He was predatory. He got his nickname, Great White Shark, not so much for the fact he used to hunt sharks with a kitchen knife but from the fact he looked like one on the spoor of first money in the tournament.

Nobody ever played the game with more confidence. That was just the trouble. Norman didn't know the meaning of the word patience--or defense, for all of that. He was like a fighter who throws crazy rights and moves in. He never wanted to decision a course but to knock it in the seats. He and Palmer were the most exciting players ever to pick up a one-iron and go for it.

He was also the unluckiest golfer who ever lived. Every great golfer has been visited by Aristotelian "undeserved misfortune." It's the name of the game. But no one to the extent Greg Norman was.

Do you realize that, if the Scots had decreed a "tournament" to be 54 holes instead of 72--or even if they had settled on 63--Greg Norman would have won seven more majors than he did? He was in the lead coming into the final nine in all of those tournaments.

Only two players in history have been in a playoff for each of the major championships--the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and the PGA. The two are Craig Wood and Greg Norman. Neither won a single one of those playoffs.

Norman was second in the Masters three times, second in the U.S. Open twice, second in the British Open twice (he won it twice) and second in the PGA twice.

Talk about star-crossed! Greg Norman has been a target of the fickle gods of golf. The most enduring mental picture you have of Greg Norman is of his looking skyward as an "impossible" shot goes over his head as he is standing on a green with a short putt to win but watching as the miraculous (not to say malicious) shot goes in the hole to beat him--like a pitcher watching a home run soar over the fence to beat him out of a World Series.

They had pummeled him for years, those evil invisible deities, but they saved their worst indignity for this year's Masters.

You know, in the long annals of the game, the most famous--or infamous--"blowup" was held to be the Sam Snead eruption in the 1939 U.S. Open. Sam, who was to win more tournaments than any golfer who ever lived, came to the 70th hole that year needing only two pars to win his Open. He bogeyed 17 but still could have won with a par on 18. He took an eight. Ocho. What the college boys call a "snowman."

It was No. 1 on golf's all-time catastrophe list--until this year's Masters.

Greg Norman had his accustomed 54-hole lead as he teed it up with Nick Faldo on the final round. He was six shots ahead. Six! Prevailing opinion was, he could have won it with a rake and a shovel and a ball-marker.

He still had a two-shot lead going into the back nine. The things that happened to him should have happened to Jack the Ripper. By the 18th hole, seasoned golf galleries couldn't look. He was in more water than a U-boat. He went from six shots ahead to five shots behind. It made Snead's one-hole blowup look like a hiccup.

But in a funny kind of way, it made Norman a sort of national hero. We're supposed to be a society of front-runners, addicted to winning, scornful of being second best.

Not so. I sat with Greg Norman the other day out at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, where they're holding the annual Franklin Templeton Shark Shootout. It pits 20 of the best golfers in the world in a tournament for Norman's favorite charity, the National Childhood Cancer Foundation.

"You know, I used to be a cynical individual, " said Norman. "I won't say I expected the worst in people, but I counted my change, if you know what I mean. I kept my own optimism but I kept my distance. But, I honestly believe--no, I know--the outpouring of letters and calls I got from people all over the world really changed my outlook."

There was not a single instance of gloating by anyone, he recalls. Even Nick Faldo, the beneficiary of his implosion, appeared embarrassed, even tearful.

"I was touched," admitted Norman. "I took out newspaper and magazine ads here and in Australia and England to thank the people. It made me feel good there are so many caring people out there."

It wasn't sympathy, it was empathy. "They know," Norman says with a smile. "You know, golf has been good to Greg Norman. It doesn't owe any of us anything. I won a tournament in Australia in 1980 or '81 and won 69 pounds (about $105). Today, you get $1.6 million. To be part of that is lucky, not unlucky."

Norman is now the patron saint of every guy who ever missed a three-foot putt to win the 20-and-over flight at his home club, every guy who ever shanked a three-wood into a living room window of a fairway condo, every one who fanned a tee shot or hit a ground ball in a pro-am with the whole world watching or hit it in the water to lose four ways to his brother-in-law.

And, to every kid with cancer, he's their master champion every year.

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