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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

The Shark Makes His Presence Felt

June 02, 2002|THOMAS BOSWELL | WASHINGTON POST

If the golf fans at the Kemper Open couldn't get the Tiger they wanted, they were happy to settle for the Shark they've enjoyed for so long. At least for one day, anyway.

Greg Norman always has been the most charismatic, romantic and controversial player in the 22-year history of the Kemper. He's done it all here--good, bad and zany.

Now, at 47, and without a Tour victory in five years, the aging Norman--part-time golfer, full-time professional celebrity and world-class businessman--is back in town.

Wouldn't you know it, he started the tournament right where the Kemper needs him--in the middle of a leader board dominated by names such as Watts, Williamson and Wood.

The Chairman of Great White Shark Enterprises--a multinational corporation involved in golf course design, residential development, apparel sales, an interactive Web site (www.shark.com), golf equipment distribution, restaurants, a vineyard and a line of yachts--shot 67 in his first round. This guy even makes money off grass. The Super Bowl once used Greg Norman Turf.

If nobody calls on Norman's cell phone in the next three days to set up some international merger in Sydney, he might have a chance for one last moment of twilight golf glory.

Please, don't anybody suggest that Norman hop in his private helicopter to go to his private jet so that he can swing some big Asian acquisition. He might be tempted. Corporate titan-ship holds his love these days, but for a week, he can definitely squeeze golf back into his heart.

For a man who's only had four top-10 finishes since 1997, but endured two major surgeries, this is a fine chance to show the golf world he's not washed up. All that rehab was worth the trouble. And his hip surgery--with video on the Internet--wasn't just to provide, shall we say, "unique" programming for his Web site.

"A win would mean a lot to me," said Norman, who has had only one contending chance this season, starting the final round of the Houston Open in sixth place, but fading to 23rd with a 76. "It would be a reinforcement of the belief in myself that I can do it."

No golfer has ever needed that resilient "belief in myself" more than Norman, with his six heart-breaking runner-up finishes in major championships--some self-inflicted, but most the result of miracle shots against him.

And no golfer has ever lost on the world stage, rebounded and tried again with more good grace than Norman.

He even had the grit to put his hand back in the fire at the Masters in '99, finishing third, after his seven-shot blown lead with a final-round 78 in '96.

"If I didn't think I could put myself in position to win this golf tournament, I wouldn't be here, trust me," Norman said.

Logic, history, precedent? Why bow to that? Even Jack Nicklaus never won again after his Masters at 46. But Norman thinks he will.

"I've got too many other things I love to do in life to come out here and feel like I'm just walking around the golf course," said Norman, who ran off three straight birdies at the 14th, 15th and 16th holes with birdie putts of 12, 24 and 12 feet. "So it really would be the fulfillment of how I feel inside that, yes, you can still do it.

"And today was a good indication of that, even though it was only one round."

If the rocks and creeks at Avenel know what's good for them, they will give Norman every good bounce the next three days. Because if they don't, he may just replace the whole darn course and move the Kemper to a track of his own in a few years.

On Tuesday, Norman discussed his plans for a $20 million elite course at the Lansdowne Resort near Leesburg, Va. There's already talk that, after the current Kemper-Avenel contract runs out in 2006, Norman's layout might eventually get some of the Kemper action.

That's a long way down the road, but if Norman rattles a few into the woods, the oaks and pines might keep it in mind. Someday, Chairman Shark might hold this course's fate in his fins.

If Norman somehow beat the long odds and capped his Tour career with one last victory, it would certainly feel appropriate if he did it here in the Kemper. His first PGA Tour victory came in 1984 at Congressional, where he repeated in '86. Since the Kemper moved to the TPC at Avenel, he's often excited the crowds with near misses, finishing third once and fourth on three occasions.

At other choice Kemper moments, he's gently suggested course changes ("blow up the ninth hole"), given the finger to the crowd, annoyed promoters by pulling out belatedly and even berated the first-tee announcer for making a joke at his expense.

In fact, this is Norman's first trip back to the Kemper since that famous first-tee dustup when the announcer made a remark about President Bill Clinton falling down the stairs at Norman's house in Florida.

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