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U.S. OPEN AT SHINNECOCK HILLS

Longshot Island

Corey Pavin made the most of his best chance to win a major in 1995, while Greg Norman saw another one slip away

June 14, 2004|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Nine years ago this week, on the sun-baked greens and bone-dry fairways and in the blustering wind that blew across Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, it wasn't supposed to be Corey Pavin's day to win the U.S. Open.

Here on the eastern tip of Long Island, about 90 miles from New York City, it should have been Greg Norman's turn to see his name in lights, to be the headliner, the star of the show. His 1996 disaster at the Masters, where he utterly collapsed and lost to Nick Faldo, was still nine months away, and Norman held a three-shot lead with one round to play on the links course and appeared to be at the top of his game.

Norman, 40, clearly was due for a dose of luck. Sure, he already had won two major titles, the British Open in 1986 and 1993, but fresh in his resume, if not his mind, were the six other times he failed and finished second in majors.

It is a list both troubling and heartening. He lost, but he was close. Fuzzy Zoeller beat him at the 1984 U.S. Open. Bob Tway holed a bunker shot to defeat him at the 1986 PGA Championship. Jack Nicklaus shot a 65 on Sunday and beat him at the 1986 Masters. Larry Mize chipped in to defeat him in a playoff at the 1987 Masters. Mark Calcavecchia edged him in a playoff to win the 1989 British Open and Paul Azinger defeated him at the 1993 PGA.

If fans were actually starting to feel sorry for Norman, there was no such compassion for the 35-year-old Pavin, outside of the casual lament that he was the best player never to have won a major championship.

They had no way of knowing it at the time, but for both the winner and the vanquished, for Pavin and Norman, those four days at Shinnecock were the turning points in their careers.

Pavin changed equipment, changed coaches, got a divorce, cut his hair, got remarried and hasn't won a tournament since May 1996. Only twice in the last seven years has he finished in the top 125 on the money list and his 10-year exemption for winning the U.S. Open ends next year.

Norman lost that heartbreaker in 1996 to Faldo at Augusta, after winning a month earlier at Doral, won twice more in 1997 and is now on his seventh consecutive year without a victory. He even gave up his PGA Tour card because he doesn't play enough tournaments to keep it.

Pavin has gray hair now, but he's still out there grinding. His ranking, which was seventh at the end of 1995, is now 213th. He has one top-10 this year, but most recently he missed three consecutive cuts, then tied for 31st at the Colonial and 71st at the Memorial.

Norman isn't playing at Shinnecock, where for the next week, it is a return engagement for Pavin, who returns to the scene of his greatest -- and most unexpected -- triumph in his career.

"I come in here to Shinnecock and everybody keeps asking me 'Gosh, you must be so happy to go back,' " said Pavin, who won with a score of even-par 280. "And I am, I'm real glad to come back here. Obviously it was great memories for me.

"But frankly, I haven't played all that great the last seven or eight years and all I'm trying to do when I come back here is to play some good golf, the best I can and just see what happens. My expectations aren't what they were in 1995."

At that time, Pavin knew he was playing well. He had forced Lee Janzen into a playoff before losing the Kemper Open in his last tournament before Shinnecock. Plus, he already had won the Nissan Open for the second time, so Pavin was confident.

Norman, as usual, was one of the pre-tournament favorites and he showed why in the first two rounds, shooting 68-67.

For Pavin, regarded in many circles as a career underdog despite his successes, it was a long road to the top.

He was six shots behind after the first round, six shots behind after the second round and five behind with 13 holes to play.

Norman, who began the final round tied with Tom Lehman, missed three birdie chances on the front nine, then made bogey at the 12th and 13th. When Pavin knocked a six-iron to six feet at the ninth and made the putt, he was within three shots of Lehman, who had assumed the lead.

But Lehman bogeyed the ninth, 10th and 11th and when Norman made his bogey at the 12th, there was a four-way tie with Norman, Lehman, Tway and Pavin. Davis Love III, who wound up tied for fourth, could have joined the group, but he missed a four-foot birdie putt at the 16th.

At the 15th, Pavin took the lead. He hit a driver down the middle, then knocked a pitching wedge to 12 feet and made the putt for a birdie.

As Norman's fortunes grew dimmer, Pavin somehow became stronger, playing two groups in front of Norman. Pavin's date with history was made with his second shot at the 18th hole, the uphill, 450-yard par four. That's where Pavin won the U.S. Open with one of the greatest clutch shots in major championship history.

With a one-shot lead over Norman, Pavin stood on the right side of the fairway. He had 209 yards to the front edge of the green. From his position, he just wanted to get the ball on the green.

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