Norman has ‘good feeling’ for Masters

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CAP CANA, Dominican Republic – Age and circumstance have a way of beating high expectation out of a man. Yesterday’s prospects become today’s fantasy. So it is with Greg Norman and the Masters. The confident protagonist of almost 20 years returns to his favorite but most torturous tournament for the first time since 2002 rooted in pragmatism.

“I want to have fun and make the cut,” the fit 54-year-old said. “If you make the cut, you never know what happens on the weekend.”

No one needed to ask about the Great White Shark’s goal at Augusta a decade or two ago. From 1981 to ‘99, he finished in the top 6 nine times without winning. Few have had a game so fitted for a green jacket. And perhaps no one has suffered as much at a place Norman has called his “cruel temptress.”

Everybody figured he’d never have another chance. He’s barely a part-time player. He hasn’t played more than four PGA Tour events in a season since 2004 and has made only six Champions Tour starts. He hasn’t won since ‘97 and hadn’t had a Tour top 10 in six years until last summer. But then that remarkable tie for third out of nowhere at last summer’s British Open at Royal Birkdale qualified him for this year’s Masters.

And it got some people dreaming again.

“Stranger things have happened,” instructor David Leadbetter, who has worked some with Norman over the years, said of a possible Masters victory. “Who knows? That would be the story of the era.”

Gregory Norman, 23, has imagined. He says he expects his famous father to do well because “he’s playing brilliantly” and swinging like he did 20 years ago. So when it was suggested that a Masters success would be the greatest story in golf history, the professional kiteboarder and fill-in caddie said, “Sports. The biggest in sports.”

The Shark smiled at the exchange. But he’s not buying. When he walked out of a three-club wind the other day here at the Champions Tour’s Cap Cana Championship and into a discussion about his Masters chances, he called a timeout on pipe dreams. No “Jaws” music, please. Never mind the credo that high achievement is linked to great expectation.

“I don’t want to go there because I’m a realist,” the winner of 20 Tour titles, including two British Opens, said at the scenic Punta Espada Golf Club. “That golf course is brutal, and I don’t play on a regular basis. Augusta National is worlds apart from British Open links golf. I just want everybody to understand: Don’t start building this thing up to be some massive crescendo or ‘Here he is again.’ It’s not like I’m pounding the ball out there longer than anybody else. That’s what I was doing in the ‘80s. If it’s wet and cold, it’s going to be a tough week for anybody who doesn’t pound the ball near a 300-yard carry.”

During the past decade, Norman has spent more time on body parts (surgeries on shoulder, hip, back and knee) and business (course architecture, wine, apparel, beef and equipment) than golf. Married to Chris Evert since last summer, he has played more tennis than golf the past couple of years. Little wonder then that he decided to tune up the two weeks before the Masters – at Cap Cana and this week’s Shell Houston Open – and wants to go in under the radar.

“People want to talk about redemption and revenge and all those things,” Evert, retired winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, said from Norman’s gallery at Cap Cana. “He just wants to play. He wants to enjoy it and make the cut. The less pressure that’s on, the better he plays. It would be great if he could play some solid golf in addition to feeling the love.”

As a Hall of Famer yet Masters tragic figure, Norman likely will receive warm sentiment that few sportsmen have. He already has felt – and says he’s surprised by – the attention. When Australian and American friends informed Norman that they’re flying in to watch him, he tried to be low key: “Just show up and watch golf; don’t come down to watch me play.”

Norman played a practice round March 18 on a wet 7,435-yard Augusta National and hit long irons into some holes he used to approach with wedges. At the British Open, he improvised and chipped 4-irons under the wind; at Augusta he hit 4-iron into the once-short seventh instead of the finesse pitch of yore. So he came away astonished by the course’s difficulty and changes, for it measures 450 yards longer than when he last contended a decade ago. He came away thinking the possibility of low scores and back-nine charges has diminished. Factoring all that, it would seem he stands a better chance this year at Turnberry, site of his first Open triumph in 1986.

More than the National transformation struck him. The reception did as well.

“My God; it was like they were rolling back the clock 15 years,” he said of the welcome. “All the guys in the locker room and staff came up and give big ol’ hugs. Members came over to my table. It’s like, ‘Holy crap.’ It’s like, ‘Hey guys, it’s great to see you, too.’ So I know it’s going to be good.”

Evert says she’s excited as well but isn’t sure what to expect. Norman keeps telling her it’s the Wimbledon of golf. The recent onslaught of television promos got her thinking the scene looks overwhelming.

“All I’ve heard from him is that it’s his favorite tournament even though it’s been elusive,” Evert said. “Wimbledon was that way for me. . . . Martina (Navratilova) killed me every time, but it was my favorite tournament. So I can see how he feels that way because of the tradition, atmosphere and course.”

Norman and Evert talk often about dealing with pressure. But Evert says she has to be careful about doling advice “because he has to be himself out there, and I don’t want to get him in a box where he feels he has to act a certain way.”

Whether he can wake any echoes is uncertain. He says he’ll try by doing what worked in the old days. “Go in there and get caught up in the moment,” Norman said. “Go in there and take away all the noise. The noise is all the other stuff that goes on, people talking. It’s all about focus. I did it before, and I’ve got to do it again.

“Would I like to walk in there and play well? Yes, I would. But I’m realistic.”

• • •

“When one’s expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything one does have.”

– Stephen Hawking, English physicist

Greg Norman has said part of his problem at Augusta was that he got “too excited” every year. Come April, he found himself impatient. Anxiety wasn’t an ally. That was then, this is now.

“I’ve got nothing to lose,” he says. “I’m in a win-win situation. I really am. I never thought I’d be back there, ever again. There are a lot of positives.” And then he rattles them off. He gets to play his favorite event, son Gregory will caddie, Evert will experience it for the first time and “hell, nobody expected to see me there again.”

Nobody expected him to have a locker without a green blazer, either. Norman included. You spend 331 weeks atop the world ranking – that’s almost 6 1/2 years – and you figure you’ll wear green someday.

“It was just one of those things,” Norman said. “Why get upset? Chrissie and I talk about this a lot – things that happen and transpire. What I don’t like is reading about it all the time; the negative side. There’s been a lot of positive that has happened to me, too, but everybody seems to harp on the negative. Nobody thinks of the 30 I shot on the front (1988, co-record). They always think about the bogey I made on 18.”

Norman was runner-up three times – in 1986, the year of Jack Nicklaus’ age-46 magic; in ‘87, the year of Larry Mize’s 140-foot playoff chip-in; and in 1996, when Norman shot 78 and blew a six-shot Sunday lead and lost by five to Nick Faldo, who closed with 67.

“He wanted that tournament so bad and felt he should’ve won, so he put so much unnecessary pressure on himself,” said Butch Harmon, Norman’s coach in 1991-96. “It was more anxiety than anything else.”

On the final day in ‘86, Norman birdied Nos. 14-17 and needed a par at 18 to force a playoff with Nicklaus. But he hit a 4-iron approach far right and bogeyed. He calls the decision to hit a soft 4-iron from 187 yards instead of a hard 5-iron his biggest regret in golf.

The dagger that “killed me inside” came the next year when Mize holed out. “That was destiny saying, ‘You aren’t going to win this tournament,’ ” Norman has said. “That one really rocked me. I never expected him to get up-and-down in two. And he didn’t; he got up-and-down in one.”

When Norman played the National recently with a member friend and a couple of guests, the hole at No. 11 was almost in the same spot. When someone inquired about where Mize chipped, Norman pointed to the spot and said, “Now you go over there and try to hit this shot.”

The loss in ‘96 stands as the biggest collapse by a 54-hole leader in major-championship history. Five times before, third-round leaders had blown five-shot leads. In Norman’s case, the slide was swift. When Norman double-bogeyed the 12th, Faldo shockingly was up two, having made up six shots in five holes and eight shots overall. When the Shark got home, he went for a therapeutic “good cry” on the beach with then-wife Laura.

“I know exactly what happened,” Norman, who hasn’t talked much about that final round, says now. “My timing was off. I knew on the driving range before I teed off. My back was bad Saturday, and I woke up Sunday morning very stiff. I went for a 1 1/2-mile walk to try to loosen it up. But on the range, my turn wasn’t as good. You look at all the shots from the first hole on – they were just 3-4 yards out. The more I pushed it, the harder it was. So you feel like water going through your fingers. It’s just disappearing.”

Norman worked with a back specialist all week but said he got progressively tighter as he walked the hilly course. Harmon noticed his man “didn’t have it” on the range Sunday.

“He was definitely a different person physically and emotionally,” Harmon said. “He fought his back all week but played within himself. Sunday, it was like he tried to push everything. There was a tremendous amount of anxiety in his body that day.”

Harmon and Leadbetter noticed Norman took more time over the ball Sunday, regripping often. Leadbetter, then in a 13-year run as Faldo’s coach, sensed a crack the day before and told Faldo on Sunday morning that Norman hadn’t looked comfortable over the ball.

“You could see Greg get tighter and tighter and more fidgety Sunday,” Leadbetter said. “You could see certain signals. He got painfully slow. The harder he tried, the more tension there was.”

The day shook golf and Australia. Adam Scott, then 15 and in Queensland, said he was “gutted” watching his hero unravel. “Everyone cried,” Scott said. “The whole country suffered.”

Fellow Aussie pro Greg Chalmers, then 22, didn’t believe a security officer who told him of the result when he landed in London. “I know it’s a lie,” Chalmers told the man. Then Chalmers ran to get newspaper confirmation. When he read Norman lost by five, he still “thought someone was making it up.”

“The defining thing about that day is, if you ask any golf fan, they can tell you where they were and what they were doing,” Chalmers said. “It’s like when someone really important passes away.”

Thirteen years later, Norman is making his 23rd Masters appearance. This time, he’s more concerned about his conditioning than his swing. This time, it’s more about the process than the end. This time, it’s more about present than past.

“I know people kind of always revert back to the negative, and I always go back to the positive,” Norman said. “That’s just my makeup internally as an individual compared to what perception other people have of me. They are like, ‘Why didn’t this course destroy Greg Norman?’ I’m going back because I love it, I love playing there, I love the people there, I love the establishment there.

“It’s just a good feeling for me.”

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