POTOMAC -- Greg Norman left the Tournament Players Club at Avenel after the 1987 Kemper Open with no intention of returning. He suggested they blow up the ninth hole. If the rest of the course went too, so be it.
"To be perfectly honest, I thought no, I wouldn't be back," Norman said yesterday.
Four years, and one major remodeling job later, Norman is back. He returns this week as the top draw for the $1 million tournament, which is scheduled to begin tomorrow, but his game is in about the same shape as Avenel was back then: spotty.
Currently 98th on the money list with $69,747 -- a few tax shelters from the $1.1 million he made as the tour's leading money-winner last season -- Norman hasn't won in more than a year and hasn't been in the hunt for a while.
But his attitude seems a lot better than it was less than two months ago. After missing the cut at this year's Masters, Norman took more than a month off. Though he used his sister's impending surgery in Australia as a way to avoid being fined by commissioner Deane Beman, his mental state was the biggest reason he left the tour.
"I was burnt out," said Norman, who returned two weeks ago and finished 27th at Memorial. "I felt the pinch of eight years of hard work. Everyone saw the pinch coming for the last 12 months, how impatient I was getting with myself. It was just a matter of me finding out myself. I found out the hard way."
Norman, at one time among the most popular players on tour, was ridiculed by his peers for spending too much time at pursuing corporate interests. They sent a clear message to him by voting four-time winner Wayne Levi as the 1990 Player of the Year over Norman, who had won twice and was the Vardon Trophy winner for lowest scoring average.
At 36, and five years removed from his only major championship (1986 British Open), Norman no longer seems consumed with the thought of being the next Nicklaus. He knows now that his career suffered, and his image was a bit tarnished, by his off-course interests.
"I burned the candle at both ends," said Norman, who reportedly made nearly eight times as much in corporate endorsements last year as he did playing golf. "It wasn't IMG's [his management group] fault; it was mine. I thought, 'The world is out there for me.' I got my rewards, but I paid the price."
There are some who believe that Norman's gradual downswing also was attributable to a buildup of disappointments in major championships over the past five years. Norman's career is more likely measured now by his incredible defeats than by his nine tour victories.
Who can forget Bob Tway's birdie from the sand to beat Norman in the 1986 PGA Championship, on the final hole at Inverness? Or Larry Mize's 140-foot chip-in eight months later in sudden death at The Masters? Or Robert Gamez's holing out from 176 yards on the 18th fairway for eagle to beat Norman at Bay Hill last year? Or David Frost, doing his imitation of Tway, last year at New Orleans?
"That definitely takes its toll," said Hughes Norton, Norman's business manager at International Management Group. "It sort of affects your attitude. You begin to wonder, 'What do I have to do to win?' "
Though Norman is playing this week to help fill the void left on his tour schedule -- by pulling out of a couple events after the Masters, he was left two tournaments short of the required 15 for the year -- he is also hoping to gear up his game for next month's U.S. Open at Hazeltine.
He has cut down dramatically on a practice regimen in which he hit as many as 1,200 balls each day. He is trying to spend more time with a growing family and less time at corporate outings. Others before him have tried to do the same, with mixed results.
"I think my game improves when I'm not hitting that many balls," said Norman. "I wish I had started doing this four years ago. I walk away from it much more content than I did before."
He is also a little more comfortable with Avenel, having played it last October in a group with Vice President Dan Quayle. Though he won the Kemper Open twice when it was played at Congressional and still holds the course record at Avenel (64), there would be more than a touch of irony if Norman could find the magic again this week.
"I love the game, and I want to be the best I can be," said Norman. "As long as I got that flame on, I can still win."
Somewhere inside, "The Great White Shark" is waiting to be turned loose.
How Greg Norman has fared thus far this season on the PGA Tour, on which he ranks 98th in money earnings:
Tourn. .. .. .. ..Fin. Money
Tourn. of Champions T6 $28,000
Doral Open T36 $6,310
Honda Classic 13 $21,000
Nestle Invitational T42 $3,127
Players Championship T63 $3,360
Masters missed cut
Memorial T27 $9,060
7 tourns., 1 missed cut $69,747