POTOMAC -- No matter what the money, tournament victory and stroke average lists say, he is the man.
Tall, tanned and possessed of the rakish good looks of the hero in a Margaret Mitchell novel, Greg Norman took over Avenel yesterday simply by showing up, saying howdy-do and slugging the golf ball around for nine holes.
A fair-sized crowd gaped at his every move, took great delight in his kibitzing between shots and silently prayed that "The Shark" is a factor once the 24th Kemper Open gets under way tomorrow with the dew-sweepers teeing it up at 7:15 a.m.
In case you hadn't noticed, it has been a while since the Aussie in the plantation overseer's hat was a factor in a tournament, a condition, he insists, that is strictly temporary.
"I know myself," he says, "and I feel in better shape both physically and mentally than I was two years ago. I'm stronger and keen to get back into it."
Norman reviewed how he finally felt "the pinch" of eight years of hard work last summer and realized it was time to put the brakes on and look around: "People around me could see what was happening probably 12 months before that, how impatient I was getting with everything, including myself."
In addition to the 15 U.S. tournament appearances required to maintain his PGA Tour card, Greg, for 11 years, played several late fall events back home in Australia and also worked in appearances in Europe and Japan. He blames himself for the hectic schedule.
"The rewards were great," he knows now, "but I paid the price. Physically, I was fine, but mentally I had no desire."
His six-week sabbatical after failing to make the cut at the Masters is well documented: He caught dozens of sailfish. He played one 18-hole round of golf. He scuba-dived for hours a day. He played two nine-hole rounds of golf. He delivered his kids to school on a regular basis.
"I did a bunch of family stuff, the stuff I've been missing out on. My daughter's 8 years old now; those eight years have gone too fast."
When Greg wasn't making like a modern day Robinson Crusoe at his sumptuous digs on the west coast of Florida, he had lots of time to think about the changes that had to be made. "There's not enough hours in the day to accomplish all the things I was trying to do," he noted.
"I've cut down just about everything. I don't go out and hit balls for eight hours anymore. Hitting a thousand or 1,200 shots in a day was not uncommon for me. Now, I'll hit for two hours and play nine holes. I'm alloting less time to practice, charitable work, interviews and other commitments, making more time for myself."
Besides straightening out the mental aspects of his life, he soon realized by cutting down his golf workload he didn't wake up every morning feeling as if he had been in a car crash the night before. "If the younger fellows ask me, I'll tell them to be aware of what's going to happen, having aches and pains, once they've been doing this for 15 years or so and they're pushing into their late 30s," he said.
Norman's gallery, which easily outnumbered the one trailing the 10 players involved in yesterday's "Shoot-Out," won by Jay Don Blake, was entertained on the ninth tee when Greg looked at a young lady and asked if she was enjoying herself. She answered she had come out to learn the game.
"Well, this is a tee," he started in his best professorial tones. "And down there, that's called a green. You hit the ball down there and try to put it on the green. Then you putt. And that's about it."
Irony of ironies. No. 9 was the hole Greg said should be "blown up" back in 1987 when he indicated he had had enough with the new course and probably wouldn't return to play the Kemper again.
"But they've made wonderful improvements," he said. "The course is in good shape and getting better all the time. I've always liked this area. But, basically, the reason I'm back is I
need to pick up two tournaments [to make 15 for the years]."
He whacked a 9-iron that nearly decapitated the flag stick and rolled 10 feet away. A little extra bounce was in his step as he headed down the hill. "I wasn't holding any high hopes going into the Memorial [tournament May 16-19], but now I'm hoping for a bit of a run under the heat either here or at Westchester [N.Y.] next week to get ready for the U.S. Open."
If Mr. Norman wants heat, he certainly came to the right area.