Norman finds favorite's role comfortable fit

April 07, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Like the dogwoods and azaleas, Greg Norman comes back to Augusta National Golf Club each spring. Looking for perfection. Looking for fulfillment. Looking for that famous green jacket. Looking to win the Masters.

But each year since 1981, Norman has left with only the memory of another empty Masters; of poor opening rounds, which have hampered him throughout his career here; of Larry Mize's 140-foot chip-in in sudden death seven years ago, which haunted him for a long time.

When Norman tees off today in the 58th Masters, he will do so as the favorite. It is certainly not an unfamiliar position for him to be in, but there is a noticeable difference this year. It no longer feels uncomfortable to him.

"When you're not playing as well as you'd like to, you end up trying to get something out that's not there and the pressure becomes too much," Norman, 39, said yesterday. "Playing as well as I'm playing now, the pressure is helpful."

Norman is coming off one of his most eye-popping performances: a four-shot victory in The Players Championship at the TPC at Sawgrass two weeks ago, a tournament record of 24-under-par, his first bogey in 92 holes coming on the 13th hole Sunday.

"That was awesome," said former Masters champion Ray Floyd. "That was as good as golf has been played in the world -- maybe ever."

It was also predictable. Norman is forging one of his most dominant stretches in several years. Since starting his PGA Tour season last month at Doral, Norman has played only one round over par.

With eight of his last 10 rounds in the 60s, he is an aggregate 41-under-par in three tournaments. With the help of a $450,000 first-place check at the TPC, he is now No. 1 on the money list and in the world rankings.

"There are times, not too often, when you go out thinking you're the guy to beat," said six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus, who knows that feeling better than any player in history. "I think Greg feels that way now."

But the questions need to be asked: why will this year be any different than the previous (unlucky) 13? Will a few early bogeys this afternoon give way to his 10th over-par opening round here? Or will Norman shoot in the 60s for the first time since an opening-round 69 in his first-ever round?

That was the day when Norman's image as "The Great White Shark" was launched.

"Nobody knew who I was," Norman recalled yesterday with a laugh. "They asked what I liked to do when I didn't play golf, and I told them that I did some shark fishing back home. The next day, the headline said, 'Great White Shark Leads The Masters.' That's where it all started."

But all the success he has had since, all the money he has won (he is now second behind Tom Kite in career earnings with more than $7 million) has been tempered by the fact that Norman never quite won as much as everyone thought he would, especially when it counted.

Aside from an amazing string of fluke shots by others that have beaten him -- besides Mize's shot, there was Bob Tway holing out from a bunker at the 1986 PGA, and similar losses to Robert Gamez and David Frost in regular tour events -- Norman did nearly as much to beat himself. The most glaring faux pas was here in 1986, when his errant 4-iron approach at the 18th cost him a chance at forcing a playoff with Nicklaus.

HTC "I've learned to deal with it," Norman said of what has been one of the most star-crossed careers of any of the game's top players. "One of the greatest aspects of life is to know the agony of defeat and the ecstasy of victory. I prefer to experience both rather than live in the gray twilight of the in-between that many people live in."

But those defeats, and the criticism he received for being unable to back up his first major championship at the 1986 British Open, ultimately wore down his confidence. After finishing at the top of the money list in 1990, Norman slipped to 53rd in 1991.

The low point of his career came during the Houston Open in October of that year. As Norman recalled yesterday, "I had a 2-iron and was trying to hit a fade and I hooked it. I said to myself, 'Amateurs hit it like that, but I don't.' " But Norman also had something good happen there: he started working with Butch Harmon.

The changes Harmon made in Norman's swing were designed to eliminate a recurring problem: blocking out, or pushing the ball to the right, under pressure. Since they began working together, Norman ended a 27-month winless drought with six victories in the past 20 months.

The biggest was at last year's British Open, where Norman held off Nick Price, Nick Faldo, Corey Pavin and reigning Masters champion Bernhard Langer. It silenced those who said he couldn't hold up in the heat of a close final round at a major.

Another former Masters champion, Fuzzy Zoeller, noticed a change in Norman's game during The Players Championship.

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