Adversity gives Norman hope this time

June 18, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

SOUTHHAMPTON, N.Y. — SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- It was supposed to happen yesterday. Greg Norman was supposed to shoot himself out of the U.S. Open, adding another chapter to his lengthy book of misery in golf's major championships.

Starting the day with a two-stroke lead, he hit only five greens in regulation during the third round at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. He drove into the hip-high fescue grass four times. He had only two makeable birdie putts all day -- and missed both.

Yes, this was the day for Norman to blow up again, to fall short again, as he has so often in majors. He shot 74, gave back four strokes to par and lost sole possession of the lead.

So why was he smiling so broadly, smiling like tomorrow's winner, after the round?

"Because sometimes shooting 74 is the equivalent of shooting 62," he said, "and today was one of those days."

Indeed. On a day when a steady breeze turned Shinnecock into a horror, a day when Nick Faldo and Ben Crenshaw shot 79 and Tom Kite shot 82, Norman's round bordered on the remarkable. It was a 74 that easily could have been an 84, a 74 marked by enough saves to get Lee Smith a two-year contract.

"I'm proud of myself," said Norman, who will begin today's final round tied for the lead with Tom Lehman, at 1-under par. "It was hard out there, but I actually enjoyed it. It almost finishes off your learning curve about the game of golf and yourself. I learned a lot about myself today."

He didn't elaborate, but didn't need to. Norman has long been one of the most talented, popular and successful golfers in the world, but no one has ever said he was what golfers call a "grinder," a tough, gritty guy who hangs in there in daunting circumstances. He has always been the flashy one, the shot-maker with the hype, the splendid talent with, oops, a tendency to somehow fail when things get tough. Remember, he has never won a major in traffic; both his British Open wins were runaways.

Yesterday's performance ran very much against that type. He had to grind. He had to disdain his famous aggressiveness and play for pars. He had to forget about his go-for-it attitude and try to hang on as everyone around him slid and slid some more.

He pulled it off, relying almost completely on his putter.

His drives and approaches were blown all over the place, but he survived by making a 20-foot putt on the first hole, a five-footer on the fourth, a five-footer on the sixth, a 10-footer on the 11th, a seven-footer on the 17th -- all for par.

For those scoring at home, that's a combined 47 feet of par-saving putts, truly a Nicklaus-like performance.

Oddly enough, Norman missed two relatively short putts for birdie, five-footers on the fifth and 18th. But he was not about to complain.

"I don't want to think about what I would have shot if I hadn't putted well," he said.

If he hadn't putted well, he would have fallen from view and harkened again to the bad, old days, of which there are many. Norman lost the 1984 Open in a playoff with Fuzzy Zoeller; lost the 1986 Open with a final-round 75 after leading through three rounds; finished fifth in 1990 and sixth in 1994.

He also lost the 1986 PGA after being four strokes up with nine holes to play; lost the 1987 Masters in a playoff when Larry Mize chipped in; lost the 1989 British Open to Mark Calcavecchia after making birdies on the first two holes of a four-hole playoff; lost the Masters to Crenshaw this year when he blew an approach shot on the 71st hole.

He could have won 10 majors, but instead has won two: the British Open in 1986 and 1993. To his credit, he has handled his much-publicized losses with grace and dignity, never whining, always congratulating the winner. And he seems to have come (( to terms with it all, not that winning two majors is the least bit shabby.

"You'd like to win all the majors you play in, but I don't lose any sleep over what has happened," he said earlier this week.

Now, at age 40, his game and his mental approach seem to be pulling together. He is one of the three best golfers in the world along with Faldo and Nick Price, and he is playing with a new patience and maturity. It's an impressive package.

But, as Norman knows, playing well for three rounds of a major championship isn't worth a nickel. You need to play all 72 holes, and sometimes more, without letting up, without crumbling.

Norman easily could have crumbled yesterday. That he didn't speaks volumes about his game. But now he has to go out today and do it all over again. Prove himself in the Shinnecock wind. Grind out pars, fight his old ghosts and hang on somehow in the final round of the Open.

His performance yesterday suggested that he is up to the challenge, ready to rewrite history's view of him by winning a brutal Open. But suggesting the possibility and making it a reality are different matters altogether. And Norman, if anyone, knows the difference.

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