When it comes to 'almosts,' Norman far ahead of pack

April 14, 1996|By John Eisenberg

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Why does Greg Norman want it so badly? Let us count the ways.

Five times, he has finished in second place.

Five times!

Three times, he has finished in third. Also three times in fourth, three times in fifth, once in sixth and once in ninth.

That's a combined 17 top 10 finishes for Norman in the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship, golf's three major championships played in the United States.

Seventeen top 10 finishes and no wins.

Seventeen near misses and no hits.

Why does Norman want so badly to protect his six-stroke lead after three rounds of the Masters and finally win a major on this continent?

Because he is famous as the all-time king of almost. No one else is even close.

Name another player or team in any sport that has come close 17 times without winning.

The Red Sox? They won the World Series before they traded Babe Ruth.

The Cubs? Sorry, they won the Series in 1908.

The Buffalo Bills? Get out of here! We're talking about coming close.

Can't think of any others? Didn't think so. Norman is in a class by himself.

"I don't live in the past," he said after shooting 71 yesterday.

He must be telling the truth. If he lived in a past with 17 near misses, he'd be a bowl of Jell-o.

"I just don't dwell on those things," he said.

Not that he has been shut out in major championships. He has twice won the British Open, the fourth major in the Grand Slam. Those wins count.

But a Masters or U.S. Open title would mean more. This country is the heart of the golf world. The PGA Tour is the world's best. It doesn't matter how many times Europe wins the Ryder Cup. The U.S. majors are where legends are made.

Norman, 41, is a mega-millionaire superstar with his face plastered all over the game. It's about time he warranted the hype.

Win today and he'll never hear another question about finding ways to lose.

He'll never hear again about the year he led after 54 holes of all four majors and won only the British.

He'll never hear again about Larry Mize's chip-in, Bob Tway's sand shot or his other famous catastrophes.

To his credit, he has fought those demons and reconciled them, or so it seems. Give him credit. A weaker athlete would have buckled. Norman filed away those 17 near misses, fought back and became an even better golfer at an age when many began to decline.

"Hey, I played some great tournaments to come so close so often," he said yesterday, seemingly at ease with the topic. "People played some great shots to win."

Pause.

"And I'm looking forward to playing some great shots tomorrow to win."

It would be a shock, obviously, if he found a way to lose again today. Not just because he has a big lead. He has been a vision of relaxed confidence all week, a portrait of an athlete at the peak of his powers.

It has been said before and always proved wrong, but he really does seem different this time. Bulletproof. Unafraid. Immune to disintegration.

Just too good to lose.

This time, it's true.

He tied the course record Thursday, shot better than all but five golfers Friday and shot better than all but three golfers yesterday.

Remove him from the field and it's a typical Masters: a dozen golfers within sight of the lead going into the final round. The others are playing as well as the leaders usually do. Nick Faldo's second-place total of seven-under is hardly shabby.

But Norman is just that much better this year. Just too good.

Only twice in the previous 59 Masters has the winner had a lower score after three rounds.

Not even the burden of being chased by Faldo, golf's toughest match-play competitor, shook Norman yesterday. After three-putting twice in the first three holes, he barely made another mistake all day.

And the point was, he barely put himself in position to make a mistake all day.

When he did make one, putting an 8-iron in the water on No. 12, he recovered with a splendid pitch and a 10-foot putt for the best bogey you will ever see.

After an errant drive on No. 15, he played it safe, laid up by the water in front of the green, and wound up with a birdie after pitching to within six feet.

Ten years ago he would have cratered after putting a ball in the water on No. 12. And he surely would have gone for the macho shot over the water on No. 15 and probably gotten into trouble.

"I [no longer] play the shot that has the edge of disaster [on it]," he said yesterday.

"He's the best golfer in the world and he just wants this thing so badly," Ben Crenshaw said.

His time has come, at last.

At long, long last.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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