Norman's recharged drive defies adversity

April 10, 1999|By John Eisenberg

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There are two ways of looking at the surprising news that Greg Norman is close enough to the lead to touch it after two rounds of the Masters.

One is that he is a glutton for punishment; given his history of spectacular crashes at Augusta National, he's probably just setting himself up for more frustration.

On the other hand, you have to give him credit. Seldom has any athlete had more and better reasons to pack it in, disappear and forget about contending for titles. Norman, 44, has navigated a long course of discouraging turns. But he hasn't given in to them. They haven't broken him.

"He's a very determined person," said his close friend and rival, Nick Price.

Never was that more apparent than yesterday, when he shot a 68 in cloudy, blustery conditions to land three strokes behind Jose Maria Olazabal's lead. Instead of failing to make the cut for the third straight year here, he was back in a packed interview room, talking about winning the green jacket that has eluded him.

Who expected it? Norman was the world's best golfer for years, but he hasn't been the same since he lost a six-stroke lead on the final day of the 1996 Masters, experiencing a collapse so humiliating that even his rivals couldn't watch. Then he underwent shoulder surgery and sat out the last eight months of 1998, a major setback. He had played only three PGA events in 1999 before this week.

Given all that and the fact that his golf course design business is booming, you can see why his motivation might have started to ebb. He's getting up in age, he's making millions and he has won more than 40 tournaments in 13 countries over the years, including the British Open twice. That's a heck of a run.

But no matter. He was the same as ever yesterday -- relentless, strong, in peak physical condition -- and he was nearly perfect after a bogey on No. 1, collecting five birdies over the last 17 holes. In some ways, he seemed like a lone adult competing against youngsters such as Tiger Woods and David Duval.

"I'm feeling extremely relaxed and in control of what I'm doing," he said. "It's great to be in this [contending] position. It's great when you've worked so hard to get back into this position."

Questioning Norman's heart has been a matter of routine because of his unmatched history of finding ways to lose. He has recorded eight second-place finishes at the major tournaments, including three at the Masters alone. He's one of only two golfers in history to lose a playoff at all four majors.

But if you're going to question his heart, you have to give him credit, too. Somehow, he survived the wreckage and has continued to play at a high level. Most other golfers would have crumbled, but Norman, either through hard work or mental toughness or both, has kept himself together.

"I've always been one to say, `What's done is done,' and move on with life," he said.

He has quoted that benign philosophy so often in defeat that many believe he relies on it to hide his continuing and profound disappointment. Surely, he regretted not winning the dozen major titles he was obviously capable of winning.

On the other hand, it's hard to keep up a front for 20 years. He has to be telling at least a half-truth about stashing away the memory of a defeat as soon as it's recorded, never to be called upon again.

"I just want to go play and keep myself the way I feel," he said yesterday. "I'm quite enjoying it, to tell you the truth."

What's really allowed him to stay competitive, clearly, is his work ethic. He hasn't gone flabby, as have so many pros his age. He spends hours on the practice range, tinkering with his swing. He has been willing to change coaches and overhaul his approach. Whatever it takes.

"He was worried about having [shoulder] surgery and missing all that time last year at his age," Price said, "but he's so strong and fit and keeps himself in such good shape that he'll stay competitive in his 40s more than anyone else has done. He works hard. He's still trying to improve. And as long as that desire stays with him, the sky is the limit."

Another possible motivation is, of course, the most obvious: For all he has accomplished, he still hasn't won the Masters or the U.S. Open. Those are huge, defining holes on his career ledger, holes he would love to fill. Perhaps that's what keeps him burning.

"I don't know what my destiny is," he said. "All I want to do is just go and play well. Someone asked me if this place [Augusta National] owes me one. I don't believe in things being owed anyone. You have to go out there and play well enough to get them yourself."

He's here in an unusual position this year, with all the attention and pressure on others such as Duval and Woods. For once, Norman is the underdog. A sentimental favorite, even.

But if he finds himself in contention tomorrow, he'll have to fight off not only his rivals, but also some of the worst memories any golfer has compiled on these grounds. It's hard to see him overcoming it all. But either way, to his credit, it's a good bet that he'll keep trying.

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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