New Norman remains master of near-miss

April 12, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He was back where he always ends up at twilight on Sunday, in the interview room after another near-miss, answering questions about what went wrong and how it feels not to win.

This time, Greg Norman had finished third at the Masters, three strokes behind the winner, Jose Maria Olazabal, after briefly holding the lead with five holes to go. It was Norman's fifth top-five finish at Augusta National, a fine record few golfers can match. But the end result was the same, tired story: Norman loses.

"Did Olazabal beat you, did the course beat you or did you beat yourself?" Norman was asked.

He paused to ponder that one, fingering a water bottle in his hand.

"Probably a combination of all three," he finally said.

Fair enough.

In the pantheon of Norman's collapses at major championships, this won't rank among the worst. Olazabal played the last 13 holes without making a bogey to pull away from a thick pack of contenders, so he deserved to win. And Norman had barely played in the past year after undergoing shoulder surgery, so he wasn't expected to contend, much less lead on Sunday.

This was nothing compared to the debacle of 1996, when Norman was at the top of his game, ranked No. 1 in the world and experienced a total meltdown in blowing a six-stroke lead on the final day of the Masters.

"This one is a totally different animal," Norman said. "I was much more disappointed in '96."

Sure he was. What happened in '96 was so humiliating that it was hard to watch. This was just golf.

"There's no heartache in this," he said. "It's a successful week and a sad week rolled into one. The success comes in knowing all my hard work [coming back from surgery] is paying off and I can compete at this level again. The sadness comes in not winning."

But please, let's not coat this with too much sugar, OK? Facts are facts. Norman, rustiness and all, played well enough for 67 holes to hold the lead on the 13th green yesterday. He had the momentum and the overwhelming support of a roaring crowd. He was there, right there, with yet another chance to win a major tournament.

But he wound up back where he always does, trudging through the litany of what went wrong.

The 10-foot par putt he missed on No. 14? "That was probably the first shot all day where I was a little apprehensive," he said.

The errant drive on No. 15 that led to his second straight bogey? "I didn't turn [his wrists] over," he said.

There's always something. These mistakes are just the class of '99.

But what sank Norman this time wasn't his physical errors so much as his reaction to the long birdie putt Olazabal sank immediately after Norman drained a 25-foot putt for an eagle on No. 13.

The eagle gave Norman a one-stroke lead and drew the day's loudest cheer, a roar that echoed through the tall pines and caused other golfers on nearby holes to back away from putts. Finally, it seemed, Norman's day had arrived.

But Olazabal's instant answer seemed to intimidate Norman, who was two strokes down just two holes later.

It was as if he'd thrown a punch at a neighborhood bully and then backed away immediately when the bully threw one back. Olazabal birdied No. 16 to seal his second Masters title in five years.

Whether that was Olazabal beating Norman, the course beating Norman or Norman beating himself, who knows? The reality is that Olazabal came through like a champion, Norman faltered again and that was that.

The crowd still gave Norman an ovation as he walked up the 18th fairway with Olazabal, who confessed to feeling mixed emotions.

"I wanted to win, but at the same time, Greg deserves a green jacket as much as anyone," Olazabal said.

Good friends, they hugged after putting out on the 18th green.

"I just told him, `Keep on trying, you deserve a green jacket,' " Olazabal said.

He does. But how can you not wonder if it's ever going to happen? He will be 45 next April. Only Jack Nicklaus, who won at 46, had success at such an age.

"But I'm physically strong, I'm mentally strong and I love to play," Norman said. "I don't see why I shouldn't keep playing [well]. I feel like I climbed up a pretty big mountain this week. It's tough to play in the last group on Sunday at the Masters when you haven't played that much. I'm proud of how I handled it."

He was a portrait of grace and perspective, as always, complimenting Olazabal and scoffing at the notion that the loss would haunt him.

"How long will it bother you?" he was asked.

"As soon as I walk through that door," he said.

It's a show we have seen before, one that always raises the same questions. Is he in denial over his repeated failures? Is he a pathological runner-up? Is he just a smashingly good sport? Should we feel compassion for him, admire him, or both?

If he didn't end up where he always does on Sunday night, explaining things all over again, maybe we'd get some answers.

But we never do.

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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