SHARK BIT Renewed Norman looks to exorcise Masters demons

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW ORLEANS -- He is a bit hungry these days, back in the hunt but not quite back to where he was a few years ago. At 38, he is not running out of time but knows how easily it all can slip away again.

Greg Norman is at Augusta National this week, a place filled with memories good and bad. It is there that he burst on the scene in 1981 by coming in fourth, the best finish still by an international player in his first Masters.

But it is there, at Augusta, where he burst into tears after losing in a sudden-death playoff to Larry Mize's 140-foot miracle chip in 1987, the year after his errant 4-iron on the final hole cost him a chance to force a playoff with Jack Nicklaus.

Aside from bad luck, Norman's career there has been burdened by bad starts. Asked after yesterday's practice round whether he feels he's being chased by ghosts at Augusta, Norman said: "No, not really. It's just the way circumstances have gone for me. I've had some great shocks, no question about it, but I don't think that's a jinx. It's just that other players have executed extremely good plays to win the golf tournament."

Norman will begin going after that elusive goal tomorrow, when play begins in the 57th Masters Championship. For the first time in recent memory, Norman is healthy enough and playing well enough to be given a legitimate chance to win.

Last week's fourth-place finish here at the Freeport-McMoran Classic was the fourth in the Top 10 for Norman in five tournaments this year. His worst finish was a 12th-place tie at the season-opening Tournament of Champions; his best was a four-shot win at the Doral-Ryder Open last month.

"My confidence has been strong for months," Norman said here last week, where he overcame a dismal opening-round 77, got back in the hunt with rounds of 69 and 70, then faltered down the stretch. "I feel stronger now [physically]. Even my mind is sharp."

Widely recognized as one of the world's best players from 1986 to 1990, injury and attitude problems seemed to sidetrack Norman. The same reckless style that made him so appealing -- the persona of the "Great White Shark" -- also made some wonder if he was merely the best player from the neck down.

Once a media darling, Norman literally became the guy in the black hat. He was perceived as being another greedy athlete who was more interested in making millions in endorsements rather than on the golf course, an image that contradicted what he said in his early years.

"It's not about making money," Norman said after losing to Fuzzy Zoeller in a playoff at the 1984 U.S. Open. "It's about taking home the trophy."

When he finally won a major after several close calls -- at the 1986 British Open -- Norman was supposed to be the next Bear Apparent. But in idolizing Nicklaus, he also stopped playing the way he had during his rise to the top: instinctively, not afraid to go for the pin.

The loss to Bob Tway at the 1986 PGA -- Tway chipped in from the sand to beat Norman on the 72nd hole -- and the loss to Mize the following spring left him devastated. He cried that night in Augusta. The frustration led to going more than two years without a victory before Norman won last summer at the Canadian Open.

"I tried to keep it all inside me for too long and you can't do that," he said yesterday. "That's one of the mistakes in life I've made. Once you are able to get it off your chest, you feel a lot more relief."

What also didn't help was the fact that Norman has never been extremely popular with his peers, as evidenced by his not being named Player of the Year in 1990 despite winning two tournaments and earning more than $1.16 million.

Much of it is jealousy, part of it has to do with what some of them believe is preferential treatment. Last year at the Masters, for instance, Norman was given an exemption as a foreign player even though he hasn't lived in Australia for years. Many thought Norman's invitation came at the exclusion of Tom Kite, who is in this year's field after winning last year's U.S. Open.

But being treated as an outsider nearly made Norman quit.

"I was seriously considering it," he told Golf Digest last fall. "Laura [his wife] said: 'Why don't you just quit for 12 months?' But I couldn't do that. It was just to me that you either stop or you fight your way through it. There's an old saying that I like to keep inside my head: I love to dig deep down inside myself when things aren't going my way."

In the Golf Digest interview, Norman recalled talking to himself in the mirror one day. He didn't see just another rugged face. He saw a man still trying to get back to the top, still trying to do the things that made him the most fearless -- and at one time, feared -- player in the world.

"I just kept asking myself, what do I want to do?" he said. "And finally, I said, I still want to be the best in the world. I miss it, I want it, I enjoyed it."

He seems to be enjoying himself again. His fast start has earned him $487,053 in prize money, third behind Tom Kite and Nick Price. But a man who has made $6 million on the golf course, and probably triple that off it, would like to add something else: a green jacket.

"I just think the Masters is a true golf tournament," he said. "It's got tradition, it's got history. It's just pure golf."

Norman would like to carve his name into that history. For now, it has brought him mostly pure heartache.

Facts, figures

Where: Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club

When: Tomorrow through Sunday, 72 holes (sudden-death playoff in case of a tie)

CWho: A field of 90 players (66 U.S. pros, 20 foreign pros, two U.S. amateurs, two foreign amateurs)

Defending champ: Fred Couples

Prize money: Purse of $1.5 million, $270,000 first prize

TV: USA 4 to 6 p.m., tomorrow and Friday; Channels 11, 9 highlights 11:39 to 11:45 p.m. tomorrow and Friday; Saturday, 3:30 to 6 p.m.; Sunday 4 to 7 p,m.

Norman at Masters

1992.. .. .. .. .. ..T6 (68 final round)

1991.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Missed cut

1990.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Missed cut

1989.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..T3

1988.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..T5

1987.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .2 - x

1986.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. T2 - y

1985.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .T47

1984.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .T25

1983.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .T30

1982.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .T36

1981.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..4 - z

T - tied

x - Lost to Larry Mize in sudden death

y - Lost to Jack Nicklaus by one

- Best first Masters by an international player

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