POTOMAC -- Searching for perfection is a constant theme on the PGA Tour, even for those at the top. It is the most elusive of qualities and, when found, ephemeral at best.
It has caused dominant players to go suddenly dormant, as happened with Curtis Strange and later Nick Faldo. "I don't think anybody is ever where they want to be," said Greg Norman.
You would think Norman was where he wanted to be early last year. He was No. 1 in the world rankings. His victory at The Players Championship was the result of one of the most awesome performances in years.
"One of the best I've ever seen," Ray Floyd said after Norman finished the tournament 24-under-par.
Though playing at a level several notches above most of his peers, a level all but a scant few only could dream about reaching, Norman wanted more. So he began to tinker with his swing in an attempt to become more mechanically sound.
Norman didn't fall out of sight, as Strange and Faldo seemed to do when their respective reigns at the top ended. But after finishing in the top 10 in seven of his first eight tournaments in 1994, Norman's performance began to plateau.
It didn't seem to matter that Norman earned more than $1.3 million in tour prize money for the second straight year, or that he finished second to his good friend, Nick Price, as the tour's Player of the Year. What mattered was that Norman had come up mostly empty, winning only a made-for-television event called the Grand Slam of Golf over the last few months of the season.
"Greg plays himself in position to win more than anybody out here," said Price, who is going through the post-No. 1 malaise that has afflicted many players. "People ask, 'Why hasn't he won more majors?' To me, that's the only question mark on his career. He's won two, and once he wins a couple more -- and I think he will -- there won't be any questions, because he's done everything else."
Said Norman: "I never lost my confidence. Where I got derailed was in changing my natural ability to swing the golf club. Once I got the natural swing back, the rest of it locked in fairly quick."
It locked in two weeks ago at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, where Norman returned from a six-week hiatus to win his first PGA event in nearly 15 months.
It stayed locked in over the weekend here at Avenel, where Norman finished tied for fourth in the Kemper Open.
Norman hopes that it will remain locked in this week, when play begins in the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y. The 40-year-old Australian is expected to be one of the favorites to win.
Not that it will be easy.
For Norman, it never is.
"The old adage that the more you win, the easier it is for you to win again, that's the biggest crock I've ever heard of," said
Norman, whose recent victory was his 13th in a PGA Tour career that began in 1983. "The more you win, the more people expect you to win. That's just a fact."
Those expectations have been heaped upon Norman since he nearly won the 1984 Open at Winged Foot, losing in an 18-hole playoff to Fuzzy Zoeller. But the higher Norman's star rose, the more star-crossed his career became.
There was the well-chronicled string of tough defeats, some of them self-inflicted, some resulting from miraculous shots by others. The wild 4-iron approach Norman hit on the 72nd hole of the 1986 Masters that cost him a chance at a playoff with Jack Nicklaus. The manna-from-heaven shots by Bob Tway at the PGA Championship later that year and by Larry Mize at Augusta in 1987.
Though he now says, "I never battled with myself in my mind. I've always believed in my abilities," all those defeats were enough to rock the foundation. Along with some nagging injuries, it eventually led to a 27-month victory drought that ended with a playoff victory at the 1992 Canadian Open.
"You always believe there's a light at the end of the tunnel," said Norman.
Now, the light is there again. With Price slumping, Norman is in position again to make a run at reclaiming the No. 1 world ranking. Norman says he has recovered from the back spasms that forced him off the tour for more than a month.
Norman also says he will go to this year's U.S. Open with only positive thoughts from 1986, the last time it was held at Shinnecock.
Once there, he likely will be reminded of an incident with a rowdy spectator that took place nine years ago and might have caused Norman a chance at victory.
It happened shortly after Norman made the turn during the third round. Playing with Lee Trevino, Norman began getting heckled by a man over a stretch of several holes. Finally, Norman confronted the man, challenging him to take it elsewhere after he finished his round. Norman kept the lead after 54 holes, but fell to 12th with a final-round 75.
"I'm not going to make a comment on that incident," Norman said at Avenel. "The guy isn't worth the paper you're going to write it on. I've had it happen before. But when that happens, I'm going to defend my privacy. I know everyone is going to make it the focus when I go up to Shinnecock. But it has no value."
As for what he will take back with him to Shinnecock, "I remember the golf tournament. I love the golf course. I'm going back with fond memories, no question about it."
It is Norman's next stop on his never-ending search for perfection. Not quite there, but closer to it than he has been in a while.
Where: Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, N.Y.
When: Thursday through Sunday, with 18-hole sudden-death playoff Monday in event of tie after 72 holes.
Who: A field of 156 players, including defending champion Ernie Els, Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, defending U.S. Amateur champion Tiger Woods and former Open champion Ray Floyd, who won the last time it was held in Southampton in 1986.
How much: A purse of $2 million, with $350,000 going to the winner.
TV: ESPN; NBC (Ch. 11)