- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2000

AUGUSTA, Ga. Greg Norman has been coming to the Masters for so long and has been such a central figure in its drama that it's hard to imagine the tournament without him. Who, outside of maybe Arnie and Jack, has provided more thrills and spills here than the Shark? But the end, alas, is near for Norman, and it's very much on his mind as he prepares to tee it up at Augusta National for can it be? the 20th time.
"I think I can continue to perform the next two years if I stay focused," he said yesterday. "After that, I'm sure it's going to be a little harder to get out of bed. If I'm still competing at 47, 48, 49, great. But realistically, I'm looking at eight more major championships."
Eight more majors and two more Masters if he's lucky. I say "lucky" because Norman has dropped out of the top 50 in the world rankings (he's currently 55th) and hasn't won since the '97 World Series of Golf. So unless his play picks up, he might not even qualify for Augusta next year and would need a special exemption to be allowed on the premises.
At any rate, the countdown has begun for Norman. He has one, perhaps two more shots at the elusive green jacket, and then the hopes of Australian golf will have to ride on someone else's shoulders. That's one of the more interesting subplots this week. Just as Norman is exiting the stage, a new Australian star is making his first Masters appearance: 19-year-old Aaron Baddeley, who won the Australian Open in January as an amateur. Is he the next Shark, or will he eventually, uh, flounder?
"Aaron has the ability to do it mentally," Norman said. "Whether he wants the baton or not is another story. I've seen players who don't want it. They don't want the responsibility to be the best player in the world. They don't want the added pressure. And you don't know what it's like until you get there.
"But it would be nice to see somebody come along [and take his place], whether it's Aaron Baddeley or one of the other kids who are just as good as Aaron. I'd like to see that for Australia and [for] Australian golf in particular. We always need a Tiger Woods, a Jack Nicklaus, a Seve Ballesteros. We always need somebody with that type of charisma to keep the game going."
Norman has gone out of his way to make himself available to Baddeley. The kid has phoned him a number of times and has even been a guest in Norman's house. They talk about anything and everything life, business, caddies, women, you name it. Norman's role, as he sees it, is to be Baddeley's Answer Man.
"And it might not be the answer he's looking for," he said. "But it's the answer he's asked me to give him. So I make sure I spend time with him. One of the things I said to him is, 'Think about where you want to be in 20 years' time, because one of the most important things you can do is look through to the future.' I feel very attached to him in a way. I was like [him] as a kid. I would never have any fear of going to Jack Nicklaus or Lee Trevino or Ray Floyd or the CEO of a company and asking him for advice. And when I saw that in Aaron, I said, 'This kid's going a long way.' "
But Norman isn't ready to fade into the background just yet, especially not at the Masters. Augusta National is his kind of course a long, high-ball hitter's course. And despite all the heartbreak he has suffered, "I feel comfortable here," he said. "It's heaven.
"People like to talk about all the bad things that have happened to me here, but I can walk to every hole and remember the good shots I hit on that hole and to me, that's the most important thing."
One such shot was an eagle putt he rolled in on 13 last year that briefly gave him the lead over Jose Maria Olazabal in the final round. The cheers reverberate in his mind still. He eventually lost, of course his fifth near-miss at Augusta but it remains his No. 1 Masters memory.
"Just the sheer volume or decibel level was phenomenal when I made the putt," he said. "And when he made his [birdie to tie] and we walked to the 14th tee, it was incredible again. That's a memory that will stay with me forever."
At 45, Norman has evolved from perennial favorite to sentimental favorite. The galleries at Augusta National have forgiven him his trespasses his bogey on the 72nd hole in '86, his meltdown against Nick Faldo in '96, etc. and root for him now more than ever. As he and Olazabal rounded Amen Corner last year, "You could actually feel the crowd energy inside the ropes," he said. "I've never played in front of that [kind of] excitement in my life, not even in my home country.
"Knowing that 90 percent of the people are trying to pick that ball up and put it in the hole for you … That's something I'll never forget."
Norman's opponents are even beginning to feel sorry for him. Faldo gave him a consoling hug after winning three years ago a very un-Nicklike thing to do and Olazabal did the same last year. "It's just a shame that he hasn't won it," Tiger Woods says, "because he's such a great player. It's tough for me to imagine somebody going through all that and coming back again and again and putting himself in that position without having won. It's a credit to the kind of person he is and shows you what he's made of."
So does an encounter he had yesterday with CBS' Jim Nantz. "If you come to Butler Cabin this year [as the champion]," Nantz asked him, "what's the first question you want me to ask you?"
Norman didn't even have to think. "Why did it take so bleeping long?" he said.

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