- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

As he entered his 40s the sunset years for most golfers Greg Norman looked as Sharkish as ever. He won at 40. He won at 41. He won at 42. Neither Jack nor Arnie can say that. Norman's hair may have been whitening, but his game was still frightening. A third major championship didn't even seem out of reach for him.

But since then nothing. In fact, only once in the last five years has he managed so much as a second-place finish. There's been shoulder surgery, hip surgery, psyche surgery (courtesy of self-help guru Tony Robbins) and in the process, Norman, sadly, has turned into Just Another Old Guy. Except, of course, that he's Greg Norman.

As you watched him shoot a 67 yesterday in the first round of the Kemper Open, though, you couldn't help but wonder if he has one more victory in him. Every golfing god deserves a last hurrah of sorts, and Norman, let's face it, hasn't had his.

His last-day duel with Jose Maria Olazabal at the '99 Masters? Sorry, it doesn't satisfy the criteria. Last hurrahs, by law, have to be triumphant. Greg lost that one.

Nicklaus' grand finale was winning the Masters at 46. Tom Watson's was capturing the Colonial at 48. Hale Irwin and Ray Floyd both won in their late 40s, too. What about Norman, though? Are the history books really going to say that he petered out after winning the World Series in '97, that he didn't have a single curtain call?

So why not this week? There would, after all, be a certain symmetry to it. The Kemper in its Congressional incarnation was where Norman won his first U.S. tournament in 1984. Two years later, he won it again. Has any golfer meant more to this event in the last two decades than the Shark?

Besides his two victories, he's finished third ('97), fourth ('87, '91, '95) and sixth ('85) and consistently been Avenel's main attraction. And unlike this Woods fellow, he has usually found room for our little tournament on his schedule. As much as anybody, Norman is the Kemper.

"Believe me," he said, "if I didn't think I could win, I wouldn't be here. I've got too many things I love to do in life to come out here and walk around the golf course." Sure, he's playing less now, he added, but "I don't think infrequent play [is why he hasn't won in recent years]. I've taken five, six weeks off and come back and won the next week. If your heart's in the game, you should be able to step up to the plate and compete."

With the wind down, the greens soft and the course at its most vulnerable, Norman stepped up to the plate in a big way yesterday. He reeled off three straight birdies at 14, 15 and 16, and would have been tied for third had it not been for an errant approach shot on his next-to-last hole. But the main thing is, he's started strongly something he hasn't often done this year. And keep this in mind: In 21 rounds at Avenel, he's never posted a score worse than 73, so he isn't likely to shoot himself out of it by putting up a big number.

To the naked eye, there's little difference between the Norman of today and the Norman of '97. He's still supremely fit, the result of an exercise regimen that remains rigorous. "I still drink a cold beer," he says. "I still eat some french fries when I want to eat some french fries. But I've always enjoyed working out. It's a way to unload the stress that builds up."

No, he doesn't drive the ball quite as far as he used to, but he still hits it in the 280- to 290-yard range, which gives him a chance against the current crop of sluggers. If his age shows anywhere, it's perhaps in his difficulty in putting four solid rounds together. He was 10-under going into the final day at Houston in March but fell back with a 76. He shot 66-69 at the Worldcom a few weeks later but faded on the weekend.

Still, there's hope. His buddy, 45-year-old Nick Price, broke a lengthy drought earlier this month by winning the Colonial. Perhaps that means Norman's time is coming. He certainly can't let Nicky get away with something like that without answering back. (Greg, as Price will tell you, tends to look at life as a contest. He'll turn a nice, relaxed day on his boat into a fishing/scuba diving/jet skiing triathlon if you let him.)

Three more 67s would be about what it would take, Norman thinks. "Sixteen, 18-, 20-under seems to be the [winning] score every week," he said, "so you've got to keep pace with that." Actually, though, 10- to 13-under has often been good enough at Avenel, and the Shark could well be capable of it.

No matter how he fares, though, the galleries will gravitate to him. Because as much as Greg Norman has taken from the Kemper over the years, he has given more, much more. And the fans haven't forgotten.

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