- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009


Greg Norman disappearing from the Masters for six years was like George Clooney leaving “ER.” The Shark - handsome, dashing, riveting in every way - was so much a part of the place. Plus, there was all that blood.

Norman needed multiple transfusions, one bag of plasma after another, after finishing second three times and suffering a few other near misses. Heck, a couple of his corpuscles are probably still lying around the property (though Augusta National, I'm told, has a state-of-the-art drainage system). Jack Nicklaus' Last Charge in 1986, Larry Mize's miracle chip in '87, the meltdown against Nick Faldo in '96, the late fade against Jose Maria Olazabal in '99 - why don't we, for mercy's sake, stop right there?

And then pose this question: Has any golfer ever become so intertwined with a tournament without winning it?

So it just seems right that Norman, now 54, is back in town this week, readying for his 23rd run at a green jacket. He stopped getting invites in 2003 because - unlike Sandy Lyle, Charles Coody and 73-year-old Gary Player - he isn't a past champion here and, at his advanced age, wasn't able to qualify by other means. (And the Lords of Augusta, sentimental but not overly so, wouldn't grant him a special exemption.)

But something remarkable happened last summer, maybe Norman's greatest feat yet - especially given his limited playing schedule these days. With nine holes to go, he actually led the British Open and stood to become the oldest major champ in history. Alas, several visits to Royal Birkdale's bunkers killed his chances, but his third-place finish earned him a spot in the Masters, not a bad consolation prize for him and for us.

As his fellow Australian, Geoff Ogilvy says, “This is going to be a better golf tournament because he's here. I mean, people forget, but he was the one that everybody went to see before Tiger came along. He was the charismatic guy that got the big crowds and was the exciting one to watch. So it's cool to have him here. … [And] it's good to see him excited about golf again.”

After devoting several years to designing courses, getting a divorce and marrying tennis heroine Chris Evert, the Shark has retrieved his clubs from the closet. There was no way he wasn't going to get his game primed for the Masters, so he played at Houston last week - he was 6 under after three rounds - and in three Champions Tour events before that.

Not that he doesn't grasp the reality of his situation. The Augusta layout, after all, is 400 yards longer than the last time he stepped on it, and his length off the tee isn't nearly what it was. Asked if he feels rejuvenated returning to these hallowed grounds, he says, “I don't feel rejuvenated when they outdrive me by 45 yards.”

Clearly, though, he relishes the opportunity to write a postscript to his Augusta saga, to remind everybody - just as he did in the British Open - what a stud he was back in the day. Ogilvy's right; win or lose, you couldn't take your eyes off Greg Norman.

The Masters is the one major championship where local knowledge is a factor, a big factor. It's played on the same course every year, though the course has evolved plenty, and over time you learn a lot of the secrets and subtleties of the place. That's why Nicklaus, in his 40th Masters at the age of 58, could tie for sixth, two shots ahead of Tiger Woods.

Norman will be sizing up a putt here, and he'll say to Greg Jr., who's caddying for him this week, “Watch this ball. You think it's going to go this way, but it's going to go [the other] way.” That, he says, “just comes from memory. Hopefully that serves you well as you get deeper into the tournament, because the course does change” from one day to the next.

It must be quite the power marriage, this merger of Norman Inc. and Consolidated Evert. Beyond that, though, how many women would understand better than Chrissie the peaks and valleys of the Shark's career, the emotional scars he carries around?

When they were in Houston, he says, he told her, “I wish I had your success rate of winning 91 percent of the time.” But it's not that they don't have certain shared miseries, stuff he talks about with her “because we like to kind of lament a lot of times about what we have done and what we haven't done. I probably talk about the Masters more than anything else when we have those conversations.

“It's interesting, because she went through 13 times getting beaten by Martina [Navratilova], and, well, I went 22 times without winning the Masters. So I think I'm a little bit ahead of her on that one. [But] no matter how great a player you are, in whatever sport, you always go through negatives and positives. And it's good to talk about the negatives, because you don't need to keep them inside you.”

For Greg Norman, it's all good this week. He's back at the Masters, back where he belongs, back where he's as much a fixture as the Hogan Bridge or the Eisenhower Tree. Nobody expects him to win or even contend; making the cut would be nostalgic enough. But none of that really matters. What matters is that it's early April and the Shark is teeing it up at Augusta.

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