Thursday, April 11, 2002

Norman surprised to be back




        AUGUSTA, Ga. — Greg Norman could have sent his regrets to Augusta National Golf Club. No one would have blamed him.

        Or, if the Shark didn't want to seem ungracious, there were more creative ways to avoid the course that has haunted him throughout his career.

        Uhh, I'm building a new golf course that week ... My private jet is in the shop ... The dog ate my special invitation.

        “I never expected to be here,” Norman said Tuesday. “So I feel very fortunate. I'm enjoying every step. I kind of feel like I'm going back 20 years ago.”

        Norman wouldn't have been playing the Masters this year under any of the regular criteria. A week before Christmas, however, the Aussie received an unexpected gift: a special invitation reserved for foreign-born players.

        So, at 47, Norman has another chance to win a tournament that seemingly takes warped pleasure out of antagonizing him.

        Three times, he's been the runner-up. Only a victory would soften the memory of his 1996 collapse, when he squandered a six-stroke lead to Nick Faldo with a final-round 78.

        Then again, Norman never considered turning down the invitation.

        “This event is the most unique in the world,” he said. “It's the nectar of the game of golf, quite honestly. Everything is organized and respected around here.”

        Norman altered his schedule to get ready. No longer a regular member of the PGA Tour, he had planned to play most of his 12 allotted tournaments during the summer. Once Augusta called, he signed up for four tournaments leading up to the Masters.

        Norman's best showing was a tie for 23rd in Houston, and he also tied for 33rd at Doral. He withdrew at Bay Hill after one round because of a twinge in his back, and failed to make the cut at The Players Championship.

        Then there are the little things. Not expecting to play the first major of the year, Norman didn't even bother to rent the house where he usually stays in Augusta.

        When the Masters begins Thursday, Tiger Woods will be favored to join Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only repeat winners.

        In the right conditions, Norman feels as though he can be a contender, too.

        So, what else is new?

        During an amazing four-year span in the late '80s, Norman never finished lower than fifth — including a couple of runner-up showings.

        Four more times in the '90s, Norman was sixth or better. Three years ago, he was coming off shoulder surgery and had barely played in the preceding months, yet still gave it a run Sunday before losing by three strokes to Jose Maria Olazabal.

        For good measure, Norman shares the course record (63) with Nick Price.

        “My chances personally?” Norman said. “I like it if the golf course stays the way it is. If we get a deluge and the ball plugs and doesn't roll, different story. I don't carry the ball as long as some of these young kids do.”

        Well, he got his first Masters disappointment before ever teeing off: Rain soaked the course early Wednesday.

        Age is also working against the Shark. In 1986, Nicklaus became the oldest Masters champion, taking his sixth green jacket at 46.

        Appropriately, Norman had the first of his runner-up finishes that year, tying Tom Kite. He went to No. 18 needing par to force a playoff, but his approach sailed into the gallery and he took bogey.

        At least Norman has a major championship on his resume — two, in fact, winning the British Open in 1986 and 1993.

        Phil Mickelson has won 20 times on the PGA Tour but known mostly as The Best Player Never To Win A Major.

        Mimicking Norman, Lefty has been outside the top 12 only once in the last seven years at Augusta, but little good it's done him.

        A year ago, he played in the final group Sunday with Tiger Woods but faded to third, three strokes behind.

        “I've always felt comfortable on this golf course,” Mickelson said. “I've had a lot of opportunities to win. I feel as though the golf course has set up well for me in the past, and I feel the same this year.”

        Still, he's enough of a realist to know who's the favorite.

        “Tiger,” Mickelson said. “He's the guy everybody has to watch out for. Given his length and accuracy and distance control, he's going to be the guy to beat.”

        If Mickelson finally wins, he'll do it his way, slashing through Augusta National while others tiptoe their way around the newly lengthened course.

        “I hope he never changes,” said Norman, who might have won in '96 if he hadn't been so aggressive. “The risk and reward is there. When it happens, he's great. When it doesn't happen, he looks terrible.”

        Woods rarely looks terrible — especially at Augusta.

        He set 20 records when he won the Masters in 1997, including the 72-hole scoring record (270) and margin of victory (12 strokes).

        Even more stunning was his performance last year, when Woods became the first player to sweep the four professional majors by holding off David Duval and Mickelson, his chief rivals, on the back nine.

        This year, dramatic changes on the course — half the holes were altered, lengthening it by 285 yards — deflected some of the attention from Woods.

        “It's a lot easier this year,” he said. “The talk this year is not about going after four in a row. It's about the course changes.”

        More Masters and local golf coverage at Cincinnati.com/golf



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