J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Norman will confront his demons at Augusta

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

AUGUSTA, Ga. | Everywhere Greg Norman goes this week, people are rooting for him. They tell him to play well, they tell him he can win, they tell him it's great to see him back at Augusta National. It's all very nice, and, frankly, kind of weird.

 

Norman expected some goodwill from the fans. After all, they had a front-row seat for his lowest moments and wished he could have won a Masters. But what about the players? Would they welcome him as the 54-year-old who had to play his way into the tournament just like them, or would they treat him like the former No. 1 player in the world who was always out for blood? Norman truly had no idea what to expect.

 

"I was just in the locker room, and it's different," Norman said. "The players are 'Hey, play well, play well, play well.' I know in the '80s, they were not coming up to me and saying 'Hey Greg, play well,' that's for sure."

 

Back then, Norman was known as "The Shark," and it was hard to figure whether he fit the nickname or the nickname fit him. He was one of the great divisive figures in sports - especially in Augusta.

 

"People were pulling for you," Norman said, "and other people were not pulling for you. Now, it seems like everyone is pulling for me. I've never experienced that before."

 

His reception here can be taken as just another sign that Norman's life is better than it was when he left the Masters behind seven years ago.

 

"It just feels different coming here," Norman said.

 

***

 

Greg Norman was done with this place. He had moved on, becoming an extremely successful golf course designer. He had stopped playing in tournaments. Still, he didn't like to talk about the Masters.

 

In March of 2007, Norman visited Kansas City to promote his signature golf course in Independence. It was the 20th anniversary of Norman's brutal playoff loss - Larry Mize made an improbable 140-foot chip shot to win - and he was asked about it.

 

"So we're going to talk about the '87 Masters now, are we?" he asked.

 

Norman got through the interview, but it was clearly something he was loathe to discuss.

 

"You finish second in a golf tournament, and you're a choker," Norman would say. "You're a loser."

 

So, yes, Greg Norman was done with the Masters. But Norman had won a couple of British Open championships - his only two majors - so he could play that event each year. Last summer, three weeks after he married former tennis star Chris Evert, Norman showed up to play the Open at Royal Birkdale in July.

 

Norman and Evert had made big plans for their first year together. After going through their respective messy divorces - Norman paid his ex-wife a reported $100 million, while Evert paid her ex-husband a reported $7 million - they were going to enjoy their time together. Norman would learn tennis, and Evert would learn golf. They could do anything.

 

"If you want to go hiking in the Himalayas or ride a bike or do yoga or Pilates," Norman said, "it's a great thing to be able to say, 'Hey, let's go do that.' "

 

Norman figured that, given his lack of preparation for the British, he could be in Tibet by Sunday. Yet, somehow, Norman led by 2 strokes on Saturday night. He would fail to close a major yet again, finishing tied for third. But when he went to the press room, he was informed of something unbelievable.

 

"I said, 'There's no way I qualified for Augusta,' " Norman said, "and I kept on doing interviews. I never even thought about it."

 

Eventually, Norman started to believe. He was going to back to the Masters. Evert understood enough about her new husband and the competitive spirit of a top athlete to know what that meant for the potential of her golf game.

 

Over the next nine months, watching Norman work on his own skills for the first time in years, Evert would discover just how important the Masters was to her husband. She had a pretty good frame of reference.

 

"My Wimbledon," Evert said. "His Masters."

 

Well, it's not quite the same. Evert won three Wimbledon titles and 18 total majors. She was the "Ice Maiden," a prolific player who knew how to finish despite losing in 10 major finals to Martina Navratilova.

 

If Norman had won half of the majors he led on Sunday, he would be mentioned in the same breath as Jack and Tiger. In 1986, he led every major going into the final round but only won the British. The feat was dubbed the "Norman slam."

 

The next year, in 1987, there was Mize's shot. But Norman truly didn't know pain until the 1996 Masters. He led Nick Faldo by 6 strokes entering Sunday but shot a 78 (6-over par) and lost to Faldo by 5 strokes. By the numbers, it's the greatest choke in history.

 

For the longest time, Norman would have preferred to wipe it from his memory, to act like it never happened. But Evert wanted to acknowledge it. Like him, she had endured some bad losses. Unlike Norman, who kept his emotions bottled up, Evert got hers out in the open. Norman began to follow her lead, and it was cathartic.

 

"I talk about it with Chrissie a lot because we like to kind of lament a lot of times over what we have done and what we haven't done," Norman said. "I probably talk more about the Masters than I do anything else when we have those conversations. It's interesting no matter how great a player you are, in whatever sport, you always go through negatives and positives. It's good to talk about the negatives, because you don't need to keep them inside you."

 

***

 

This week, Greg Norman looks and sounds like a man who is ready to confront his past.

 

"If you let the demons take control of you," Norman said, "then you're never going to do your job properly. And every player has got demons. You've still got demons, and you've still got to find them. That's the strength in the mind of an athlete. You just put them aside and do what you need to do."

 

Everyone wants to know: Does Norman actually think he can win this thing? All he can say is that he prepared for this one just like the 22 before it. Of course, preparation was never his problem. Norman couldn't handle the pressure once he was on the grounds of Augusta National. Now that he's here, he's trying some new mental methodology.

 

"I'm just going to go out there and do the opposite of what I used to do," Norman said. "Just go out there and have fun."

 

Norman seemed to be having fun on Wednesday at the annual par-3 contest. How could he not with Evert as his caddy? Yes, there was Evert, wearing the white caddy's uniform, a green Masters hat and sunglasses, her blonde hair matching Norman's in the Augusta sun.

 

Evert spent the entire nine holes by his side, showing how she could be a calming influence. Evert, who has been in the limelight since she was a teenager, was unfazed by the public eye. The couple relished the stage, holding hands and posing for pictures.

 

At hole No. 6, they talked tennis with Phil Mickelson, who challenged Norman to a match. Norman agreed before walking to the tee and unleashing a gorgeous shot. When the ball landed on the green, the gallery began to buzz. This was going to be close. Then it came, one of those Augusta roars. Norman didn't need to see the ball go in. He raised his arms triumphantly, yelled and pointed at Evert.

 

She rushed to Norman, jumping into his arms. They kissed on the lips, and the crowd hooted and hollered. Later, Evert was asked when she had heard a sound like the gallery at No. 6. She hesitated and then said "a U.S. Open."

 

"It's a great sound," she said knowingly.

 

Evert just seemed happy to have shared the moment.

 

"He never thought he'd come back here," she said.

 

Greg Norman is back, and he's the first to say it feels different in many ways. The biggest difference can be seen in him.

 

"Chris has had a huge impact on it," Norman said. "We do everything together. She wants to learn things and I want to learn things. She's a teacher and I'm a teacher. She's a giver and I'm a giver. One of the greatest things I think you can have with your partner in life is to be able to do anything you want."

J. Brady McCollough - Contact Me