The Shark returns to Augusta as a rock star

By Associated PressApril 7, 2009, 4:00 pm
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AUGUSTA, Ga. ' Throughout the course, it seemed like 1996 all over again.
 
Hey, wheres the Shark?
 
Do you know which hole Greg is on?
 
Has anyone seen Norman?
 
Greg Norman, the king of heartache at Augusta National, has returned for another try at that elusive green jacket. Hes 54 now, with plenty of gray mixed in with that trademark blond hair, but the Aussie still carries himself with the swagger of a rock star.
 
Which he is just what he is at this Masters.
 
On a blustery, frigid Tuesday that led Tiger Woods to skip his usual practice round, Norman was the main attraction. Never mind his 0-for-22 record at Augusta, or the fact he hasnt played here since 2002, or all those youngsters who can outdrive him by 45 yards.
 
The patrons remember an era ' lets call it B.T. (Before Tiger) ' when Norman dominated this place like no other golfer whos never actually won the event.
 
This is going to be a better tournament because hes here, fellow Australian Geoff Ogilvy said. People forget, but he was the one that everybody went to see before Tiger came along. For that period of time, he was the charismatic guy who got the big crowds and was the exciting one to watch.
 
The Shark appeared done at Augusta after that appearance seven years ago, when he tied for 36th. But an age-defying performance at last summers British Open, where he led going to the final round before fading to third, earned him another invitation to golfs most exclusive major championship.
 
Just walking out on the driving range was a thrill. And, ohhh, how he would love to be in contention ' again ' come Sunday.
 
As a kid growing up, you have your favorite golf tournaments you always watch, Norman said. Mine were the British Open and the Masters.
 
Its amazing that he still has any affection for Augusta, a course that teased him with victory time and time again, only to rip his heart out. He finished second three times, third on two other occasions, and had eight top-10 six finishes in all, helping establish his reputation as a player who couldnt win the big events (two British Open titles notwithstanding).
 
But it wasnt just the staggering number of close calls; it was the way Norman lost. Jack Nicklaus shooting a 30 on the back nine to claim his sixth green jacket in 1986. Larry Mize chipping in from 140 feet during a playoff in 1987. And, of course, the coup de grace of collapses in 1996.
 
Norman went to the final round with a six-shot lead over Nick Faldo, only to throw it all away by shooting a final-round 78.
 
Some of the bad stuff was self-inflicted and some of it wasnt, Norman said. I would have loved to have won the golf tournament. I didnt win the golf tournament. But my name seems like its spoken about a lot of times when the Masters comes, which is as much a good thing as a bad thing.
 
Is he a contender? Or is this just a nostalgic farewell? Augusta has always been the kindest major to the geriatric set. Nicklaus won the last of his Masters titles at 46, and he was in the hunt one last time at 58. Norman sure knows his way around the hallowed layout, every little nook and cranny coming back to him as he played a practice round Monday.
 
All of the memories are absolutely, 100 percent there, said Norman, whose son, Gregory, is caddying for him. Even though the golf course has been lengthened 420 yards since I last played her, you are still hitting to very much the same place on the greens, the same type of putts.
 
Norman got in only four holes Tuesday before calling it a day. With the temperature struggling to reach 50 under thick gray clouds, and a whipping wind making it feel much colder, he played the first three holes, skipped over to No. 7, then headed for the clubhouse along with playing partner and rival Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples.
 
Freddie and I dont have great backs, the Shark said. It was just too cold out there.
 
Instead, Norman got in some extra swings at the driving range, worked on some chipping and finished up at the putting green. He didnt accept that Masters invitation just to shoot a couple of 85s and head home Friday. No, hes been honing his game over the past four to six weeks, working on all the little nuances that could make the difference at Augusta.
 
But its not all work. Norman is trying to enjoy the experience, the same sort of mind-set that worked so well at Birkdale until the final day. He is still gushing over his marriage to Chris Evert, the former tennis great, a relationship that brought much-needed balance to his life. It also gives him someone who can relate to the highs ' and lows ' of being a star athlete.
 
I talk about it with Chrissie a lot because we like to kind of lament what we have done and what we havent done, Norman said. I probably talk about the Masters more than anything else when we have those conversations.
 
Hes also relishing his status as a fan favorite, having been a much more polarizing figure in his prime. Some fans cheered Norman, some rooted against him, but rarely was anyone on the fence when it came to the Shark. This time, it seems like everyone is pulling for him ' even his fellow players.
 
Its great to have Greg back here, Woods said. Hes been such a fixture here at the Masters for so many years, and hes been playing well. Obviously, he played well at the British Open last year to get in, but hes been playing a lot better than he has. I think hes been playing more, too, which helps. Hes starting to get his feel back for the game. Hopefully he has a great week.
 
While Norman is doing his best to win, he wont be crushed if someone else is wearing the green jacket Sunday evening. His relaxed state was apparent on the putting green, where he bantered with patrons who crowded up against the rope, snapping photos of his every move.
 
Where are you from? Minnesota? Norman asked a man who showed up wearing a short-sleeved shirt.
 
No, California, the fan replied.
 
Well, it must be Northern California, Norman quipped.
 
Someone else pitched Norman a tube of lotion to rub on his hands, which were chapped by the cold and his constant blowing in a futile attempt to get warm. The Shark rewarded him with an autographed ball.
 
But Norman can never escape his checkered history at Augusta.
 
Hed like to become a member, but they wont let him in, one fan said while Norman putted, out of earshot.
 
His friend replied, Youve gotta win, man. Youve gotta win.
 
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