This story on Greg Norman's win at the 1994 Players Championship first appeared in the April 4, 1994, issue of Sports Illustrated.
He was stronger than anchovy soup. He turned a killer tournament record into a smudge mark. He blew away the next closest player by three shots, the guy behind him by eight. For four days on a golf course harder than calculus, he never scored worse than 68. He made hatfuls of birdies and only six bogeys. He vaulted to No. 2 on the money list, had the fans eating out of his divots and proved to everybody from the Klondike to the Keys that he is back better than ever.
And he lost by only four.
Just Fuzzy Zoeller's luck. He sings the best aria of his life the day Caruso is in town. He shoots 20 under par and loses big to Greg Norman, who didn't do anything all that special last week in Ponte Vedra, Fla., except maybe turn The Players Championship into the Texas Open, aggravate whatever ulcers Deane Beman was just getting over, and basically establish himself as the 500-pound gorilla for next week's Masters.
What Norman really did was go out to what used to be the Mean Deane Dome, the Stadium Course of the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass, and slip it a Mickey. He threw a record-tying 63 and three no-worries-mate 67s at it for a preposterous 24-under-par 264, which whomped what any other winner had done there by half a dozen shots. It was a four-day Greg Gala, featuring a birdie every three holes, 66 straight bogeyless holes, 49 splendid marches down middles of fairways (out of a possible 56), 2,011 women swooning, and exactly one (1) measly bogey. That bogey ended Norman's streak of 92 straight holes without one, going back a week to the Nestle Invitational at Bay Hill, and breaking a record held previously by President Bush.
How's this for Fuzzy logic: What Zoeller did would have won all but seven 72-hole events last year and every other TPC in history, would have had him stuffing the trophy crystal into his bag and telling blondes in sashes to kiss the other check awhile. Instead he wound up as just another minnow caught in the jaws of a Shark.
So, Fuzz, is that the best you've ever played and not won?
"Son," said Zoeller, "that's the best I've ever played and had absolutely no chance of winning."
The big, blond Ozzie is getting scary good. Here are seven of the big-time tournaments he has entered since missing the cut at last year's U.S. Open at Baltusrol: the British Open, the PGA, the 1993 Tour Championship, the '93 Taiheiyo Masters in Japan, the '94 Dubai Desert Classic, the '94 Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand and last week's Players Championship. And he has gone 1, 2, T2, 1, 2, 1 and 1 and made, oh, god, you don't want to know how much money. For his win on Sunday he got another 10-year PGA Tour exemption, which he certainly needed since he'd used up almost eight months on the last 10-year exemption he got, for winning the British.
But that's not the scariest part. Norman has gone on chum frenzies before. What's scary is that he is 39 years old and may be running out of dumb. With a five-shot lead on Sunday at the Kate-Moss-thin par-5 16th, Norman had 228 yards to the pin with his second shot—water to the right of and behind the green. Any other day, Norman would have put a death grip on a three-wood and gone for it. In fact this day he would have gone for it. "God, I'm swinging so good," he thought to himself. "And this is just a juicy little sliding three-wood." But his caddie, Tony Navarro, smothered the big clubs with his body.
Navarro knows. Nobody ruins a happy ending like Norman. He lost the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot in an 18-hole playoff. In 1986 he led the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA, all on Saturday night, and lost them all. He led last year's PGA at Inverness on Saturday night and lost it. He led last year's Tour Championship at Olympic with seven holes to play and blew it by pumping shots over greens. He has flown over more greens than Air Florida. For crying out loud, last year he had a chance at the Players on Sunday and lost it for keeps when he hit his iron into the water on 17.
"Look, you might flush it," Navarro reasoned at the 16th, thinking of the six-foot-deep lie Norman would have at the bottom of the lake behind the green. "Let's just lay up." Norman flinched. He stewed. He laid up. He made par. Zoeller parred it too. No blood. "A play like that might help us out in the future," said Navarro afterward.
You want scary? Norman was so utterly dominating from brain to bunion that if he had made three more birdies, he would have tied the alltime 72-hole tournament record of 27 under, set 39 years ago by Mike Souchak at the Texas Open on a course with one half of a dogleg and fairways baked harder than Odessa.
Tom Kite, for one, didn't like this deal one bit. Kite, two shots behind Norman's 63 after a gaudy opening day that featured 38 players shooting under 70, said the course was too soft, too lush, too green, too easy, or else how could scores like these be put up? "If this tournament wants to call itself a major, they're going to have to make it more of a challenge," Kite said. That night, Kite sent his steak back for being done too perfectly, asked his doctor if he could arrange, for more lower back pain and burned his favorite slippers.
Remember, this is the course with all the railroad tics, narrow escapes and trap doors, the one Tom Weiskopf called Donkey Kong golf. Jack Nicklaus looked at the marble-slick greens and said that playing them was like trying to stop the ball on a hood of a car. J.C. Snead looked at all the water and said they messed up a perfectly good swamp. Two years ago John Mahaffey looked at the beat-up greens and called the course the Marriott Muni.
"Tom Kite has a short memory," said Zoeller. "We caught this course on a pussycat day. Let's see it blow 30 to 40 miles an hour and see how he likes it." Besides that, Kite was wrong. Only Norman and Zoeller went bonkers last week, everybody else suffering as usual. Indeed, the fifth-place finisher this year, Nick Faldo, shot 277, the same as last year's fifth-place finisher, Mark O'Meara. After his opening round Kite himself never shot in the 60s.
Actually, with Norman stashing the tournament in his locker every night, at least Kite gave people something to talk about. Something, that is, besides why the Tour was going to pick the wrong man to replace the outgoing Beman, who has announced that he will retire by the end of next year.
The suits seem to want deputy commissioner Tim Finchem, who knows where all the double bogeys are buried. Ken Green wants Dan Quayle—"even if he can't spell potato." Payne Stewart thinks the Tour should find another player, somebody who knows what it's like to make a living as a wood- and iron-worker, somebody like Roger Maltbie, but Maltbie spat out his beer when he heard that. Some people would like Hale Irwin, but the 48-year-old Irwin has a date with a few million-dollar T-bills on the Senior PGA Tour.
Whoever it is, the players won't be picking him. Only the 10-man Tournament Policy Board votes—"They told us the other night we're not smart enough to pick a commissioner." said pro John Adams—and only four of those are players. The rest are guys like Tampa Bay Buc owner Hugh Culverhouse, who is to picking talent what Bill Clinton is to picking lawyers. That's why Finchem looks like the chalk favorite. On Saturday he had to go to the airport quick to pick up somebody. Culverhouse.
When it came to fighting for the $450,000 first-prize check, Norman already had a bit of a leg up. Mark Calcavecchia, Phil Mickelson and Mark Wiebe are hobbled with skiing injuries. Fred Couples blew out his back last month at Doral. And 1993 champ Nick Price missed the cut with a vicious head cold. Who says golfers are wimps?
Wire to wire he went. Norman led by two strokes after one round, three strokes after two rounds, and four after three, thanks to his final approach shot Saturday, which came out of jungle rough on 18, over a tree trunk, under a pine tree, sliced away from the water and landed on the green. "Nothin' but net," said Norman with a grin.
Norman slept frightfully with his four-stroke lead that night. Right. He got only 11 hours. Then he went out, fraught with nerves, and birdied the first while Zoeller bogeyed it (six-shot lead), then birdied two of the three after that. The engraver got to work while the rest of us waited for the only suspense left. Would he be the Man Bogey Forgot?
Almost. When Norman did finally make that solitary bogey at 13—a leaf blew across his line just as he was about to stroke a nine-footer for par—poor Fuzzy would not trust his eyes. He walked over to NBC's on-course reporter, Maltbie, and whispered, "Did he actually make a bogey?" Maltbie, wide-eyed, confirmed that he had. Reports that leaf crumbs were found in Zoeller's pocket could not be confirmed.
"I really wanted to go bogey-free," said Norman. "You know, there are things you have an opportunity of doing in life maybe once or twice. And 72 holes without a bogey is, well..." Rare. Lee Trevino is believed to be the last person to do it, in 1974 in New Orleans.
Norman then made his smart par on 16, went for the fat part of the island green at the par-3 17th ("the toughest 141-yard shot under pressure in golf," says Norman), and instead hit it to two feet for a birdie. From there he strode to the 18th and made par for his 67th worldwide win and some serious pressure at the Masters, where he has faced the biggest disappointments of his career, where he has never won what he calls "the best championship in the world."
But for now, there is this shining, heroic win on a course that had never been so violated before, and a makeup for his embarrassing eight-shot U.S. Open playoff loss to Zoeller at Winged Foot 10 years ago.
"You know what we should have done?" said sixth-place finisher Brad Faxon. "Taken Greg skiing."