AUGUSTA, Ga.(AP) After all these years, Greg Norman still knows his way around Augusta National.
As late winter melted into spring, Norman found himself driving past the 61 Magnolia trees on both sides of the lane that leads to the clubhouse. Walking into the locker room, an attendant wrapped his arms around the Shark.
“He came up and gave a big hug,” Norman said. “Like, ‘Greg, welcome back. We’ve missed you around here.’ So right from the locker room attendant to the spectators, I’m sure it’s going to be positive.”
That he can find many positives at Augusta National remains a mystery.
When the 54-year-old Norman plays the Masters for the 23rd time, he is sure to be greeted by memories at every turn. Most of them are worth forgetting.
Just beyond the live oak tree behind the clubhouse is the ninth green, where Norman’s wedge spun off the false front and down the steep slope to the fairway, a pivotal bogey during his final-round collapse against Nick Faldo in 1996. Next to that is the 18th green, where Norman was tied for the lead in 1986 until his 4-iron sailed into the gallery. His bogey gave Jack Nicklaus a sixth green jacket.
The 11th hole? Still vivid as ever.
Three weeks before the Shark’s return to his favorite major, he was playing with an Augusta National member and two guests when they looked to the right of the green and asked where Larry Mize was when he chipped in for birdie to beat Norman in a playoff in 1987. No other major loss haunts him more.
“As a matter of fact, when we played, the pin position was almost identical to where Larry chipped it in,” Norman said. “I said, ‘That’s where he was. Now you go over there and try to hit that shot.’ It was one of those situations that sticks in your mind.”
How could it not?
Norman did enough right to claim three green jackets, maybe four. Three times he was the runner-up, once in a playoff. His last chance came 10 years ago, when he was tied for the lead with four holes to play and never made another birdie, losing to Jose Maria Olazabal.
For the better part of a decade, Norman was the face of the Masters.
He is welcome everywhere – except that locker room on the second floor of clubhouse reserved for Masters champions.
“It’s amazing,” Tiger Woods said. “For someone who’s had such a great career and come so close, you almost feel like he has won the tournament – even though he hasn’t – because he’s been there so many times. I don’t know how many second-place finishes, but he’s been so close so many times. And it’s hard to believe he’s not in the locker room.”
Even more amazing is that Norman gets one last chance.
It took a fairy tale for him to get back to the Masters. Norman was on his honeymoon with tennis great Chris Evert last summer when he decided to turn up at Royal Birkdale for the British Open, where he is exempt until age 65 as a two-time champion. In the biggest surprise of the year, Norman stood on the 10th tee of the final round with a one-shot lead.
But he couldn’t make it stand. Padraig Harrington shot 32 on the back nine to win the claret jug. Norman finished six shots behind, but his tie for third qualified him to return to the Masters.
After thinking about it for a few months, Norman couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“I’m going back because I love it,” he said. “I love playing there. I love the people there. I love the establishment there. It’s just a good feeling for me.”
Norman spent a Hall of Fame career losing more majors than he won, but never making any excuses, even when he blew a six-shot lead against Faldo in his most notorious runner-up finish at a major.
His last trip to the Masters was in 2002, when he received a special invitation. Norman tied for 36th that year, and most everyone figured the Shark would never be back.
Who could have guessed that seven years later, Norman would be playing the Masters and Faldo would not?
“I think he’ll enjoy the emotion and Memory Lane,” said Faldo, a three-time champion who stopped playing when he became the lead analyst for CBS Sports. “He can hit it decent enough. I said to him, ‘Lucky you still have a (putting) stroke. You’ve got to feed the ball there. And he’s still got that.”
Can he cook up one last chance?
The odds are against him, not to mention the 7,435-yard course, a quarter-mile longer than when he last contended. Norman played it recently after it had rained, when the course had no roll, and he said that Bethpage Black felt like a pitch-and-putt compared with Augusta.
Then again, who could have predicted Birkdale?
“I think if anyone ever deserves to win a Masters, it’s Greg Norman,” said Robert Allenby, one of a dozen or so Australians inspired by the Great White Shark. “And that would be a fairy tale, that’s for sure, if he went out there this year and won it. But you know, it will be nice to see him there.”
That’s the way Norman wants to approach his return.
Why go back?
He loves the golf course and wants to see the changes, which have transformed it into one of the toughest tests in golf. No one has come remotely close to the course record of 63 that he shares with Nick Price. Too, Norman wanted to share the week with Evert.
“A couple of people really wanted me to go there, and Chrissie has never seen the Masters,” Norman said. “So to get her there and to see what I think is the greatest golf championship, and my favorite tournaments of all time, was another factor, as well.”
His son, Gregory, will be his caddie.
Norman has never played Augusta National with so few expectations. That’s what he did at Royal Birkdale, although it helped that hardly anyone knew he was there until he showed up on the leaderboard throughout the weekend.
Ideally, he would treat this as another honeymoon – even though his honeymoon with Augusta ended long ago.
“I just want to make sure that everybody manages their expectations,” he said. “And I manage my expectations.”