AUGUSTA, Ga. — They pulled for Greg Norman like they used to pull for Greg Norman, back when he ruled the entire golf world except for this old converted nursery.
“If he makes a par here and a birdie at 8, he’ll be in good shape,” said one fan who was following Norman’s progress through his first Masters round in seven years.
“Greg,” said another sun-drenched fan as Norman walked by. “We’re rooting for you.”
On and on it went, the loud cheers and silent prayers for a 54-year-old Great White Shark, a man with a wondrous swing who never figured out how to find his way into a green jacket.
For nearly five hours, on the sunniest and warmest day of the week so far, Norman played golf at the scene of so many birdies and so much heartbreak. At the end, he’d pulled a 70 out of his Shark-logoed hat, knowing it was a good round that could have been even better.
“Worst score I could have shot,” he said. “I played really well.”
For Norman, the ghosts of his Masters past were all around him Thursday. As he played the par-4 10th hole, Nick Faldo stood in the shade of a stand of trees, watching his old nemesis. It was Faldo who undressed Norman here in 1996, firing a 67 to Norman’s 78 and overcoming a six-shot deficit.
“Faldo,” said a fan, watching Norman’s group. “They play [the 1996 Masters highlights] a thousand times.”
Even more unexpected was the sight of the 50-year-old Larry Mize, not on a highlight video but in living color on a leader board. Mize, who chipped in to beat Norman here in a playoff in 1987, opened with a 5-under-par 67, a score Norman couldn’t help but notice.
“Good for Larry,” Norman said. “That’s great to see.”
Norman might have been right there with Mize, but he had difficulty reading a few of Augusta’s greens. He missed birdie chances on Nos. 1 and 3 and lipped out another chance for birdie on No. 8. But he also he birdied No. 9 with two precision shots and saved par on No. 10 when he rolled in a 15-footer after coming up short from the sand.
“My whole objective is to come in here and play solid and keep expectations low,” said Norman, who earned his spot in the Masters by finishing third at last year’s British Open. “I had a lot of opportunities, really could have shot a nice, mid-60s score today. I didn’t. I’m not complaining.”
Norman couldn’t help but hear the happy fuss at every tee box, the applause that met him every time he appeared around a dogleg. He brought his fingers to his hat brim — same as in the old days — and acknowledged fans who remembered many of his close calls here.
“When I come here, people probably feel for me, some of the things that have happened around here,” said Norman, not needing to elaborate. “I see the same faces. Some of these people are sitting in the same chairs that were on the 15th, 15 years ago, even on the 18th. It feels like the very first time I played here.”
The first time was 1981, when he shot 69 and led after the first round. He finished fourth and looked like he’d win a closet full of green jackets.
He would have looked good in green — Jack Nicklaus always did — but it never came to pass. Nicklaus, at 46, won his sixth Masters. Can Norman, eight years older than that, win his first?
“We’ll have to wait and see,” he said.