SOUTHPORT, England — You remember the image: Greg Norman, bent over in despair, hands on his knees, the top of his straw hat standing in for his face. The iconic photo appeared on the cover of the April 22, 1996, issue of Sports Illustrated, next to the words, “Agony at Augusta.” You didn’t have to know that the Shark had squandered a 6-stroke final-round lead to let his last good opportunity for a Masters title slip away. The image and the three-word summation said it all.
Which didn’t stop me from piling on. “It is clear that this is how we will remember Greg Norman,” I wrote at the time, “as golf’s most enduring (and endearing) also-ran. At 41 he is already trapped in amber. He is a cautionary specimen, to be exhibited alongside Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner (grounder through the legs, 1986 World Series), Buffalo Bills place-kicker Scott Norwood (wide right, Super Bowl XXV), and all those other athletes whose achievements are forever obscured due to some episode of futility.”
I have never had reason to revise that appraisal. Norman went on to close out a Hall of Fame career that embraced 87 professional wins, a pair of British Open titles, three PGA Tour money crowns, and seven seasons atop the Official World Golf Ranking. But I still can’t glimpse his hawk-like profile without seeing “Agony at Augusta” on the crawl at the bottom of my imaginary screen.
So what Norman did today at Royal Birkdale strikes me as the most improbable feat in golf since … well, since Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open on a broken leg. At age 53 and long-since retired from tournament golf, Norman battled gale-force winds and hurricane-force skeptics and shot a 72 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Open Championship.
Norman himself acknowledged the improbability of his position, joking that “the players are probably saying, ‘My god, what’s HE doing up there?'”
I confess, I’m asking the same thing. Greg Norman is no longer a full-time golfer. He’s a half-billionaire businessman who dips a toe in senior golf once or twice a year to keep his name before the clients and customers. He chose to play at Royal Birkdale, if you can believe this, to tune up for next week’s Senior British Open at Royal Troon. But there’s his name, up on the big yellow scoreboard over the 18th-hole grandstand: GREG NORMAN +2.
The Shark, despite his assurances that he’s playing from “a good, safe, happy mind,” knows what’s at stake tomorrow. If he wins — if he replaces Julius Boros (PGA champ at 48) as the oldest winner of a major championship — he’ll escape the amber of Augusta ’96. But if Norman falters, if he starts bleeding bogeys, if the full-time golfers like Padraig Harrington and K. J. Choi penetrate his patriarchal serenity and brush him aside … then the whole glorious premise will seem like one last tease, one final twist of Fate’s knife in the great man’s back.
After all, Norman has more than his Masters loss to Nick Faldo to keep him awake tonight. He shot a final-round 76 to lose the 1986 PGA Championship to Bob Tway. He lost the 1987 Masters when Larry Mize holed a 45-foot chip on the second playoff hole. He soared at the ’89 British Open at Troon, shooting a course-record 64 to force a playoff with Mark Calcavecchia and Wayne Grady, and then crashed in favor of Calc in the four-hole playoff, carding an X on the final hole.
Norman knows disappointment.
“You really don’t know where you are until the end,” an older and presumably wiser Greg Norman said this evening. Which left me thinking: How do you know when it’s ended? Isn’t amber supposed to be permanent?
I, for one, am ready to submit a reappraisal of Norman’s legacy. And based upon what he’s already accomplished this week in Birkdale’s punishing winds, I’m tempted to do it tonight.
But that, of course, would be foolish.