You reach a certain age — 53, let’s say — and you think you’ve got the rest of your life mapped out. You visit your wineries; you launch your new sportswear collections; you fly to various continents and archipelagos to see how your golf courses are coming along; and every now and then you tee it up in a golf tournament. Maybe, to ward off the blahs, you spend $103 million on a divorce settlement and marry the love of your life, a world-famous tennis star.
“It was a nice little lifestyle,” Chris Evert conceded last Friday, her use of the past tense signaling that it might be threatened. “He was home a lot.”
By he, Evert meant her husband of four weeks, Hall of Fame golfer Greg Norman. The two sports icons were walking together on the gentle dunescape of Royal Troon, a famous links course on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast. And when I say together, I’m not ignoring the fact that they were separated by a blue nylon rope. Norman, though he was playing in the second round of the Senior British Open, made repeated trips through the well-trampled rough to give his bride a quick smooch and trade endearments. It was the boldest display of affection seen at Troon since Colin Montgomerie last played there as a single.
But life has a way of unsettling the settled. In the days following his astonishing third-place tie in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Norman — a part-time golfer with a dodgy back — was suddenly back in the limelight. Headlines brayed Tiger Who? Television directors cued up the pulsating Jaws theme to play over their Norman highlights. The PGA of America went so far as to extend Norman a last-minute invitation to enter its championship, which begins on Aug. 7 in Michigan.
And there was this poke in the ribs from the fickle finger of fate: By finishing in the top four at Birkdale, Norman qualified to play in the 2009 Masters. (Anybody remember what happened to the Shark in the final round of the 1996 Masters? Hint: He appeared on the cover of SI next to the words Agony at Augusta.) Norman now had to make some big decisions about his playing future at, of all places, Troon, where he famously lost the ’89 Open Championship to Mark Calcavecchia in a four-hole playoff. (Anybody remember how Norman played the final hole? Hint: After visiting two bunkers, the caddie master’s leg and the gravel patio behind the 18th green, the ball wound up in Greg’s pocket.)
Norman, it must be said, wasn’t yanking pages out of his calendar. “I really haven’t put a whole lot of thought into it yet,” he said last Friday evening, when the pressure to announce his intentions was building. “I’ve got this week and next week” — the U.S. Senior Open in Colorado Springs, beginning on Thursday — “and, you know, a special exemption to the PGA is one of those things that makes you think a little bit. After that, I have to get together with my design guys, and I have trips to course sites around the world, scheduled things that I really can’t change.”
The PGA invite was the most pressing matter because Norman had only until Monday to accept or decline. [On Monday, Norman declined.] “It’s his decision entirely, but I’ll give my opinion,” said Evert, whose advice carries the imprimatur of 18 Grand Slam singles titles. “What are your motives for playing? Do you play simply because you’re flattered that you’ve been invited? Or do you play because you’re feeling good about your golf and you really want to play?” She added, “If he wants to play, I want him to play. I just want him to be happy.”
Norman is already happy — not to mention rich, handsome, slim, respected and loved — so you wonder why he’d want to reinvest in a game that has broken his heart so often. “There’s a dilemma there, no question,” said NBC golf reporter Gary Koch, who wore a competitor’s badge at Troon and finished 13th. “Greg played at Royal Birkdale without a lot of expectations. Now, after one good week, the expectations change.”
They do, indeed. Sam Torrance, the former European Ryder Cup captain, was asked early last week if Norman was favored to win the Senior British. “I should bloody hope so,” Torrance said with a snort. “Leading the Open with nine to play? We all saw it. Looked like he turned the clock back 25 years, to be honest.” Blinded with awe, Torrance failed to notice that Norman had played only three tournaments in three-plus years of Champions tour eligibility. He also didn’t take into account that Australia’s most famous golfer would be playing back-to-back tournaments for the first time in ages, or that back surgery has left him unable to practice for more than an hour or so at a time, or that he would be playing consecutive weeks of traditional links golf, even a few days of which can destroy minds as readily as it wrecks swings.
It took only one round at Troon to remind everyone that tournament golf is not a happiness machine. Playing into an atypical southeast breeze, Norman bogeyed three of the first five holes on Thursday morning and was six over par through 10. He recovered with a couple of birdies down the stretch, but he no longer looked invincible. On Friday afternoon, with the wind freshening, Norman doubled the par-4 11th to go eight over for the tournament, dangerously close to the projected cut. “I don’t think he’s ready for this week,” said first-round co-leader Eduardo Romero, who had already completed his own second round. “It’s very difficult to concentrate when you’re very tired.”
But just as Norman was being written off as a one-week wonder, he finished eagle-par-birdie for a one-over-par 72. He kept it going on Saturday, shooting 67 — the lowest round of the tournament to that point — to climb into a sixth-place tie with the U.S.’s Kirk Hanefeld and Gene Jones. Interestingly, the Shark was happier with the scrambling 72 than he was with the flawless 67. “It’s a good sign that I’m still working to make it all the way to the end, that I can take a 77 and turn it into a 75,” he said on Friday, buoyed by his strong finish. Saturday’s round, on the other hand, was a great tee-to-green day that felt flat because the putts weren’t dropping. Said Norman, “I think 67 was the worst score I could have made today.”
So what did it all mean? Would a good finish at Troon prod Norman into full comeback mode? Would he say yes to the PGA? Would he play in the Masters? Would he risk his “nice little lifestyle” to chase the impossible dream?
Evert, walking every hole at Troon with a spring in her step, couldn’t suppress her own excitement. “Something is opening up,” she said on Friday. “Something is flowering that can be good for him. I’m sure there will be offers to do exhibitions and skins games, and there will be business opportunities.” Was she worried that she might become a golf widow before she and Greg had finished opening their wedding gifts? “At this stage of my life,” she answered with a smile, “love is giving him the freedom to do what he wants to do.”
It was pretty obvious, by week’s end, what Norman wanted to do: play some more golf. He birdied five of the first seven holes on Sunday afternoon, a charge that evoked his final-round streak of six birdies at the ’89 Open. But then he took two to get out of a greenside bunker at the par-3 17th, reminding us that experience — linked as it is to memory — can be a nag. The Shark finished at two under in a tie for fifth, four shots out of the Vaughan-Cook playoff, and departed with an enigmatic shrug. “What will be, will be,” he said. “And if it works out, great.”
But Norman had already tipped his hand on Friday evening, when Evert dragged him over to chat with me by the 18th green. “You’re the first person that I’ve said this to,” Norman said, “but near the end of the year I’ll be trying to practice a bit more. I’m already looking forward to July of next year [when the Open Championship will be played at Turnberry] and, before that, April. If I’m going to Augusta, I have to find time before Christmas to get my game moving in the right direction.” Evert, he added, was making it fun to play again. “She’ll tell me, ‘Why don’t you hit balls for an hour?’ Coming from her, that really helps. It makes an hour and a half of practice worth five.”
Norman wandered off, and then Evert came over. “I don’t want to give you the wrong impression,” she said. “Greg’s life isn’t going to change that much. He’s not going to be a full-time player.” She turned to stare longingly at her trophy husband, who was signing autographs on his way to the locker room. “But he’s the master of his own destiny, that’s for sure.”
Co-master, I would have said.