1996 Masters loss another blow to perpetually unlucky Greg Norman

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(This story first appeared in SI in 1996.)

"I am a winner," Greg Norman told us. "I just didn't win today."

Those two sentences could serve as title and subtitle for Norman's autobiography, should he ever decide to write one. They could work equally well if he ever pens a self-improvement book along the lines of his beloved Zen and the Martial Arts. On either dust jacket, I AM a Winner should appear in straw-colored type, matching the golfer's famous hair. I Just Didn't Win Today should lurk in crimson overlay, at the bottom of the cover, down among the shadows.

"I AM a winner. I just didn't win today." It was the sort of self-affirming statement Saturday Night Live's Stuart Smalley used to deliver into a mirror, smiling stiffly, as if to convince his own countenance.

But Norman doesn't need a mirror as long as he has the final rounds of major championships to hold up for inspection. On Sunday evening it was the Shark's practiced fortitude up for display at the Augusta National Golf Club, where he had once again los-, make that "failed to win," a tournament that seemed to be in his grasp. Over and over, he tried to convince a crowd of skeptical reporters that he was not shattered by his final-round 78. A six-shot lead that became a five-stroke loss was not, as he put it, "the end of the world for me."

You had to concede the point. So gifted a player is Norman -- head and hat above everyone else, if you believe many of his PGA Tour peers -- that he could well win this week's Tour stop on Hilton Head Island, or the Memorial in May, or any of the three majors still to be played in 1996. He has bounced back before. In 1987 Norman was so devastated by a Masters loss to Larry Mize, who sank a 140-foot chip shot to settle their sudden-death playoff, that hours later, in the darkness before dawn, he went out on the beach behind his Florida home, listened to the pounding surf and sobbed. After that misfortune, his second straight last-minute disappointment at Augusta, it was written that Norman might never recover. Yet he went on to win his second British Open in 1993, the Players Championship in 1994, PGA Tour money titles in '90 and '95, and a few Dorals, Memorials and whatnots here and there, as well. "[One] thing I pride myself on is not living in the past," he said a few years back. "Whether I've played exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly, I've always been able to proceed as if nothing has happened."

But we, his public, are well aware that something has happened ... and happened ... and happened. With guilty pleasure we call him Gag Norman. Spotting a Heimlich maneuver poster by the swinging doors in a restaurant, we tell the waiter to cover it up "because Greg Norman is coming." At the same time, we hail the Shark for his sportsmanship. No modern sports hero has taken it so often on the chin and still held that chin up.

The scales of judgment, for sports figures, teeter erratically, influenced by unseen thumbs. At the 1989 British Open at Royal Troon, Norman came from seven shots behind, birdieing the first six holes, chipping in at 17 and shooting a final-round 64, to force a playoff with Mark Calcavecchia and Wayne Grady. He then birdied the first two holes of the Open's first-ever four-hole playoff. The stuff of legends? No. Norman bogeyed the third hole and then shocked the Scots with a bunker-to-bunker-to-clubhouse tureen fusillade on the final hole. He took an X, handing the title to Calcavecchia. It was as if the golf gods had decreed that play could not end until Norman embarrassed himself.

Now, with this latest debacle, it is clear that we will remember Greg Norman as golf's most enduring, and endearing, also-ran. He has lost playoffs in all four majors, has 29 second-place finishes to 16 Tour wins. 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 placekicker Scott Norwood (missed field goal, Super Bowl XXV) and all those other athletes whose achievements are forever obscured due to some episode of futility.

"I AM a winner," he told us on Sunday evening. "I just didn't win today."

Unfortunately for Greg Norman, it was the one day he had to win.