Like so many other times in Greg Norman's confounding career, it was all there for the taking—the glory, the honor and of course the money. Too often he has fumbled these opportunities, but as the sun began to hide behind the gnarled cypress trees on the back nine of The Olympic Club in San Francisco on Sunday, Norman seemed serenely poised to take possession of the season-ending $3 million Tour Championship—and with it, the entire 1993 golf year.
With seven holes to play in the world's richest tournament, Norman held a one-shot lead over Jim Gallagher Jr., who was still drafting off his course-record opening round of 63. To all appearances this was the mentally and mechanically rebuilt Norman who had been so heroic in winning this year's British Open at Sandwich with a final-round 64 and so steadfast at the PGA Championship in August until the rim of the cup on the 18th hole at Inverness twice frustrated him.
For 65 holes Norman dominated the classic rolling fairways and small, subtle greens of Olympic—and a field comprising the top 30 money-winners on this year's PGA Tour—with driving and iron play so solid that it mitigated mediocre putting. A modicum of the same play over the last holes would win him the $540,000 first prize, which in turn would earn him the PGA Tour money title. That feat, together with the fact that Norman would achieve them while playing in a PGA Tour-member minimum of 15 tournaments, would force even the most envious of his peers to vote for him as PGA Tour Player of the Year over Nick Price and Paul Azinger. All of which would add rocket fuel to Norman's crusade to be acknowledged as the best golfer in the world. As much as at any other time in Norman's career, it was all there.
But just when he had everyone convinced this was a new, wiser and tougher Greg Norman, the old one who had ostensibly been buried in the linksland at Sandwich climbed back out of the grave and handed the tournament over to the relatively obscure Gallagher. After watching in disbelief as Norman butchered the 72nd hole with a killing bogey, the stunned winner admitted, "I kind of backed into that one." A few moments later, as he shook the hand of the fast-moving Norman in front of the scoring tent, Gallagher couldn't help but add, "Sorry about that, Greg."
It was sad indeed. After playing the first 11 holes of the final round in an airtight three under par, Norman bogeyed four of the final seven holes, three times putting short-iron approaches in places where he simply could not afford to put them. Norman wasn't so much mis-hitting as mis-playing—unnecessarily forcing the ball at the pin with efforts that were poorly conceived and inappropriate to the situation. When the wreckage had been cleared, witnesses were left with that empty feeling that comes when a great player lets a great victory slip away. It was certainly not a first-time feeling at Olympic, where the fates of the U.S. Open chose Jack Fleck over Ben Hogan in 1955, Billy Casper over Arnold Palmer in 1966 and Scott Simpson over Tom Watson in 1987.
And on Sunday, there was again the question that Norman won't let go away: Does this man, who has won 62 titles all over the world, including two major championships and 11 victories on the PGA Tour, who is so exciting, so appealing and so talented, truly know how to win?
Norman's gory history of unforgettable crunch-time failures all came flooding back the moment he got too cute with a nine-iron from 131 yards and left it in the right bunker guarding the pin on the otherwise simple 12th hole. Then, when he failed to save his par after a mediocre bunker shot, Norman went from being a tank rolling inexorably and triumphantly toward Olympic's stately clubhouse to a cable car careering down Hyde Street toward disaster.
On the par-3 13th, Norman's bogey after a poor chip from behind the green threw him into a tie with Gallagher. After a routine par on 14, he seemed to regain control with a 15-foot birdie putt on the short 15th, but on the 609-yard 16th, he tried a shot that is best described as dumb. Facing a third shot from the fairway, with 94 yards to a pin tucked behind another righthand bunker, Norman chose to hit a 60-degree wedge directly at the hole rather than play more safely to the left. His ball, nipped with tremendous backspin, never got up high enough and slammed into the sand and plugged. When he finally made a five-footer for bogey, Norman was again tied with Gallagher, who had finished with a 69 for a seven-under 277.
After a scrambling par on 17, Norman needed only another par on the delicate 347-yard par-4 18th to get into a playoff. He hit a long-iron tee shot that left him 133 yards to a pin cut on a severe slope at the very back of the green. It was a situation that fairly screamed for the approach to be left somewhere below the hole.
But Norman took out an eight-iron, a selection that surprised his playing partner, David Frost, who also was still in contention. "I had hit an eight-iron, and I had been 20 yards behind Greg," he said. "I think he used the wrong club."
Trying to carve a low shot all the way to the flag, Norman slid his body ahead of the ball and pushed it long and into the hillside, where it stayed in the rough. Norman's bid was essentially dead. His desperate pitch ran 20 feet by the hole. Shell-shocked, he hit his putt to tie; it came up two feet short. Norman finished in a four-way tie for second with Frost, Scott Simpson and John Huston.
And while Norman had decidedly outplayed both Azinger and Price, his two rivals for postseason honors, the distance between first and second made all the difference to Norman's chances of being voted the year's outstanding player. Price, whose putter failed him on his way to a tie for 18th at two-over 286, won the season's money title at $1,478,557; Azinger, who struggled at Olympic to finish 21st, was second on the money list, with Norman third at $1,359,653. Price will contend with Azinger for player of the year honors. A deflated Norman conceded any chance at that honor.
Norman had no one to blame but himself. At Olympic, he hadn't been victimized by any exotic hole outs or fantastic putts. In fact, Gallagher played the last four holes one over par. Most annoyingly, Norman had struck the ball beautifully, hitting more fairways—47 out of 56—than anyone in the field.
"I didn't physically put on a bad performance, I just mentally put on a pathetic performance," said Norman. "I really did make two bad mental mistakes. I just got overzealous on 12, thinking nine times out of 10, with a nine-iron in your hand from 131 yards, you can get inside 10 feet. On 181 wanted to get the ball back there. I didn't want to leave myself 20 or 30 feet under the hole, so I tried to hit a little flat shot, got just a little bit ahead of it and blocked, which is why I hit it three or four yards farther than I really wanted."
In the end Norman had broken his own code for playing Olympic, which was to forget the flags and shoot at the middle of the small greens, knowing that if he was successful, he would leave himself enough makable birdie putts to shoot in the 60s.
"I sat here and said, You've got to play conservative out there," said Norman afterward, "so I put my foot in my mouth and didn't do what I was supposed to do. I got overzealous, and I paid the price."
Collecting the check was the 32-year-old Gallagher, who won his third tournament in 10 years on the PGA Tour and finished his best season by far with a total of $1,078,870 in earnings, rocketing all the way to fourth on the 1993 money list.
This victory was unexpected in more ways than one. The last time Gallagher had played The Olympic Club was in the 1981 U.S. Amateur, when as a collegian he failed to qualify for match play with scores of 87-81. "I went home and quit the game for six weeks after that," he said. "I figured I better start making some grades, because I was not going to have a career in golf."
Naturally, in his next official round on the course 12 years later, Gallagher posted a light-running 63, eclipsing the previous competitive course record set by Rives McBee in the 1966 Open and equaled by Keith Clearwater in the '87 Open. Besides giving him the luxury of being able to total one over par for the rest of the tournament, that round provided Gallagher, who is sensitive to being underappreciated, with extra incentive to hold on.
"I didn't want anyone to think that round was a fluke, because it wasn't," said Gallagher, whose 2-1 record in the recent Ryder Cup refuted predictions that he would fold under the pressure. "I had it inside 10 feet all day."
That was far from true on Friday and Saturday, when Gallagher had rounds of 73 and 72. Beginning the final round three strokes behind the leader, Frost, Gallagher seemed to be looking at little more than a decent payday, particularly after he bogeyed the fourth hole on Sunday to fall five strokes behind.
But walking up the 457-yard, par-4 5th, the toughest hole on the course, the onetime Hoosier began talking to his caddie about former Indiana Ail-American Steve Alford and his uncanny ability to sink three-pointers. Sure enough Gallagher holed a 40-foot bomb for a birdie.
"That got me in a flow," said Gallagher, who went on to birdie the 9th, the 10th and the 13th.
Gallagher was tied with Norman at seven under when he came to the 17th. After a good drive, he "full-nuked" a three-wood from 238 yards to within 20 feet of the pin. But he ran the first putt three feet past and pulled the comebacker. When Norman birdied the 15th moments later, it appeared that Gallagher had made a fatal mistake. And so he had, until Norman's persistent ghost gave him new life.
Despite the pall cast by Norman's collapse, the Tour Championship has become exactly what the PGA Tour wants it to be: a climactic, season-ending event possessing the strong likelihood of determining the year's best player and staged on one of the world's great courses. Indeed, the enduring star of this year's event was The Olympic Club.
The tournament will return to this course next year, which may give Norman a chance for redemption. Not that he was devastated by his collapse. His victory at Sandwich and his phenomenal record this year—seven finishes in the top four out of his 15 appearances on the PGA Tour—have given him effective shock absorption for the near future.
"Golf is a wonderful life cycle," said Norman, in the positive mode that more than ever has marked his mood this year. "I mean, I enjoyed it today. I made mistakes, but I learn from my mistakes."
Those who have watched Norman wonder. If indeed he is to become a player for the ages, he'll have to truly absorb the lesson he got at Olympic.