Greg Norman, simply for being Greg Norman, has to absorb a bunch
of cheap shots. To a lot of people, including many of his peers,
everything about him is just too darn big, be it his fame, bank
account, ego, overseas-appearance fees, yacht, shoulders or the
Day-Glo patterns on his golf shirts. Actually, most of the
carping about Norman is a tribute. The fact is, week in and week
out over the last decade, he has played on a consistently higher
level than anyone else in the game. What's more, he has
continued to improve and, at age 40, is a more complete player
But there is one criticism of Norman that, while harsh, is much
less cheap shot than direct hit. For all his talent and ability
to get in the hunt, Norman has been a poor finisher.
Though he has won several tournaments by big margins-- and has
made the Sunday charge from far back that falls just short his
trademark -- Norman has been shaky around the lead of closely
contested tournaments. The book on the Shark has always been to
stay close to him and wait for the big mistake.
Before last week's Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, Norman
had led or shared the lead going into the final round of a PGA
Tour event nine times in the 1990s. But on those occasions he
had come up with only two victories -- at Doral in 1993 and at
The Players Championship in 1994. Nor is this a new phenomenon.
In 1986, Norman led or was tied for the lead after three rounds
of all four majors, but converted only one, the British Open.
This year, Norman reinforced his reputation with two more
conspicuous late-round blowouts. At Doral, he was tied for the
lead when he pulled a six-iron approach to the 72nd hole so
badly that it splashed into the water 30 yards left of the
green, thereby handing the tournament to Nick Faldo. A month
later in the final round at the Masters, Norman was tied for the
lead until the 13th hole. Then, trailing by one at the 17th, he
pulled a 106-yard sand wedge 40 feet to the left of the pin and
three-putted for a bogey. He eventually finished third, three
strokes behind the winner, Ben Crenshaw.
Norman's rationalizations afterward have been as disturbing as
his physical failures. At Doral, he blamed a tuft of grass
behind his ball for causing his club head to turn over. At the
Masters, Norman said his yardage to the flag left him between a
pitching wedge and a sand wedge, and that he also had a "hanging
lie.'' The excuses suggested a scarred and mentally fragile
player with too much to prove. It was easier than ever to draw
the conclusion that when Norman comes down the stretch in the
heat, he has enough baggage to require a second caddie.
So when Norman took a one-stroke lead to the 12th hole of the
final round on Sunday at Muirfield Village Golf Club and
promptly blew a seven-iron over the green and into the face of a
severely inclined bank, he seemed to be imprisoned in a hapless
role in the same bad horror movie.
Norman faced a shot he could have easily fluffed short of the
green or flushed into the water past the pin. Instead he
finessed a miraculous wedge shot that nearly went in the hole
before stopping a foot away. He birdied the 14th hole to stretch
his lead to two strokes, but when he pulled his drive into the
trees on the par-5 15th and then hit his recovery across the
fairway amid more trees some 130 yards from the pin, it looked
as if Norman had simply delayed the agony. But he again dug
deep, punching out short of the green and getting up and down
for his par.
Still, his lead was down to one over Steve Elkington and Mark
Calcavecchia, and when Norman bunkered his tee shot on the par-3
16th and blasted out to 10 feet, the ghouls again took heart. So
what happened? Norman's putt went right down the pipe. And ahead
of him, instead of performing heroics like so many other Norman
antagonists of the past, Calcavecchia and Elkington were both
making bogey on the 17th.
Norman, being Norman, couldn't just quietly par in and win
comfortably. He birdied 17 and 18, doffing his black hat with a
flourish and bowing deeply to the throng. With a closing 66 and
a 19-under total of 269, he won by four over Calcavecchia,
Elkington and super-rookie David Duval. "I didn't want to come
in with just a one-shot victory,'' Norman said afterward, as if
that would have somehow devalued his accomplishment. After all,
there are a good dozen one-stroke victories Norman would have
happily collected over the years had he not proved so
mistake-prone at crucial moments.
In fact, he could take the most pride that this Memorial,
despite the winning margin, had been much more than a blowout.
Norman had engaged the enemy within and trounced it soundly. In
the clutch, he had truly finished.
Every time Norman wins on the Tour, his load gets lighter. His
victory gave him a career total of 13, too many to support
critics who say he hasn't won enough. And afterward, he was
satisfied to the extent that a question about weak stretch
performances at Doral and Augusta didn't rankle.
"I don't relate to those things in the past,'' Norman said.
"They don't have any bearing on me anymore. If I get beaten
sometime, I just let it go. Forget about it. Because if you keep
thinking about the negative, it's going to affect you for
forever and a day. So it doesn't bother me.''
If those words are true, Norman is the clear favorite to win the
U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, in Southampton, N.Y., next week.
At Shinnecock in 1986, Norman led by one after 54 holes, only to
shoot a final-round 75 that dropped him to 12th. If Norman can
forget that, as well as play and think at the same level he did
at the Memorial, there are few players with the ammunition to
To be sure, picking a favorite in the U.S. Open is a hollow
exercise. The last time a would-be prognosticator came close to
predicting the winner was in 1990, when Los Angeles Times
columnist Jim Murray, choosing the most obscure name he could,
came up with Mike Donald at Medinah and looked like a genius
when his man got into a playoff with another complete long shot,
Hale Irwin, the eventual winner.
Very simply, there are no leading indicators for the Open.
Whereas the Florida swing seems to provide a reasonable dope
sheet for the Masters, and summer hot streaks tend to carry over
at the British Open and PGA Championship, there seems no
reliable system for handicapping the national championship.
In the last 25 years the winner of the Open has won in earlier
events of that year only seven times. That fact alone bodes ill
not only for Norman, but also for defender Ernie Els, Faldo and
the Tour's leading money winner, Peter Jacobsen, all of whom
have victories this year.
The Memorial would seem to be a natural signpost for the Open.
It's a big-time event, the most prestigious tournament between
the Masters and the Open. When Muirfield Village plays fast and
hard, it's a great training ground for the pinpoint iron shots
and sensitive putting touch needed at the Open. But, guess what?
The Memorial seldom serves as a predictor.
For one thing, the Memorial rarely plays hard and fast. Of the
last 16 rounds played there, six have been delayed, postponed or
canceled because of bad weather. This year there was a delay
every day except Sunday, and on that day the leaders had to go
out early to finish their third rounds.
"The conditions just favor everybody,'' said Norman on Saturday
night after being able to finish only 14 holes of his third
round. "There's no real shotmaking to be made out there right
But even when the Memorial has been dry, its outcome has had
little to do with who won the Open. The only player ever to win
the Open in the same year he won the Memorial was Curtis Strange
in 1988. Since the first Memorial, in 1976, the only other
winners who went on to top-10 finishes in the Open were Jack
Nicklaus in '77, Hal Sutton in '86, Norman in '90 and Paul
Azinger in '93. Conversely, only five winners of the Open had
placed in the top 10 at the Memorial that same year: Jerry Pate
in '76, Hubert Green in '77, Scott Simpson in '87, Strange in
'88 and Tom Kite in '92. Along the way there were three years --
1981, '84 and '89 -- in which nobody who was in the top 10 at
the Memorial went on to finish in the top 10 at the Open.
The point is, the Open is the Open -- different, unique unto
itself. The only real prerequisite for winning is having command
of your game and yourself that week. "You can't fake it in the
Open,'' says Memorial host Nicklaus, who won four Opens. "I
either played very well, or I had no chance. Usually the latter.''
Often the winner has had a long stretch of solid, if not
necessarily spectacular, golf coming into the event. "If a guy
hasn't been playing well for a couple of months, that's the guy
who wakes up with the lead on Sunday and shoots 78,'' says
Green. Then again, a groove can be found at the last minute.
Nicklaus says that's what happened to him the weeks of his
victories in '67 and '80. "Both times I just found it with the
putter and got confident,'' he says.
The USGA likes to say that the Open identifies the best player,
but it's usually a certain type of player. The Open most rewards
the strengths of the rank and file, as opposed to golf's stars.
Open winners are generally not the players who are longest off
the tee, use their power and creativity for spectacular escapes
from trouble, make birdies (and bogeys) in bunches or are
extroverted or emotional on the course.
Instead, they tend to be relentlessly straight off the tee,
consistent with their irons, skillful at managing courses to
avoid strategic mistakes and adept at saving par. They are
frequently self-contained, expressionless players.
Ben Hogan, with four championships, was the model Open player.
Sam Snead, with none, was not. The Open was made for the games
of Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Andy North, Irwin and Strange, all
of whom have won at least two, and not for Tom Weiskopf, Lanny
Wadkins, Craig Stadler, Seve Ballesteros and Fred Couples, who
have won none. Style of play is why Loren Roberts, who can make
six-footers for pars all day long (although last year at Oakmont
he missed one on the 72nd hole that would have won), would
figure to do better at Shinnecock than Jacobsen, whose biggest
weakness over the years (although not this year) has been that
he is not adept at making scrambling pars.
One of the attractions of Shinnecock is that it is less
formulaic than other Open setups, with wider fairways,
less-uniform rough and natural links terrain, which should make
it more receptive to different styles of play. In '86, six
foreign-born golfers finished in the top 24, more than in any
Open since, suggesting the bounced-up approaches and chip shots
that Europeans tend to excel at will be valuable.
Having said that, the very best players, regardless of styles,
have historically found a way to win the Open. Arnold Palmer,
Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Raymond Floyd -- power players all --
have their names on the U.S. Championship Cup. That's why Els's
victory last year was so impressive. He is a young, strong
player whose biggest weakness is probably driving accuracy, but
through sheer determination and management he was able to
outlast two straighter hitters, Colin Montgomerie and Roberts.
So far, the trio that is generally acknowledged to be today's
Big Three -- Nick Price, Faldo and Norman -- hasn't been able to
accomplish what Els did last year. However, all three emerged
from the Memorial with the mandatory requirement: They're
Faldo has always been an enigmatic figure. This year he joined
the PGA Tour specifically to be more acclimated for the two
majors he has yet to win, the Open and the PGA. He was the
beneficiary of Norman's debacle at Doral, posting his first
victory on the Tour since 1984, but he was uncharacteristically
shaky down the stretch of the Buick Classic, when he lost a
two-stroke lead on the final nine and dropped to a tie for
fourth. Faldo's biggest problem since winning his last major,
the '92 British Open, has been inconsistent putting, and he
seems more and more obsessed by it. Of all the majors, the Open
is best suited for his game, but he will have to get rid of the
damaging negative thoughts to win it.
Faldo has never played Shinnecock Hills and is looking forward
to it. David Leadbetter, his swing guru, has calculated that the
average wind there is 28 mph, which he thinks is perfect for
Faldo. "Everybody else has been saying, 'Oh, this is the one for
you. This is the one,''' Faldo says. "I hear it's linksy and
blows a gale. Sounds wonderful.''
For most of the year, Price has been the victim of the demands
of his newfound fame and fortune, born of winning nine
tournaments and three majors in the last three years. After
missing the cut at the Masters and at Houston, he decided to
take off three weeks to clear out his mind, regain his desire
and get his swing back on track, specifically eliminating what
he considers too much lower-body movement. He returned to
Colonial two weeks ago, finishing with a strong 66 for 12th
place. At the Memorial, he again closed strongly, with a 65 that
put him into a tie for 10th, and was encouraged.
Price has only had two strong U.S. Opens, a tie for fourth at
Pebble Beach in '92 and an 11th at Baltusrol in '93. Like Faldo,
he has never seen Shinnecock, but likes what he hears.
"From what people say, it's the kind of course that allows a
variety of shots, a little like Pebble Beach,'' says Price. "I'm
starting to get some of the same penetration on my irons that I
had in the last two years. With the wind blowing at Shinnecock,
that will be vital. I'm starting to get my confidence back.''
Chances are no one will arrive at Shinnecock with more
confidence than Norman. The Memorial was his first tournament
after a six-week break, one of the longest of his career. In
April, Norman withdrew from the Heritage with back spasms, but
after he recovered a week later, he decided that he would gain
more from being mentally fresh than from playing in tournaments.
"I don't want to play as many as I used to,'' he says. "That was
so much of the secret of Nicklaus's success. He paced himself,
but when he played, he was ready.''
Despite only a week of practice at Medalist, the course he
designed near his home in Jupiter, Fla., Norman came to the
Memorial ready, and after playing the Kemper Open this week at
Avenel in Potomac, Md., he intends to reach Shinnecock the same
"I remember one thing about Shinnecock,'' says Norman. "It's a
course where you really have to use all your weaponry.''
At the moment, nobody has more. And if he goes there and brings
home a U.S. Open, he will still any further talk that he can't