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Greg Norman is comfortable with a legacy that fits like a noose

AUGUSTA, Ga. — They have come together once more, these two old friends. Years have passed, and appearances have changed, but there is no erasing a history once shared.

And so it is that Greg Norman and Augusta National meet up again this morning. The golfer who came to the Masters to chase glory, and the course that famously broke his heart. Again and again and again.

It has been seven years since Norman played this tournament, and circumstances have unavoidably evolved. These days he is 54 and hardly a serious contender for the green jacket. The last time Norman won on the PGA Tour was the year a 21-year-old Tiger Woods won his first Masters (1997).

So, no, Norman has not come back to rewrite history. This is not about revenge, and it is not a bitter athlete's last stab at redemption. This is something different, less complicated and far more appealing.

This is the story of a man comfortable in a legacy that sometimes fit like a noose.

"I think I learned more about myself by the failures here and the way you conduct yourself," Norman said sitting in the press room where he once recounted bitter defeats. "When I came in here in '96, nobody expected me to come. It wasn't a great experience, but you had to face the music. … How you conduct yourself after a victory is a lot different than the way you conduct yourself with a defeat. How you conduct yourself with a defeat is what makes you inside.

"I was at a soccer match, and a guy came up to me and said, 'You've taught me a huge lesson on how I need to conduct myself around my son by the way you conducted yourself when you were beaten, and the way you loved the Masters.' It obviously had an effect on him for some reason, and that makes you feel good."

Norman thought he had said farewell to the tournament for good in 2003 when his exemption ran out and there was no reprieve from Augusta National in the mail.

He had made 22 starts at the Masters and had eight top-five finishes. His 72.28 scoring average is fifth-best in Masters history among players with at least 75 rounds. The four men ahead of him combined to win the tournament nine times.

But for Norman, there was no first-place finish. No Champions Dinner. Instead, he was like some kind of prop in the final act of Augusta's most theatrical finishes.

Norman was the 54-hole leader in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus made his glorious final-round charge at age 46. Norman could have salvaged a playoff if he had made par on the final hole, but he bogeyed.

A year later, Norman got his playoff, with Seve Ballesteros and Larry Mize. After Ballesteros was eliminated on the first hole, Mize hit one of the most memorable chip shots in history to send Norman home winless again.

The misery seemed ready to end in 1996 when Norman held the lead after each of the first three rounds. He had a six-stroke lead over Nick Faldo on Sunday morning but suffered a humiliating collapse, shooting a final-round 78.

Any one of those victories would have earned Norman a lifetime exemption to the Masters. Instead, one of the most talented golfers of his era has been in exile for a half-dozen years during the second weekend of April.

It wasn't until last summer when Norman and tennis legend Chris Evert were on their honeymoon that his Masters fortunes changed. Almost on a whim, Norman entered the British Open and finished a shocking third. Coming off the course at Royal Birkdale, Norman was told that his finish had earned him an automatic Masters exemption for 2009.

Norman, who has turned his earnings and fame into a business empire of clothing lines, real estate and wineries, immediately began rearranging his schedule to allow him time to prepare for the Masters this spring.

"I talk about it with Chrissie a lot because we like to lament over what we have done and what we haven't done," Norman said. "I probably talk more about the Masters than anything else when we have those conversations.

"It's interesting because she went through 13 times getting beaten by Martina (Navratilova). Well, I went 22 times without winning the Masters. So I think I'm a little bit ahead of her on that one."

It is not sympathy Norman is after this week. Nor nostalgia. Instead, it feels like the coda to a remarkable run. At one time, the Great White Shark seemed poised to be recalled as one of history's greatest golfers. It has been his shortcomings in the Masters that more than anything has kept him from fulfilling his promise.

Now his prime is behind him, and his future as a golfer is all but gone. Yet as he played practice rounds and Wednesday's par-3 contest, Norman had the look of a conquering hero. Crowds cheered, and fellow players grinned.

He has never been able to solve this golf course, but all these years later, Norman has refused to surrender.

"I was just in the locker room, and it's different. Even players are saying, 'Hey, play well, play well, play well.' I know in the '80s they were not coming up to me and saying, 'Hey Greg, play well,' that's for sure.

"It's unique. I've never experienced that before. It really makes me understand the impact that I have had to some degree on the event."

Welcome back, old friend.

fast facts

The Masters

Today: Round 1, Augusta National, Augusta, Ga.
TV: 4 p.m., ESPN

Brittany's picks

Because Seminole's Brittany Lincicome, below, won the LPGA Tour's first major of '09, the Kraft Nabisco Championship on Sunday, we asked her to pick a winner for the PGA Tour's first major. "Tiger Woods,'' she said. "But I would like to see some of the hot golfers, like Nick Watney or Bill Haas, win.'' Unfortunately for her, Haas is not in the Masters.

Greg Norman is comfortable with a legacy that fits like a noose 04/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 9, 2009 6:36am]
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