Golf: Norman casts off fear of formidable Faldo

Andy Farrell, in Augusta, finds the golfing goliaths who so memorably contested last year's Masters finale in buoyant mood for the 61st version
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The azaleas have already come and gone - bad news for the television people, a welcome relief to hayfever sufferers - but Greg Norman, despite exhibiting all the signs of being allergic to Augusta National, is back for the 61st US Masters.

On the 10th anniversary of Larry Mize's chip in to beat him in a play- off, the Australian faces a return to the scene of his spectacular collapse a year ago, when he gave away 11 shots to Nick Faldo in the final round. "It feels different already," Norman said.

The image of victor and vanquished embracing on the 18th green remains vivid. "Everyone keeps saying, 'I just want to give you a hug'," Faldo said. "I felt for the guy. I didn't think words could express it." With one just over 40, the other approaching it, the 1996 Masters will remain a watershed in both their careers. Norman, the most famous golfer of his generation, became even more famous, and Faldo, the most respected golf professional of his generation, found wider esteem.

Faldo said at the time that he knew that fateful day would be remembered for Norman's disastrous 78, but hoped that his 67 would be recognised for what it was, one of the best closing rounds to win a major championship. "I am more than happy with the credit I have been given," Faldo said. "The way everything unfolded, the drama, the atmosphere, playing the course as I intended to play it, that's as good as I've done. The response was enormous."

But not as huge as Norman received. The faxes and letters poured into his Florida office. "You did more for golf in defeat than you have done in victory," George Bush wrote. "Been there, done that!" said Scott Hoch, who lost to Faldo in '89. "Remember, the tallest trees gather the most wind," Gary Player penned.

"The outcrying of support for the three months afterwards, and in the three months up to this week, has changed my approach to people," Norman said. "But I've become tougher on myself. I am surprised that I survived the year the way I pushed myself in practice, in the office and in the gym. I woke up the Tuesday after the Masters hung over like hell, but by lunchtime I was fine."

While Faldo has re-immersed himself in golf following the upheaval of his divorce from his second wife, Gill, and setting up his own management company away from the International Management Group, Norman threw himself into everything. Having sold his stake in equipment company Cobra for $40m (pounds 25), he has invested in a turf farm which provides grasses for baseball and football fields as well as golf courses.

There is his golf course design work, a chain of restaurants that will open this summer and a clothing company that is rapidly expanding into non-golfing lines. He met the US President, Bill Clinton, in Australia and the two have become friends, which led to Clinton's recent high-profile accident outside Norman's home. When Norman reassesses his career in the year 2000, golf may not be top of the list.

There were times, he admits, that he has not enjoyed playing over the last year. He sacked Butch Harmon as coach and later turned to David Leadbetter. Faldo says it is not a problem; Leadbetter says that he will be on a beach in Bermuda if the two met head-to-head again as last year. "I treated it like a business decision," Norman said. "I went for the best available."

Likewise, on Monday, he met Tony Robbins, a motivational speaker who has worked with Clinton, businessmen and the US Army as well as sports stars. "It was a re-education," Norman said. "There was not anything I have not done in the past, but you forget to do things. To be good to yourself as well as be tough on yourself."

In a reverse of last year, Norman is a little off his game while Faldo, winner at Riviera six weeks ago, believes he is ready. Both watched old videos last week to correct their eye position while putting. Faldo also got the greenkeeper at Lake Nona to shave down the putting green to Augusta speed, and played out rounds at the National on the practice range.

The two are joint favourites but Norman, the two-time Open champion, is not out for a one on one with the Englishman who has six majors and craves more. "I don't care who I face, I just want to be in position. Winning the Masters would mean another trophy on the mantelpiece, it would fulfil a dream, but it would not change my life. I know I am going to be burned again, but if you do it your way, you can accept that. I can accept that I created this story that has run for 52 years, but now I want to create other stories."

As he left the press conference, he added: "Is the story over now?" This may only be the beginning.