Golf: Norman tackles a demon: Peter Corrigan looks at the torments awaiting those with Georgia on their mind

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The Independent Online
ON THE 58 occasions the US Masters has been open for business, no golfer has ever confronted the beautiful treacheries of the Augusta National course with the undisguised aggression that Greg Norman appears determined to offer this week. Given the Australian's tormented record in this first major championship of the year, it might have been preferable to sidle in with his hopes hidden behind a humble countenance but after 13 painful experiences he appears to have run out of patience.

Demeaning as it may be to one of golf's supreme events, and to the other players who will make variously spectacular contributions to its progress through next weekend, it is difficult to see a more dramatic situation developing than Norman's attempt to retrieve what he believes Augusta owes him.

He will be fortified by a surge of form that has seen him suffer only one bogey in the last 98 holes he has played. His breathtaking domination of the fearsome Sawgrass course in Florida last weekend registered a victory in the Players' Championship by an unprecedented margin and brings him to the Masters as the clearest favourite for some time.

Perhaps he doesn't carry the clout that Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan once brought to this first detailed examination of the year's grand ambitions but they had great Augusta victories to foster their favouritism; Norman has nothing but golf's most dramatic list of frustrations at a course that is a springtime paradise for most but hell for him.

Vengeance, however, can be the most effective motivation and there is a fierce intent about Norman's challenge that even allows him to dispense with the usually modest words of caution that top contenders prefer to use before a major.

'To me, the Masters is the greatest golf championship in the world. I want to win it and despite all that has happened to me at Augusta I am not afraid to say it,' was his declaration as he declined to play in New Orleans this weekend in order to concentrate on the task that could well determine his future place in the game's regard. If he can lift the curse the Masters has placed on his career, there is no limit to what he can achieve. If he fails again, we will have to wonder if his resolve can ever again be restored to championship strength.

There have been other venues where he has suffered setbacks that have led many to question whether he has the temperament to sustain a career that will be included among the greatest. His brilliance has brought commercial success, but just two majors - the Open in 1986 and 1993 - is not the haul of a true hero. But most of his troubles can be traced back to Augusta where he began in 1981 with a display of promise rare in this event.

No doubt, it will have been explained to this year's debutants - among whom, happily, are the Europeans Peter Baker, Barry Lane and Costantino Rocca - that strangers do not normally find the course welcoming, such is the nature of the problems it sets. Apart from the first two years of its life, the Masters has permitted only one first-timer to don the winner's green jacket. Fuzzy Zoeller, who sensibly did everything his local caddie advised, won it as a rookie in 1979 and is enjoying a resurgence of form after a long martyrdom to back trouble.

When Norman made his debut at the age of 26 in 1981, he had a first round 69 and finished in fourth place behind Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus. His total of 283 still stands as the best-ever debut score and it seemed he had an ideal game for the course. Yet it was 1986 before he approached the top of the leader board again. Indeed, he led the field into the last day that year - unfortunately for him it was the year Nicklaus was to swoop at the age of 46 to win his sixth Masters with a final-day 65.

It was a great achievement but Norman was of great assistance. He needed a birdie at the last to win it and a par to force Nicklaus into a play-off. He took a bogey and shared second place with Tom Kite. Norman went on to win the Open at Turnberry, a satisfying outcome despite the fact he led going into the final round of each of the four majors.

The following year he played the final hole at Augusta much better but his birdie putt stayed out and forced him into a three-way play-off with Seve Ballesteros and Larry Mize. Ballesteros was eliminated on the first sudden-death hole, the 10th, and after Mize sent his second to the 11th well wide of the green Norman looked to have sealed the victory when he landed the ball on the front edge within two-putt range.

Mize then produced one of the deadliest chips in Masters history; Norman now needed his putt for a half but was too devastated either for the task or to keep his eyes dry that night.

He was back in contention in 1989 - the year he lost the Open to Mark Calcavecchia in a play-off - but once more he needed a birdie on the last hole to win or a par to get into the play-off with Nick Faldo and Scott Hoch; once again he took a bogey. He missed the cut in 1990 and 1991 when his desperation was at its deepest, was joint sixth in 1992 but was down at 31st place last year, although he was in the foothills of the comeback that culminated in a brilliant victory at the Open.

Norman won in a fashion that suggested his frustrations were at last behind him. A month later, however, he lost yet another major, the USPGA, at the final gasp. Once more he led into the last round and a missed putt on the 18th took him into the inevitable play-off against Paul Azinger. On the first extra hole, Norman's putt dropped into the cup and spun out again. On the second extra hole, he three-putted.

To his credit, he took that blow without any sign of despair. 'I've turned my career around in a phenomenal way. I'm in contention every week,' he said. So he remains. He took the Players' Championship with a record-breaking 24-under-par total of 264. Zoeller, who was four shots behind in second place, claims not to have seen anyone play better in his 20 years at the top.

If anyone is to stop Norman this week, it is not likely to be an American. Fred Couples is the only one in the past six years to have prevented a foreign triumph and he has ruled himself out through injury. Azinger is still being treated for cancer and Phil Mickelson nurses a broken leg. John Daly proved with his third place last year that he has the game to win the Masters one day while Chip Beck has a point to prove after neglecting to go for the 15th green attempting to stop Langer's runaway victory last year.

Langer, despite a swing change yet to pass its test, can never be discounted, and Nick Price, a disappointing favourite last year, may do better with the spotlight tilted away from him. Faldo is grumbling his way into top condition while Jose Maria Olazabal is inflaming the hopes of his many supporters.

It is the personal battle between Norman and his tormentor that will first be settled. Augusta is the only place he can free himself of the shackles that have dogged his career. If he can achieve that this week, he can achieve anything.

(Photograph omitted)

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