Golf / The Players' Championship: Norman is swinging into august form: Robinson Holloway reports from Ponte Vedra on a man with a Masters mission

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The Independent Online
THERE was an eerie echo of Augusta at The Players' Championship at Sawgrass all last week - bleached white sands, the greenest of perfectly manicured greens, yellow flag- sticks, clumps of azalea scattered about, multi-throated birdie shouts booming through the tall pines, even the occasional Masters-imitation green-and-white-toned old- fashioned scoreboard.

It was the numbers on that scoreboard that halted further comparisons at the Players' Championship. Greg Norman had already broken the tournament's scoring records by the end of the third round, and when he finally finished as the winner at 24 under par Norman had surpassed Nick Price's 72 record by six strokes. The runner-up, Fuzzy Zoeller, came in at 20 under.

The results of the Players' Championship actually broadened the possibilities for the Masters next week. Jack Nicklaus used to say that the majors were the easiest tournaments to win, because the pressure players put on themselves eliminated all but a handful of the field from serious contention. But this year it seems as though more players than ever are gearing their games up to the highest level in time for Augusta.

Norman is an obvious front-runner. Augusta has always been a perfect course for him, and after winning the Open and finishing second at the USPGA, Norman has put himself back in the major game again. The golf game he brings to the Masters is now close to flawless. In his last 98 competitive holes, played on the very challenging Bay Hill and Sawgrass courses, Norman had just one bogey. 'I was very disappointed in that bogey,' Norman said. 'It was my only bad swing.'

Faldo is probably second favourite after Norman, despite a 73 on Sunday that left him fifth at the Players, 13 strokes behind. In his four tournaments this year he has progressed from two missed cuts to middle of the pack to top five. He pronouced himself 95 per cent happy with his game, and has another week of preparation and practice time with David Leadbetter ahead of him to take care of the last five per cent.

The other Europeans are bigger question marks. Bernhard Langer, the defending champion, has substantially altered his swing this year, with an eye to long-term results, and has had erratic scoring rounds this year in America, ranging from 65 to 75. Like Langer, Ian Woosnam has also recently asked Leadbetter to overhaul his swing, but Woosnam's short-term results have been more consistently discouraging.