Golf / World Match Play Championship: Norman back in the hunt: Ballesteros, Faldo, Olazabal and Price wait in the wings while Fiji's finest makes his pitch: Tim Glover reports from Wentworth

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The Independent Online
ON A warm evening in Augusta, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and a local professional making up the numbers, went their separate ways in the Masters. Ballesteros three-putted the first extra hole and trudged up the hill towards the clubhouse, a desolate figure. At the next hole Larry Mize chipped in from a hopeless position and it was Norman's turn to walk the plank.

That defeat in 1987, so unexpected in its timing and so shattering in its execution, has probably been more significant for Ballesteros and Norman than the victory has for Mize. The American was not expected to win and has done little in the intervening five years to suggest that what happened in Georgia was anything but a one-off. For the Spaniard and the Australian, the mental scars remained long after the tears evaporated.

This week they are back down the Burma Road at Wentworth, one of their happier hunting grounds, for the autumn classic, the Toyota World Match Play Championship. Despite the fact that Ballesteros has won the title five times and Norman three, they are outsiders.

The careers of both have been in decline, although very few would suggest it is terminal. Ballesteros has five major championships to his name, Norman one, The Open at Turnberry in 1986 when he was in the running for a grand slam. Norman has suffered unkinder cuts than most, and longer slumps. Even when he was in a position to win, he reverted to the habit of losing. The Western Open in the summer of 1991 was a classic example. Norman held a five-stroke lead going into the last nine holes and lost it.

'That was my lowest point,' he said. 'The whole world was falling in around me. I'd tried to change my swing but it was obvious that it wouldn't work under pressure. I couldn't get anything to happen and I became more and more frustrated. I had 24 months of crap.'

A couple of weeks ago in Ontario a funny thing happened to Norman. He won the Canadian Open, his first victory for more than two years. If it was not exactly convincing it was cathartic. He lost a three-shot lead with five holes to play and had to make a 12-foot putt at the last to tie with Bruce Lietzke.

'I was shaking like a leaf,' he said. 'Never before had I felt the putter shaking in my hands. I knew how important it was to me.' Norman sank the putt and won the play-off at the second extra hole. 'Welcome back,' Lietzke said to him. 'That,' said Norman, 'was the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me.'

Two men have helped Norman in his rehabilitation. Bob Hawke, the former Prime Minister of Australia who knows what it is to shed a tear, asked Norman if so many near misses in the majors had affected him. 'All of a sudden it came out. I'd tried to be Mr Macho, keeping it all inside. I knew I needed to say it.' Norman also learnt a swift lesson from Butch Harmon, the man who coaches Fred Couples and Davis Love. 'He gave me a two-iron and told me to swing hard and high. I hit five perfect shots.'

Should Norman defeat Brad Faxon in the first round today he will play Nick Price, the US PGA champion. Ian Woosnam, who won the World Match Play in 1987 and 1990, meets the 40-year-old Norio Suzuki. 'I'm usually inconsistent but now I'm more inconsistent,' Woosnam said. 'The pressure of being No 1 last year has taken its toll.' About the only thing that can be said of Suzuki is that he is consistent. He has not won anything this year and is not even in the top 200 of the Sony world rankings.

Ballesteros, who defeated Price in the final last year, will play the winner of the match between Jeff Sluman, second in the US Open at Pebble Beach, and Vijay Singh, the Fijian who has won more than pounds 265,000 on the European Tour this season.

Singh, who is making his debut in the World Match Play, should be suited by the format and course. He is renowned for his long hitting, a quality that will be required at Wentworth this week, and his birdie-making which should stand him in good stead in match play. When he won the Volvo German Open in Dusseldorf in August he was clear of the field by a record 11 shots.

Anders Forsbrand, who has also had a lucrative campaign on the European Tour this year, plays another American, Mark O'Meara. Forsbrand, second to Nick Faldo in the Order of Merit with pounds 367,000, is beginning to feel the effects of a rigorous campaign and 36 holes a day here may be beyond him. O'Meara, a member of three of the last four US Ryder Cup teams, won a tournament in Japan last week but his presence here may be best explained by the fact that he is sponsored by the sponsors of the World Match Play.

TEE-OFF TIMES: 0830 and 1300: J Sluman (US) v V Singh (Fiji); 0845 and 1315: N Suzuki (Jap) v I Woosnam (Wal); 0900 and 1330: G Norman (Aus) v B Faxon (US); 0915 and 1345: A Forsbrand (Swe) v M O'Meara (US).

----------------------------------------------------------------- CARD OF THE COURSE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Hole Yards Par Hole Yards Par 1st 471 4 10th 186 3 2nd 155 3 11th 376 4 3rd 452 4 12th 483 5 4th 501 5 13th 441 4 5th 191 3 14th 179 3 6th 344 4 15th 466 4 7th 399 4 16th 380 4 8th 398 4 17th 571 5 9th 450 4 18th 502 5 Out: 3,361 35 In: 3,584 37 Total: 6,945 72 -----------------------------------------------------------------