James Lawton: Norman's last conquest - Golf - Sport - The Independent

James Lawton: Norman's last conquest

Thirteen years after his epic meltdown at the Masters, Greg Norman is back in Augusta – this time with his son as caddy and Chris Evert cheering him on

When the boy first came here he would run ahead of the play, beetling along the fairway ropes but there were times when he had to peer through a pair of legs to catch a glance of his hero, who because he was so marvellously bold and wore a rakish straw boater was also cheered wildly by the gallery. But then, in 1996 and aged 10, he saw something that has torn at his heart ever since. He saw his hero diminish before his eyes and he heard the gallery turn against him, at times using a word still guaranteed to bring a shudder. Gregory Norman Jnr, 23 now, heard the gallery call his hero and his father a choker.

This week, though, he will walk beside his hero carrying his bag and believing, along with every romantic on the course, that at 54 he might just go back to 1996 and see a radically different outcome from the one that effectively destroyed his father as one of the world's leading golfers. Britain's Nick Faldo reeled him in on the last day of the Masters, anyone who knows anything about golf is aware, and with that knowledge has been the assumption that what Faldo, the ice man of big-time golf, took away could never be gained back.

Yet now, after the brilliant resurrection of Norman at Royal Birkdale last summer and a third place in the Open that earned his place here for the first time in seven years, such a harsh conclusion is in some suspense. "Maybe something could happen here," says Greg Jnr, "and though of course the disappointments suffered by my father never affected my belief that he was a great player, of course it would be wonderful if he could so something special here. At the British Open last year he showed how well he can still play, so I've come here not just for the nostalgia which came to me again when I rode down Magnolia Lane this week. I know I'm going to be nervous but I will try my hardest to be there for him and do my best job so that he can do his best job."

Chrissie Evert, Norman's second wife, has made a similar vow of support. "He has all my advice and all my support but I have to say it is a tricky business in that I keep saying to Greg that he has to take the best of himself out there and he can only produce that if he has thought it through himself. He has told me that he thinks his difficulties at the course, after playing so well, come because he loves it so much. But I have a feeling that, as in the British Open, he can do something here. He is in a good zone."

Norman's coaching guru David Leadbetter is arguably one of the least sentimental figures in golf. He breaks down a swing and puts it back together, not a psyche, but he too refuses to dismiss the possibility of redemption for the man who was known as the Great White Shark – and then the Great White Shark Who Ran Up The White Flag.

That was the savage repercussion of Norman's failure to hang on to a six-stroke lead going into the last day, when Faldo, as cold as a public executioner shot 67 against the leader's 78. It was everything Norman had tried to store away in the corner of his mind after the disappointments of 1986, when first the 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus denied him the Green Jacket with a late charge that brought fantasy and unprecedented celebration to Amen Corner, and a downpayment in despair for the Australian extrovert, and 1987, when Georgia's own Larry Mize performed an impossible chip from the rough on the second hole of a play-off.

On the night before his walk of Calvary in the company of Faldo, Norman visited the Augusta clubhouse men's room in the company of the distinguished golf writer, the late Peter Dobereiner, who declared, "Even you can't fuck this up." It was, presumably, meant as encouragement but we can only speculate on how much it felt like a dagger blow when Faldo closed around him.

This week Norman has been trying to deflect some of the pressure. On the course at practice he has been hatted and amiable in response to the cheers that have greeted the sight of the old hero and, at least on the surface, he is magically rehabilitated. "I would just like to point out," he says, "that Augusta National and British links golf are worlds apart so don't start building this up to some massive crescendo."

But then, of course, no one understands what happened 13 years ago more vividly than Norman. When he surrendered the Masters, which would have been his third major, alongside two Opens, he not only lost his place among the great players of the day, he saw a new age of golf burst before him. Norman failed to beat the cut on his next two visits to Augusta, the first of which was spent in the deep shadow created by the emergence of Tiger Woods.

Recently Norman tried to recreate the day that changed his life and his image. "I know exactly what happened. My timing was off. I knew on the driving range, before I teed up. My back was bad on the Saturday and on Sunday morning I was very stiff. I went for a one and a half mile walk to try to loosen it up. But on the range my turn wasn't so good. You look back at all my shots from the first hole on and they were just three or four yards out – the more I pushed, the harder it was. You just feel like water is going through your fingers. Everything is disappearing."

Can some of it come back and if not all of it, something that would mean that he didn't always have to come back with such pain to this place he loved so much when his boy ran in the crowd and they both thought, from their different perspectives, that a great victory was on its way? Leadbetter, the golf scientist, says, "Stranger things have happened. Greg has a good game and he says he is in a win-win situation. What is certain is that if it happens it will be the story of the golf year." It would be more than that, of course.

It would be golf's ultimate redemption song. It would dwarf even Nicklaus's sixth Green Jacket, because it would come not from a stronghold of confidence built over a life-time of success, but out of the fragile nerve of a man who saw so much of his talent drain away. He says he has a strategy of the mind. "I'll think about all the good things I have done here. I'll think about the 63s and the 64s. If you keep thinking about the worst round you've ever played in your life you're going to keep on playing it."

Greg Norman walks in the sunshine with his boy and he throws his arm around his shoulder. "I'm proud of him," says the old man, "and I want him to be proud of me. I'll give it my best." In all the circumstances, a boy couldn't ask for anything more.

Nightmare of 1996: Shark loses his bite

After carding a course record 63, followed by rounds of 69 and 71, Greg Norman headed into the last day of the 1996 Masters six strokes clear of second-placed Nick Faldo. Until...

Hole 1 Norman set the tone for his nightmare round by pulling an ugly drive into the trees, before going on to make a bogey. Faldo made a cool par.

Hole 10 Norman sent a simple uphill chip eight feet past the hole before missing the bogey putt to allow the gap to be closed to one shot.

Hole 11 Norman played two perfect shots before clumsily three putting for a bogey and they were level.

Hole 12 On the par-three 12th Norman's seven-iron tee shot fell short of the green and slid back into the pond. A double bogey was the outcome and Norman lost the lead.

Hole 16 Norman had steadied the ship, but the final nail in his coffin came at another par three when his tee shot came up short in the water. Another double bogey and Faldo was home and dry with a four-shot lead.

Hole 18 Upon sinking his final putt, Faldo embraced his opponent and said, "I just want to give you a good hug."

Jonny Davies

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