Norman the patron saint of sufferers

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The Independent Online
In his honorary capacity as president of the World Association of Advanced Chokers, Greg Norman struck an important blow for his millions of fellow sufferers by performing the seemingly impossible task of failing to win the US Masters at Augusta last Sunday. Thanks to his selfless sacrifice, a significant proportion of the earth's inhabitants who have been previously dismissed as cowards can now sleep soundly under their beds at night.

Instead of deriding us, people are now feeling sorry for those afflicted with this most pernicious of sporting ailments. The next time we apply the trembling head of our putter to an 18-inch putt on the last green to win the 50p, we will be fortified by the knowledge that the inevitable miss will be greeted not with hoots of laughter but with sympathy. We might even receive a Faldo-type hug from our opponents - the very thought of which might hasten a cure.

No longer will we have to attend meetings of Chokers' Anonymous which is similar to the famous alcoholics' organisation except that a newcomer's announcement is more like: "My name is Greg and my bottle's gone."

Norman's triumph, more valuable than any Green Jacket, was to give a vivid demonstration in front of a global audience that folding under extreme pressure does not necessarily indicate a lack of courage or determination. You'd hardly call Greg Norman a coward and the descriptions spineless, gutless and lily-livered would ill-fit a man whose rise to the very summit of his sport had been the antithesis of timidity.

But when the chips are down he has been unable to shake the vinegar on a vexing number of occasions. Indeed, having seen last Sunday how severe the problem can become, it is a marvel how he has won around 70 tournaments world-wide, including two Opens, and has a substantial lead at the top of the world rankings.

His record makes the affliction even more difficult to define but he is undoubtedly the patron saint of countless sufferers: golfers plagued by the yips; boxers who freeze at the first bell; athletes who run well against the clock but can't perform in races; tennis players who melt at match point; and missers of crucial penalties. Recently we've seen what the sight of a finishing line can do to our best football teams.

It is a mystery how people who would not hesitate to attempt a rescue from a blazing building or pluck a child from beneath the wheels of a runaway truck can suddenly find their heart reduced to the size of a peanut. In some ways, it is unsatisfactory when major sporting prizes go not to the most deserving but to those gifted by nature with an icy disposition.

That was not meant as a swipe at Nick Faldo whose mastery of tension is an essential part of his talents. I fancy that Norman's demon would have struck at his vitals no matter who was partnering him during that final round but certainly Faldo's presence would not have lessened the grip of inner panic. Over the next two weeks we can witness two other bastions of psychological steadiness, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry.

If there's a sporting arena to match Augusta's Amen Corner for creating suffocating stress it is the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, where the World Snooker Championships are held. The ability of Davis and Hendry to handle the intimidation of the place has helped them to dominate the game for years, regardless of yesterday's tremor for the Scot. It was Davis who once offered the most graphic description I've heard of the ability to resist pressure: "It is being able to play a shot as if it means nothing when it means everything." He neglected, however, to explain how it is done.

What occurred in Augusta was undoubtedly the most glaring manifestation yet of a handicap that affects many and the presence of which makes sport all the more fascinating to all except its victims. Can it be cured? I imagine Greg Norman will devote the rest of his life to finding out.

COLOUR co-ordinators who dream up the monstrous garbs that football clubs inflict on their players and supporters would have gone pale last weekend at the action of the Manchester United team who flounced from the Southampton pitch at half-time, tore off their grey shirts and demanded something more eye-catching.

They complained that the drab colour of their second strip made it difficult to pick each other out against the background of the crowd, particularly, I should imagine, the sickly faces of their own fans who had watched them concede three first-half goals.

Don't believe a word of it. This is a warning to the manufacturers Umbro - who have sent their designers back to their crayoning sets for yet another new strip - and to all others who make a fortune out of frequent kit changes. There is a factor they have obviously neglected to consider - the simple superstitions of your average footballer.

Players will blame anything for failure: the referee, the pitch, the ball, the wind, the rain and, sometimes, even each other. Five times United had worn the grey this season and five times they'd lost. When they went 3-0 down at Southampton, it was obvious to anyone where the fault lay - the shirts, of course.

Had they been 3-0 up at the time, wild clothes-horses wouldn't have wrenched them off their backs. But as it turned out, once they'd changed into a set of blue and white shirts they scored a goal in the second half and Southampton didn't. What more proof do you want?

United will no doubt go on to clinch the title whereby all other teams will be alerted to the importance of evaluating the efficiency of their shirts. I wouldn't buy a replica for a while, if I were you.

Winning the Premiership, however, also requires a shade of luck and I find it difficult to come to terms with the fortune that befell United in their crucial game on Wednesday night when the Leeds goalkeeper Mark Beeney was sent off for handling the ball on the outskirts of his penalty area.

I can understand that deliberate handling should be a sending-off offence on certain occasions but what looked an instinctive reaction by Beeney as he came to the edge of the box to deal with a bouncing ball surely didn't merit his dismissal with 72 minutes still to play. Leeds, who did not have a specialist goalkeeper on the bench, were therefore forced to play most of the game with a makeshift.

This was clearly a punishment far in excess of the severity of Beeney's offence. Referees should surely have a greater degree of discretion in such incidents. In the matter of Manchester United and the Premiership title it was the only grey area worth taking seriously last week.

MORE nonsense from Fifa is on the way. Football's world governors are busy working out how they can raise the game's political correctness level and are considering a suggestion that the term "linesman" be replaced by "referee's assistant" in recognition of the increasing number of female players. However, they don't propose to re-word the offence of "ungentlemanly conduct". There's never been a precise definition of that rule - I hope it doesn't include using the Ladies.

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