Major failures overshadow Norman's conquests
"We were walking up the 17th fairway, and Greg turns to me and says, 'I guess it's better to be lucky than good.' And I was stunned. Faldo had outplayed him all day. And so I turned to Greg and said, 'I just want to caddie for someone who has heart,' " says former caddie Bruce Edwards about Greg Norman on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
It wasn't long ago that a British golf writer summed up the appeal of Greg Norman by saying, "Norman's situation was unique. He landed with a huge splash in one end of the golf pool while Jack Nicklaus was getting ready to climb out the other end and towel off."
But much the same way as Bill Buckner and Scott Norwood are remembered for singular plays, Norman's good name is underscored by eye-popping failures. Norman has not won a major championship in the United States, where he has amassed most of his personal fortune through the marketing of his "Shark" brand name.
His Masters collapses are legendary, especially prominent being 1996, when he began Sunday leading by six strokes, shot a 78, and lost by five to Nick Faldo.
In 1986, Norman won only one major despite leading all four tournaments after three rounds, inspiring one wag to say Norman had achieved the "Saturday Slam."
The cloud that seemed to be over Norman's head at majors even passed over his most prominent houseguest. In March 1997, President Bill Clinton, who was staying at Norman's residence in South Florida, fell down a flight of stairs and underwent surgery to repair a torn knee tendon.
Norman was born on Feb. 10, 1955, in the Australian mining town of Mount Isa, Queensland. Six years after caddying for his mother and getting hooked on golf, Norman claimed his first professional victory in the 1976 West Lakes Classic near Adelaide, Australia.
After 20 victories overseas, he made an extended run at the PGA Tour in 1983. It was another year before Norman won his first title in the U.S., capturing the Kemper Open, the first of his 20 PGA Tour championships.
Two weeks later Norman was on the verge of his first major championship after forcing a playoff at the U.S. Open, holing a curling 40-foot par putt on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and excitedly running around the green. But the joy turned to sorrow the next day when he shot a five-over-par 75 and lost by eight strokes to Fuzzy Zoeller.
It was 1986 when the "Shark" persona was galvanized into the consciousness of the world golf public. His long blond hair, rugged good looks and infectious Aussie accent augmented his regular appearances on leader boards worldwide. So, too, did his "Saturday Slam."
After 54 holes of the 1986 Masters, Norman led by one stroke. Nicklaus, who began the final round in ninth, fired a record-tying 30 on the backside to take the lead. Needing to make a 15-foot par putt on 18 to force a playoff, Norman missed.
While "The Golden Bear" was winning his sixth green jacket at 46, "The Great White Shark" was building the foundation for continuing heartbreak at 31.
The déjà vu would not be quite as agonizing at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., but Norman still gave way to an aging veteran in the final round. While Norman faded to a tie for 12th with a five-over-par 75, 43-year-old Raymond Floyd became the oldest U.S. Open champion.
Norman had a four-shot lead at the 1986 PGA Championship at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio, but he closed with a 76. That might have been good enough for the victory, especially since Bob Tway's late charge appeared buried in a greenside bunker at 18. But Tway blasted from trap to triumph in one miracle shot and won by two strokes.
As if losing one major to an unlikely shot were not punishment enough, Norman would experience golf's version of the cruel and unusual in the very next Grand Slam tournament.
On the second extra hole of a playoff at the 1987 Masters, Norman's approach shot landed on the fringe with a two-putt par likely. Larry Mize was 45 yards away, needing to get up and down for par. But Mize did even better than that. His pitch shot fell onto the slick green and rolled all the way into the hole. When Norman's 30-foot birdie putt rolled past the hole, he was the victim of a golfing miracle for the second consecutive major.
"He might stand there for three days and not make it," Norman said about Mize's shot.
Even though "The Shark" was now synonymous with hard-luck losses in majors, he still established himself as the world's best golfer. At the 1989 British Open, Norman showed he didn't know his own strength.
Tied with Mark Calcavecchia going into the last hole of a four-hole aggregate playoff, Norman hit a 325-yard drive on the 18th hole at Royal Troon, reaching a seemingly unreachable fairway bunker. His second shot found sand, and his third out of bounds to hand Calcavecchia the win.
That year, Norman finished in the top 25 in all but three of the PGA events he played. His average round of 69.49 strokes earned him his second of three Vardon trophies.
Norman produced one of his most productive years in 1990, coming from seven down to win the Doral Ryder Open with a chip-in eagle on the first playoff hole and adding the Memorial title en route to a Tour-leading $1,165,477.
While he won only three Tour events the next four years, he gained his second British Open title in 1993, beating Faldo by two strokes at Royal St. George's. A month later at Inverness, he lost in sudden death to Paul Azinger in the PGA Championship when he missed a two-foot putt. It gave him an ignominious sort of "grand slam" -- he had lost a playoff in every major.
In 1995 Norman had what may have been his most dominant year, winning three tournaments and leading the Tour with $1,654,959 in earnings. But he also narrowly lost two majors.
After finishing tied for third at the Masters, Norman shot a three-over-par 73 in the final round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills to finish two strokes behind Corey Pavin's 280. "People simply will say I let things slip away," Norman said. "That's not necessarily the case. It's just as hard to put yourself in there with a chance to win as it is to win."
Such explanations were necessary again in 1996, when Norman endured his 11-stroke change of fortune at the Masters. "Of all the ones I've let get away, this was one I really did let get away," Norman said of his five-stroke loss to Faldo. "This is not the end of my world. I lost this tournament, but I'm not a loser."
A victory drought followed Norman's win at the 1997 World Series of Golf. So, too, did surgery on his shoulder in 1998 and hip in 2000. He was in contention again at the final round of the 1999 Masters, and even though he faded down the stretch to finish third, it paled in comparison to his earlier misses.
Late on the night that Norman lost the 1987 Masters, he sat on the beach behind his Florida home and wept. His sobs were in time with the swell of the surf and he looked up at the stars and asked the eternal question: Why me?