Commentary

Masters now a different test for Norman

Updated: April 7, 2009, 8:31 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It is strange, almost wrong, for Greg Norman to walk into the Augusta National clubhouse and be denied access to one room where it seemed he was destined to have a place.

The Champions Locker Room is up a winding staircase in the old manor.

And it is for Masters winners only.

Any fan of "The Great White Shark" knows how often he had his hand on the doorknob, only to have it slapped away.

Norman no longer expects to have such a space with his own green jacket stored inside. It has been 10 years since he last contended at the Masters, and seven since he played in the tournament. But Norman, 54, is back this week, content to change his shoes with the great unwashed.

"It's a great feeling," Norman said Tuesday. "I've been a part of this golf tournament, whether it's good or bad, and people would have liked to see me have won, and I get that from some of the players.

"When I used to come here in the '80s and '90s, you expected to do well, people were pulling for you and other people were not pulling for you. Now, it seems like everyone is pulling for me. It's unique. I've never experienced that before. It really makes you understand the impact that I have had, to some degree."

The fact that Norman earned his way back to the Masters is testament to his still-remarkable abilities, which were on full display this past summer at Royal Birkdale, where a tie for third at the British Open brought an invitation Norman had not known existed.

"This is going to be a better tournament because he's here," said fellow Australian Geoff Ogilvy, who is ranked fourth in the world. "People forget, but he was the one that everybody went to see before Tiger [Woods] came along. For that period of time, he was the charismatic guy that got the big crowds and was the exciting one to watch.

"So it's cool to have him here, and especially a course like this where he's got so much history and he's had so many close calls. I'm glad for him that he gets another crack at it."

The close calls are almost too numerous and painful to count.

There were three runner-up finishes: to Jack Nicklaus in 1986, to Larry Mize in 1987 in a playoff, and to Nick Faldo in 1996, when Norman squandered a 6-stroke final-round lead. There were eight top-five finishes in all, including another near miss in 1999, when Norman led on the back nine of the final round before finishing third.

"Greg was a great player through a matching era of myself and Seve [Ballesteros]," said Faldo, who won the Masters three times. "He had an international career. Obviously, what has happened here at Augusta is well documented. He proved he had the game to maybe win Augusta, but the golfing gods were against him."

Masters Best Ball Challenge

This remains Norman's legacy, despite 20 PGA Tour titles -- including two British Opens -- and about 90 worldwide victories.

But Norman endeared himself to the masses with the way he handled those defeats. And he got here this time by nearly pulling off the unthinkable -- winning the British Open at age 53.

Norman would have become the oldest major champion by five years had he won at Royal Birkdale, where he held the third-round lead and was leading Padraig Harrington with nine holes to play.

"He hit the ball as well as anybody in that tournament," said Harrington, whose back-nine 32 carried him to victory. "There was nothing to tell that he wasn't a young man, not at all. He certainly had the ability.

"Look, at the end of the day when it comes to golf, a huge amount of why players' careers wane, it comes down to the fact that their motivation changes in life. … There isn't any difference in the physicality of his game, but there's a difference in the mental side of his game. He's got other issues that he wants to deal with, other priorities.

"You'll find that was the same with Seve, the same with Faldo. They didn't change their physical ability to hit the golf ball; their swing didn't change. What changed is the drive to get up in the morning and get out there."

No doubt, Norman's booming business empire has taken up a majority of his time in recent years. Until two weeks ago, he had never even played a regular Champions Tour event. And when he went to the British Open in 2008, he was on his honeymoon with new wife Chris Evert and wasn't even certain he wanted to play.

After his finish qualified him for the Masters, Norman adjusted his schedule to prepare for Augusta. Although he hasn't played in a slew of tournaments, he did compete the past two weeks, including at the Shell Houston Open, where he tied for 70th.

But expectations should be tempered here. Norman admits that the new Augusta National, which measures more than 7,400 yards, is an extreme test. And this won't be like Birkdale, where length was not so much the issue.

"Two totally different style golf courses," Faldo said. "You feel more comfortable playing a links. You can probably get away with more. The severity of the short game is nothing like Augusta. It's the short game at Augusta that is so much at a premium, and you have to be at it every single day. It really does test your nerves."

Norman will have his son, Gregory, on the bag. His wife is arriving Wednesday in time for the Par 3 Contest. Friends from Australia are coming to watch.

"I'm just going to go out there and do the opposite of what I used to do, go out there and have fun," Norman said. "I tried to go and have fun, but sometimes it didn't work out that way. This time, I'm definitely going to go out and have fun and see what happens."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com