Last night’s final round of the British One, and Greg Norman’s fall from outright leader to eventual third placegetter, had a certain inevitability about it, but only the most mean-spirited in the Royal Birkdale press tent would have sharpened their quills and taken aim once more at the Shark’s well-punctured hide. For Norman’s effort on the Lancashire links this week was one of extraordinary durability, skill and, yes, bravery.
More than anyone, the Australian — whose name has become a byword for unfulfilled sporting talent — could be excused for not wanting to put himself out there in the final-day cauldron of a major championship, where a failure would mean yet more torment – and criticism. He’d suffered enough as it was with agonizing near-misses, some self-inflicted, some not.
He was 53, after all, and his best days were behind him. He hadn’t been practicing much, let alone playing competitively, and he’d just finished a honeymoon in the Bahamas. He had every reason to shy away from that potentially arduous ordeal, and take a cushier option. Like Kenny Perry did, who stayed at home in the States, or Perry’s fellow countrymen Pat Perez who basically gave up after the first, rain-drenched round or Scotsman Sandy Lyle, who handed in his card after nine holes on Thursday and walked off the course.
But that’s never been Norman’s style. If there’s a challenge going, he’s up for it. And so he presented himself for duty again yesterday.
Three bogies in the opening three holes brought him back to the field and he struggled from thereon in. He managed to hit the front again after nine holes before another bogey at the 10th signaled the start of his inexorable slide. A seven-over 77 was the result, eight shots worse than Harrington’s brilliant final round that deservedly delivered the Irishman the title.
Norman said of course he was disappointed. He had thrown away a great chance at becoming the oldest major championship winner ever, and of impressing his bride, Chris Evert, with just about the greatest display of showing off a 53-year-old newlywed could possibly conjure.
But there is a sense of perspective with Norman now, and inner calm. Where once tournament golf was everything for him, now it is a sideline.
The first major I covered for The Age was the 1996 US Masters, the fateful championship where Norman coughed up a six-shot lead on the final day to lose by five to Nick Faldo.
As he ducked out a side entrance of the Augusta press centre after that round, trying to avoid a jostling pack of TV reporters outside, Norman got jabbed above his nose by a branch from a dogwood tree, leaving a small gouge mark in his forehead which began to bleed. Injury now added to insult. Could it get any worse?
Of course it could. He had instructed the crew of his massive ocean-going vessel, Aussie Rules, to sail up the east coast, from his home in Florida to South Carolina, and moor at Hilton Head Harbour. Many weeks earlier, he had agreed to play in the Heritage Classic at Hilton Head, and wanted to use the boat as his base during the tournament.
To spice up the week, he organized a party on Aussie Rules, complete with its super-size esky full of Australian beer, on the Tuesday evening. That was looking like an inspired decision on Saturday night as he went to bed in Augusta with a six-shot lead, and his first major victory in the US right there, in the palm of his hand.
He had invited 40 or so of his closest friends to the drinks party, and a couple of scruffy media types, neither of whom owned a blue blazer with gold buttons.
You have never seen a more drawn, haggard, ghostly-grey figure than Norman’s that night. He went through the motions of hosting his party, showing guests the imported Australian oak that had been used in the making of his cabin, and the master bedroom full of every mod con imaginable, but his mind was clearly not there.
Here was a man who would have preferred to have been anywhere else, perhaps curled up in the foetal position at home and humming quietly to himself. He had choked in the most public and humiliating manner conceivable, blowing his chance at the tournament he most wanted to win. His disappointment was so palpable that evening you could feel it.
The Norman who walked away from Royal Birkdale last night, hand in hand with his new wife, was a picture of serenity by comparison. He had come up short again on the final day of a major, racking up his 12th top-three result — against just two majors won. But on the only scorecard that matters, the one marked happiness and contentment, he figured he was still way ahead.