Norman tries again for elusive Masters title

Wednesday, April 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) _ In one of those Augusta National moments, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus, two guys with 61 Masters appearances between them, teed off together for a practice round.

``I was asking Jack what it was like 20 years before I got here,'' said Norman, who has been playing at Augusta since 1981. ``It's mystical in that regard. You want to know all the subtle changes they've made around this place. You don't care about that anywhere else.''

But Nicklaus was able to play only nine holes Tuesday afternoon before detouring to the clubhouse. After all, he had to get ready for another event, a little shindig they call the champions dinner.

Norman played on, getting in another nine holes before dark. Lacking the prerequisite Masters title, he wasn't invited to the dinner, not even the appetizers.

But no one has tasted so much success at this place without actually winning. Three times, Norman was runner-up. Three times, he finished third. Throw in three more top-six showings, and you get the idea.

``I've probably got more good memories than any player except Jack Nicklaus,'' Norman said. ``Of course, I've had my sorrows around here. But I'm probably better off than 95 or 98 percent of the guys out there. I've been here. I know what to expect. I've got a lot of positive energy around here.''

Even so, Norman remains one of the most pitiable figures ever to stroll among the Georgia pines, his legacy seemingly epitomized by a stunning loss to Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters. The Shark gave away a six-stroke lead in the final round, sinking for good when his drive at No. 16 nose-dived into the pond.

``I'm not going to sit here and say I'm totally impervious to it,'' Norman said, sitting at his locker in the wood-paneled clubhouse about the time the champions dinner was getting started in a nearby room. ``Of course I remember those times. You want to learn from your mistakes. If not, you'll make the same mistakes again.''

He must have learned something. Year after year, Norman keeps showing up on the Augusta leader board, no matter the state of his game or his health.

Norman was in contention until the end in 1999, even though he missed most of the previous season recovering from shoulder surgery. Last year, he finished 11th playing on a hip that would require an operation just a couple of months later.

This year, Norman's body feels about as good as it can for a man his age. He works out religiously, allowing him to maintain a tour schedule while tending to his many business interest.

Now, about his age. Norman turned 46 in February, which just happens to match Nicklaus, circa 1986, when the Golden Bear won the last of his six Augusta titles.

``I've been thinking about a lot of the older guys who did well in their 40s,'' Norman said. ``I still enjoy playing. Forty-six is just a number. What is the drop-dead date? Is it 50? 52? 47? I don't know.''

Clearly, he can envision this being the year when someone else gets to share the heartache. He's not even flustered by Tiger Woods, who will try to become the first player to hold all four major titles at the same time.

``He's going to be hard to beat. But at the end of the day, he's only a human being. He's beatable,'' Norman said. ``If you don't think you can beat him, then don't tee it up.''

And make no mistake: Norman will never show up at Augusta just to hear a gallery's sympathetic cheers or the inevitable fan who walks up to say, ``This is your year, Greg.''

But every failed attempt makes the wall of doubt just a tad bit higher. Even Nicklaus has his doubts that Norman will ever climb over it.

``He is in as good a shape as any kid out there,'' Nicklaus said. ``I still believe Greg has all the ability in the world to win whatever he wants to win at his age.''

But Nicklaus already had five Augusta titles when he won again at 46. Norman's psyche has nothing to fall back on except year after year of looking at the green jacket in the storefront window, only to be told it doesn't come in his size.

``Any time you win the first of anything, it is more difficult,'' Nicklaus said. ``Particularly as many times as he finished second, it is more difficult. Sure it is.''

While Norman can no longer strike the ball as far as the younger guys, he realizes that mammoth drives are not a priority at the Masters.

In the end, it all comes down to guile on the fairways and steely nerve at the greens.

``Just trust your game, know your own game,'' Norman said. ``I know I've got the ability to do it. It's just a matter of letting it happen.''