With sensational '86, `Shark' leaves competition in golf wake

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``Crocodile'' Dundee from Australia is big in the movie houses these days. ``Shark'' Norman from Australia is bigger on the golf courses. One is about as adventurous as the other. Suddenly but emphatically, the swashbuckling Norman has established himself as the best player in the world this year. He has won nine tournaments in 1986, including six in a row overseas since he left the United States tour in early August.

Even more impressively, he won the British Open, the oldest major championship, and led the three other majors (the Masters, US Open, and PGA) after three rounds, which nobody had ever done.

He actually believes he could win the unprecedented Grand Slam, with victories in these four events, and his recent record suggests he might have a chance. He couldn't have come much closer this year.

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Incredibly, a popular viewpoint around the game is that Norman ``choked'' to lose three of the four majors he led going into the final day. The pressure got to him, it is said. A more reasoned theory is that you have to come close and miss a few times if you are going to win major championships, and one out of four isn't bad. After all, Jack Nicklaus has been second in 19 majors.

Tom Watson, the winner of eight majors, says, ``People used to say the same thing about me before I broke through. They don't understand that there's a learning process involved. You have to get there to choke, if you have to call it that.''

Says the 31-year-old Norman, his ready smile briefly going behind an emotional cloud, ``You can't force major victories. People mature differently. I wanted the British Open to be my first major, because it's the world open, and it was. I started late at this game and I'm still improving. I wish I'd won all four majors, but there's no monkey on my back because I didn't. Some folks are never satisfied.''

Norman admits he made a bad swing on his approach shot at the last hole of the Masters. He admits that unfortunate heckling by a few misguided fans threw him off at the US Open. He feels he lost the PGA championship simply because Bob Tway put together an unbeatable combination of finesse and good breaks near the end, holing out his bunker shot at the 72nd hole.

Tway is expected to be named PGA Player of the Year in the United States, coming out on top in a complicated points system that includes extra dividends for winning the PGA. But Norman beats him soundly when the statistics are analyzed closely.

Norman led the US money list with a record $653,296, even though runner-up Tway played 38 more rounds and desperately tried to catch him after Greg went overseas following the World Series of Golf and didn't play here again. Tway won four US tournaments to Norman's two, but Norman added the British Open and the six other foreign titles. Norman was also second four times and third once in America.

The increasingly accepted Sony world rankings place Norman first and Tway a remote 17th, based on a three-year average. The Sony literature points out that Norman this season became the first player ever to lead the US, European, and Australian money standings.

Norman is the first citizen of another country to top the PGA Tour's money list since South Africa's Gary Player in 1961.

Only in a diminishing sense is Norman a ``foreign'' player when he's competing on the US tour, however. He has a home in Florida, and is married to an American. He says he likes everything about the country except the belief that it will win back sailing's grand prize, the America's Cup, from Australia next year.

Though Norman says he is not a shark hunter, as sometimes reported, his nickname did grow out of an incident in which he attempted to scare a few away from his fishing catch. The image is perpetuated by the puppet shark headcovers that protect his woods.

Norman realizes he fulfills the image of Australian sportsmen as rugged, zealously competitive athletes who nonetheless can lose with a genuine grin. He is tall and broad-shouldered, but only 31 inches around the waist, handsome in a sharp-featured way.

``I'm aggressive almost all the time,'' he says. ``I'll shoot at the flagstick if it's on the clubhouse roof. Sometimes I'm probably too aggressive, but that's my game.''

Arnold Palmer, perhaps seeing some of his younger self in Norman, admires that quality. ``I think the foreign players are beating us because they're more aggressive,'' Arnie says.

Adds Nicklaus, whose instruction books Norman studied when he took up the game late in his teens: ``I like his style and enjoy his company. We play practice rounds together. He doesn't back away from a challenge. And he's a good sport. At Augusta after I won this year and he missed his chance, he waited around until all my interviews were over, about an hour in all, to congratulate me. No other player did that. He exhibits that kind of sportsmanship all the time.''

Nicklaus predicts that 1986 is a portent of even greater success for Norman. ``I think he's the next big star. He grew up playing on poorly maintained courses overseas and developed an adaptable game that most of our young players lack. He was high in both the driving and putting statistics this year, an impressive combination. His best years should be ahead of him.''

Considering what Norman did this year, that's saying a bunch.

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