A Norman conquest fizzles

Sports

It was one of those defining moments in sport.

As the early spring daylight was just starting to fade here late Sunday afternoon on the final day of the legendary Masters golf tournament, there stood Greg Norman, all-time leading money winner in golf (more than $12 million) on the 13th green.

He looked terrifically happy, as well he should. He had just scored a 3 on the par-5 13th hole, a dazzling eagle to take the lead in the tournament that has been nothing but aggravation and heartbreak in the 18 previous times he had failed to win.

Now, at last, brimming with confidence and the shots and a shiny new attitude, he clearly would brush aside a half dozen other pretenders and finally lay claim to golf's most prestigious title.

At the cusp of redemption, all Norman had to do was glide through the final five holes.

Whereupon, he lost.

The winner, inexplicably, turned out to be Jos Maria Olazabal from Spain, little known in the United States despite winning the Masters five years ago. His anonymity is self-inflicted, since he prefers to play in Europe and ventures to this side of the Atlantic sparingly. "What can I say?" said Olazabal after his steady 8-under-par 280. Not much explanation was needed. Clearly, Olazabal, son of a golf-course greenskeeper, was the best. Ultimately, Davis Love III squeezed in for second, relegating Norman to third, by three strokes.

Yet, this Masters was not so much about Olazabal winning as Norman losing.

After all, this was the Masters, at last, that Greg Norman would win. Not because he deserved it after, among other pratfalls, blowing a six-shot final-day lead in 1996 and finishing second; not because he unquestionably is one of the very best golfers never to win it; not because he now has been second here three times and third three more times; not because he has become the people's choice because of so many misadventures here.

RATHER, it was obvious to everyone who believes in omens that this was Norman's year when he knocked his tee shot left on the par-3 12th hole Saturday into the vines and flowers and trees, where it lay hiding.

Unable to find it, despite help of many, he furiously walked back to the tee and hit the ball again: same club, same way, 20 feet from the cup. Then he made the putt, giving him a 2, plus a two-stroke penalty for the faulty start, ending with a sensational bogey 4 on the scorecard. It easily could have been a 6 or 7 or more.

Suddenly, the clouds over his game all had very silver linings; the lemons became lemonade; disaster reversed itself to triumph. At a point when Norman might well have ruined his chances, he instead signaled his winning intentions.

Sunday's eagle on the 13th - set up by an exquisite four-iron and sealed with a 25-foot putt - seemingly confirmed everything.

Plus, Norman, who hasn't played much lately because of injury, says, "I'm more at peace and at ease with myself."

That, too, is obvious. At times over the years, the public and Norman have had an uneasy relationship. He can be flashy and dashy, a good time waiting to happen, with that wide grin and delightful Australian accent. Then, just as often, he can be abrupt and arrogant, a man so focused on himself that he wouldn't notice if an ax murder occurred next to him on an elevator.

Much of that is gone, finally. And the many times he has been humbled, humiliated, embarrassed, folded, spindled, and mutilated by The Masters brings him back closer to the masses. The masses understand failure far better than success because they have experienced so much more failure. Norman has now been deemed by the public to have suffered enough of Augusta National's wicked ways.

But as bright as everything looked for that shining moment on the 13th Sunday, it disappeared as quickly as a rainbow. First, Olazabal hit a tricky 20-foot putt seconds later on the same hole for a birdie. That left the two tied for the lead, thus deflating Norman's joy a bit. Then Norman, reverting to his past, imploded, scoring deadly bogies on the next two holes to bury himself again. Olazabal, meanwhile, was finishing with four pars and another birdie.

The defeat was not, Norman insisted, "a heartbreak. I feel 80 percent success. I played well. I didn't play well enough."

And then he walked off into the humid Augusta night, looking very sad.

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