Greg Norman, simply for being Greg Norman, has to absorb a bunch of cheap shots. To a lot of people, including many of his peers, everything about him is just too darn big, be it his fame, bank account, ego, overseas-appearance fees, yacht, shoulders or the Day-Glo patterns on his golf shirts. Actually, most of the carping about Norman is a tribute. The fact is, week in and week out over the last decade, he has played on a consistently higher level than anyone else in the game. What's more, he has continued to improve and, at age 40, is a more complete player than ever.
But there is one criticism of Norman that, while harsh, is much less cheap shot than direct hit. For all his talent and ability to get in the hunt, Norman has been a poor finisher.
Though he has won several tournaments by big margins—and has made the Sunday charge from far back that falls just short his trademark—Norman has been shaky around the lead of closely contested tournaments. The book on the Shark has always been to stay close to him and wait for the big mistake.
Before last week's Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, Norman had led or shared the lead going into the final round of a PGA Tour event nine times in the 1990s. But on those occasions he had come up with only two victories—at Doral in 1993 and at The Players Championship in 1994. Nor is this a new phenomenon. In 1986, Norman led or was tied for the lead after three rounds of all four majors, but converted only one, the British Open.
This year, Norman reinforced his reputation with two more conspicuous late-round blowouts. At Doral, he was tied for the lead when he pulled a six-iron approach to the 72nd hole so badly that it splashed into the water 30 yards left of the green, thereby handing the tournament to Nick Faldo. A month later in the final round at the Masters, Norman was tied for the lead until the 13th hole. Then, trailing by one at the 17th, he pulled a 106-yard sand wedge 40 feet to the left of the pin and three-putted for a bogey. He eventually finished third, three strokes behind the winner, Ben Crenshaw.
Norman's rationalizations afterward have been as disturbing as his physical failures. At Doral, he blamed a tuft of grass behind his ball for causing his club head to turn over. At the Masters, Norman said his yardage to the flag left him between a pitching wedge and a sand wedge, and that he also had a "hanging lie." The excuses suggested a scarred and mentally fragile player with too much to prove. It was easier than ever to draw the conclusion that when Norman comes down the stretch in the heat, he has enough baggage to require a second caddie.
So when Norman took a one-stroke lead to the 12th hole of the final round on Sunday at Muirfield Village Golf Club and promptly blew a seven-iron over the green and into the face of a severely inclined bank, he seemed to be imprisoned in a hapless role in the same bad horror movie.
Norman faced a shot he could have easily fluffed short of the green or flushed into the water past the pin. Instead he finessed a miraculous wedge shot that nearly went in the hole before stopping a foot away. He birdied the 14th hole to stretch his lead to two strokes, but when he pulled his drive into the trees on the par-5 15th and then hit his recovery across the fairway amid more trees some 130 yards from the pin, it looked as if Norman had simply delayed the agony. But he again dug deep, punching out short of the green and getting up and down for his par.
Still, his lead was down to one over Steve Elkington and Mark Calcavecchia, and when Norman bunkered his tee shot on the par-3 16th and blasted out to 10 feet, the ghouls again took heart. So what happened? Norman's putt went right down the pipe. And ahead of him, instead of performing heroics like so many other Norman antagonists of the past, Calcavecchia and Elkington were both making bogey on the 17th.
Norman, being Norman, couldn't just quietly par in and win comfortably. He birdied 17 and 18, doffing his black hat with a flourish and bowing deeply to the throng. With a closing 66 and a 19-under total of 269, he won by four over Calcavecchia, Elkington and super-rookie David Duval. "I didn't want to come in with just a one-shot victory," Norman said afterward, as if that would have somehow devalued his accomplishment. After all, there are a good dozen one-stroke victories Norman would have happily collected over the years had he not proved so mistake-prone at crucial moments.