For Greg Norman the countdown begins this week when he starts his 1997 season at the Dubai Desert Classic in the United Arab Emirates. Zero hour will come on Thursday, April 10, at Augusta National, the place where he came apart a year ago. Did Norman's closing 78 in the Masters destroy him or, by failing to kill him, make him stronger? The ghoul in all of us wants to know.
Not that it's macabre to believe that something vital might have snapped deep inside Norman when his six-stroke lead over Nick Faldo proved so brittle. For the next six months the No. 1-ranked player in the world finished no better than fifth on the Tour. His back began to hurt, his face hardened into a sullen mask, and only a lone no in a family vote, by his 11-year-old son, Gregory, kept them all from moving back to Norman's native Australia. Although he regrouped at the end of the year, after enlisting the aid of Faldo's Svengali, David Leadbetter, to win the Australian Open and the Andersen Consulting World Championship, hard-boiled observers viewed those wins as a dying rather than a regenerative twitch.
But to bury Norman is to dismiss his past. He has made a career out of drawing power from his disappointments, and if he can do it again, Norman will have a free run at this year's Masters. That's the upside to the most horrifying collapse ever in a major. It has given him the power of a man who has hit bottom and let him shed the artificial aura of the Great White Shark. Norman can go for broke with impunity this time because the 11 shots he lost to Faldo on the final day destroyed his reputation as a force in the majors. While Tiger Woods will be burdened with the extra attention and pressure that go with being the favorite, Norman will come to Augusta with more to gain than to lose.
This Masters is the big chance for golf's alltime "nearly man." A victory would arguably be as popular as Jack Nicklaus's epic triumph in 1986, and although a win would only be Norman's third in a major, such a dramatic turnaround would go a long way toward erasing the stigma of previous failures and would mark him as a player for the ages. Surely he knows it. For the last two months Norman has worked hard to prepare himself physically and mentally. He turned 42 on Feb. 10, and despite a long-held belief that his best golf will come in his 40s, he knows that time is running out. "For the next six weeks," says a close friend, "he's doing nothing but getting ready for Thursday morning at Augusta."
Norman has gone all out for the Masters before, sometimes with disastrous results. The pressure he has put on himself in the majors has been enormous and generally too much to handle. Seven times he has led or been tied for the lead going into the last round, and only once, at the '86 British Open, did he win. "Greg hasn't often played with the inner peace that makes pressure more manageable," says a contemporary. "As well as he plays, you just sense things are building up mentally. Down the stretch in a major, I wouldn't want to have his stomach."
But if something did die inside Norman last year, it might have been the demons that have gnawed at his gut. As he embarks on his latest comeback, Norman is taking a softer, more philosophical approach. "My head is cleaned out and ready to go," he says. Norman seems to realize that equilibrium might be the weapon that he has lacked all along. "In the past my goals have been golf related, but I'm not interested in riding just that horse anymore," he says. "There's a lot more to life, and I'm just starting to understand that. My goal now is to be the best person I can be. And that may help my golf."
It has already helped him come around to a healthier view of his Masters flameout. "I flat screwed up," says Norman, who once absurdly insisted that he had hit only two bad shots in the final round. "But last year was last year. This year I'm going to enjoy the challenge of playing, and the challenge of answering the questions."
After warming up in Dubai, Norman will get a chance to make his first serious statement of the season at next week's Doral-Ryder Open, where he's the defending champion. Last year's victory seemed to indicate that Norman would be able to stand up to the pressure if he got into contention at Augusta. A month later that theory was blown apart.
Here's another hypothesis. We haven't seen the last of Greg Norman. It's more likely—because he no longer has to fear the worst—that we haven't even seen the best.