Greg Norman's left shoulder made news last week. This no doubt caused him to smile, because he has grown weary of the public's fascination with some of his other body parts—specifically, his head and heart. Now that he has had arthroscopic surgery for rotator cuff injury, the world's third-ranked golfer can snooze contentedly on his 87-foot yacht. He will blow no major championships in 1998.
We're confident that Norman will be back next year or sooner, tanned and fit. Injuries rarely end a golfer's career, and the record book is full of players who reached their greatest heights after suffering bodily trauma. Steve Jones won the 1996 U.S. Open after mangling a finger in a dirt bike accident. Lee Trevino won a PGA Championship and eight other Tour tides after being struck by lightning. Ben Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open a year and a half after driving his car head-on into a bus. The link between injury and excellence is so strong that you expect Tour players to fire their personal trainers and hire personal maimers.
Athletes in other sports have more reason to see injuries as career killers. Arm pain has snuffed the promise of hundreds of baseball pitchers, including shooting stars like Steve Busby and Mark Fidrych. College basketball players go from NBA lottery picks to neighborhood lotto players at the pop of an anterior cruciate ligament. Tennis? Monica Seles is a mere echo of her former grunt four years after she was knifed by a fan, while perennial No. 1 Steffi Graf, limited since 1996 by a kneecap injury, languishes at No. 33 in the WTA rankings.
And who can forget Rick Steelsmith? O.K., everybody can. And has. Steelsmith was the Professional Bowlers Association rookie of the year in 1988—"the next Earl Anthony"—until his right shoulder started talking to him between frames. A decade later Steelsmith's name sounds like the answer to a rock music trivia question.
Golfers are different. The injured golfer uses his downtime to supervise construction of a new house. He takes the kids to Disney World. He flies to Tenerife for the opening of the course he supposedly designed. When he finally plays again, everyone asks him, "Where have you been?" Surgery for a ruptured disk? Routine. A bout of tendinitis? Yawn. To make a bona fide comeback in golf, a player practically has to win two majors within a year of breaking a leg after a fall down a glass-strewn stairwell.
This is not to make light of Norman's surgery. Any downtime is distressing to the Shark, who wants to be remembered for something other than the final round of the 1996 Masters. He's 43 and hurt. Buzzards circle his head while meaner birds pick at him with laptops and microphones. But consider the adage: Out of sight, out of mind. Yes, Norman will miss this summer's three remaining major championships. He will also be spared exchanges such as this:
Reporter: "Greg, do these tall trees here at the Olympic Club remind you of the pines down in Amen Corner, where you...uh...I mean, not when you were paired with Nick Faldo, but just in general...you know, uh...like maybe a practice round?"
Norman: "I can't believe you asked that question."
The injured golfer doesn't have to answer tough questions. Or easy ones, either. The injured golfer is an independent contractor. He just stays away.
Casey Stengel recognized the value of short absences. When an argument with an umpire got too hot to be resolved amicably, Stengel would sometimes slump to the ground, feigning unconsciousness. It was Casey's way of changing the subject.