It has been a wild and stormy year for Greg Norman, one minute filled with the utmost sweetness, the next bitter as bile. He has been on a mind-bending, heart-stopping, head-snapping roller-coaster ride quite unlike anything any man has experienced in recent golf history. It began with a 53rd-place finish in the Bob Hope Classic on Jan. 19 and it rocketed on through 17 other tournaments. Before it was all over he had three victories and $750,000 in prize money. He had also achieved the remarkable feat of leading the field into the final round of all four major tournaments and the equally remarkable feat of undermining his own game so effectively that he wound up losing three of those four.
So now, instead of being a living, breathing monument—the only man ever to win the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA in one year—Norman, 31, is still ineffably human, a nice guy whose accomplishments in this madcap year of ups and downs finally evened out to become definitely above average but not untouchable, very good but not truly great, most impressive but by no means immortal.
Indeed, there are some who think he will never again do as well as he has this year. There are some who talk of a faint heart, of a choker's psyche. After Norman's catastrophic loss in the PGA on Aug. 11—in which he dissipated a four-stroke lead over the last round and saw the championship vanish into the 18th hole along with Bob Tway's amazing sandblasted wedge shot—a brass-tongued radio commentator asked him flatly, "Is the monkey back on your back?" Norman nearly bolted out of his chair and snapped, "You guys are never satisfied."
In the days after that loss, Norman was more relaxed and more contemplative about pessimists who have already relegated him to fallen-idol status. "People only think of the present, they can't remember the past," he said. "Everybody goes through these things: Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino, me—we've all had the trophy right there and then let it slip away. But people can't relate to the fact that those things are just a small part of a golfer's whole career. Do you know what went through my mind after Tway holed out that shot? I thought, God, this game never ceases to amaze me! You've got to be philosophical about a guy holing a bunker shot to beat you.
"When I saw his [Tway's] ball in the bunker, I said, 'That's an easy shot.' It was sitting well, on the upslope. Five feet farther back, on the flat, and he would have had no shot. And then to think my ball had landed 10 or 12 feet on the green and spun back and off.... Every time you lose, you think that life's unfair. You think of the bad breaks. But when you're winning and playing well, you still get those bad breaks, only you overcome them. It just depends on how strong your mind is."
Given the kind of season Norman has been through, there shouldn't be much doubt about the strength of his mind—or the brilliance of his golf game. Beginning with the Masters in April and continuing through the next 10 tournaments, culminating with the PGA, he won the Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational, the Kemper Open and the British Open (by five strokes). He finished second or tied for second four times—including the Masters and the PGA. He was tied for third once, fifth once, 12th in the U.S. Open and 10th in the Memorial. Seven times he shot rounds of 65 or better and his per-round average for the 11 tournaments was a startling 69.60. His average in final tournament rounds is 69.94—the best on the tour. He won $750,429 in that period, which is an average of $68,221 each week.
It is storybook stuff, no doubt about it. And while he was on this tear, plenty of people were ready to declare Norman as Our Next Great Golfer. It could well be true someday, but not yet. His streak of wins and high-level finishes is surely terrific, but it is by no means something achieved only by certifiably Great Golfers. The PGA was Tway's fourth win this year, and he has won $606,005. Craig Stadler won four tournaments in 1982 and so did Calvin Peete, who has won a total of 11 since 1982—three more than anyone else in that time. Tom Weiskopf delivered a fantastic string of finishes in 1973, winning the British and Canadian opens, the Colonial, the Kemper and the Philadelphia tournaments, as well as the four-man World Series of Golf and the South African PGA championship. Johnny Miller won eight tournaments, but no majors, in 1974. Winning one major does nothing but tie Norman with the likes of Orville Moody and Charles Coody and a raft of other also-rans.
So what might constitute a measure by which Norman's—or anyone else's—claim to greatness could be truly judged? How about winning two majors in a single year? Only five active players have done that: Jack Nicklaus (five times), Arnold Palmer (twice), Tom Watson (twice), Lee Trevino and Gary Player, each once. If Norman had won the PGA, he would have joined that select group and his case for greatness would have been enormously strengthened.
But he didn't, so instead of debating the height of his pedestal, many people are now debating the dread question of whether he is a born loser, one of nature's chokers. It is both insulting and utterly unjustified. For example: In the 1986 Masters, Norman flew a terrible approach shot into the crowd beside the 18th hole, finishing with a bogey when par meant tying Nicklaus and going into a playoff with a 46-year-old hero who had been sitting around for almost an hour. But, please remember: To get to that exalted near-miss, the gritty Norman had birdied the previous four holes. In the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, he did go into the last round with a one-stroke lead and did wind up 12th after a crude round of 75, but if he were, in fact, a choker, that blowup would have had him thinking weak for a long time. Instead, five weeks later, he came thundering back and overpowered the field in the British Open for his first major. And as for his PGA demise, Peter Jacobsen played with Norman and Tway in that-final round and he said, "I didn't see anything like a choker out there. A choker is short and to the right on his putts. I didn't see a nerve in Greg's stroke. Maybe if Greg had a little choke in him it might have helped. Then he would have played for pars instead of trying to extend his lead."
Does Norman have some kind of a fatal flaw in his game that will keep him from ever reaching the pinnacle? Among the experts there are questions about his ability to pace himself so that he doesn't come up with his competitive juices spent late in a tournament. There are questions about his tendency to attack when he should lie back, about his ability to bring good strategic management to a golf course, about the zigzag streakiness of his game. Yet, no one sees him as a man likely to be permanently victimized by his own shortcomings.