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Masters: Augusta greets golf's greatest (nick)names

This year's tournament will feature two comebacks: Greg Norman, at age 54, and Tiger Woods, after knee surgery.

This week at the Masters, the first of this golf season’s four Grand Slam tournaments, almost all media and fan attention will be focused on the return of the game’s premier winner, Tiger Woods.

After all, it will be Tiger’s first appearance at a major since he limped off the U.S. Open course last summer with his 14th major title and an already extraordinary resume bolstered by the addition of a single adjective: courageous. Having returned from knee surgery just last month — “I’m back” already punctuated by his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational — Woods will be bidding for his fifth Masters win and one of the five major victories he needs to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ career record of 18.

Still, the most compelling story could turn out to be the return to the Masters, at age 54 and after a seven-year absence, of Greg Norman, perhaps the most remarkable loser in the tournament’s long and illustrious history. It is certainly harsh to attach the word “loser” to the brash Aussie, known by a winner’s nickname, “the Shark.”

Norman, after all, won two British Opens and was the number one ranked player in the world for a total of 300 weeks during the late 1980s and early 1990s. But Norman also had four times as many runner-up finishes as victories in the majors; in 1986, he led all four of them through 54 holes and lost each time, giving rise to the derisive term the “Saturday grand slam.”

All those near-misses have kept him off the loftiest perches of the golfing pantheon. Among them, the most memorable were three excruciating defeats he suffered at the Masters where both fate and Norman himself seemed to conspire against him.

The first came in 1986 when Norman bogied the final hole, after inexplicably hitting his approach shot into the gallery, to lose by a single stroke. It was perhaps the most celebrated bogie in golf history as it gave one final, unexpected major championship to Nicklaus, who, at 46, was thought to be making only a sentimental journey to Augusta.

A year later Norman reached a playoff for the Masters and, on the second extra hole, was perfectly positioned to win the coveted green jacket. Then a journeyman named Larry Mize, playing the tournament of his life on the hometown course where he had worked as a teen, hit the shot of his life, holing a chip from 140 feet — and claiming victory when Norman steered a 30-foot putt wide.