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

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.

But it was almost a decade later, at the 1996 Masters, that Norman’s hard luck became something more, indeed something ignominious. He took what appeared to be an insurmountable six-shot lead into Sunday’s final round. By the time he reached Augusta National’s famed “Amen Corner,” Norman’s hopes had already faded even beyond prayer’s reach. He finished the round with a stumbling 78 and lost by five shots to Nick Faldo. The debacle reduced even a “Shark” to tears, and his pained lament could be heard around the world: “I am not a loser.”

On Thursday, the 54-year-old Norman will tee off at the Masters for the first time in seven years, his invitation secured by a remarkable third-place finish in last year’s British Open. It was, in fact, another major where Norman actually held the lead after 54 holds. But seniors are held to a much more generous standard and just coming close once again — his last top-10 finish in a major had been in back in 1999 — was viewed as a remarkable triumph rather than another lost opportunity.

While harsh judgments made in the past at Augusta on both his game and character are impossible to forget, they are unlikely to be much in evidence. Indeed Norman will return to the Masters as the sentimental favorite (a status buoyed by his marriage to an American sports icon, Chris Evert) and the crowds will likely be cheering him almost as if Jack were back for one more round.

It is probably too much to hope that Norman might be part of another miracle finish in Augusta let alone one that finally breaks his way. Still, sometimes just continuing to play the game offers redemption. And perhaps now also his due: not one of the game’s immortals, but nevertheless a standout player who helped bridge the years between the modern era’s two great champions, Jack and Tiger. Most important of all, definitely not a loser.

Other columns by Mark Starr:

Figure skating: The Cold War is really over

Olympics: Femurs and lies

Basball: Baseball's Olympic banishment

Tennis: Gaza on the the tennis courts