Live Masters Update: Suffering Through Life with Greg Norman

April 11, 2009
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greg-normanBy Brad Eastland, The Sports Philosopher, t.s.p.

Greg Norman is my age.   Pretty much.   We were both born in 1955, he’s actually a few scant months my senior.   I think we’ve both aged pretty well.   I do think I’m better looking than he is.   His nose and forehead were always too big.   To his credit, I suppose his waistline is an inch or two less adventurous than mine.   Okay, maybe three or four inches.   (okay okay, just stop laughing)

The point is that we are peers.   Age-wise, at least.

Greg missed the cut at the Masters this week.   No problem.   Missing the cut at fifty-four is far, far, FAR down the list of horrors he has suffered at the hands of this diabolical little golf tournament.   But as I watched him play, his aquiline glare confident as ever, tan and fit and striding up and down the storied fairways of Augusta National that over the years have been so unkind to him, it occurred to me that if a few things in Life had broken differently for me maybe I could have been just like him and maybe you good people would be wiping away tears watching ME miss the cut by two lousy strokes….assuming, of course, that I could ever drive the ball 330 yards, hit my irons with the accuracy of a bombardier, putt with the precision of a brain surgeon, and I guess assuming I had any athletic ability whatsoever.   You know what I mean….

 It’s been seven years since Norman last teed it up at Augusta.   A decade since he contended.   A generation since he was the world’s top-ranked golfer, thrilling crowds with his booming drives and swashbuckling Sunday charges, all that and a shock of white-blond hair and a crazyass-Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining grin earning him the coolest nickname in sports, the Great White Shark.

 But his reemergence at Augusta is also a reminder that in Greg Norman we have both the ultimate athletic underachiever and surely the unluckiest Homosapien in the history of golf.

Everything is relative, of course.   It’s hard to employ a straight face in calling a man an underachiever who has won the Open Championship (a.k.a. the British Open) twice.   But we must remind ourselves that those two “majors” pale in comparison to the EIGHT majors in which he finished a disappointing runner-up, on all eight occasions Norman being the #1 player in the world and the heavy favorite to win.

Sometimes losing a heartbreaker in a major was Norman’s own doing.   He was the Phil Mickelson of his day; courageous and dashing to a fault, confident to the point of hubris, bold to the point of being downright foolhardy.   I remember in May of 1989 when I was vacationing in Scotland, and I stopped by Royal Troon Golf Club where they would be playing the Open in a couple months.   I sauntered up to the clubhouse and pulled out my wallet, requesting a tee time and declaring that I needed to get out on the course as soon as possible, and that money was no object.   I wanted to “get the feel of the ground,” I said suavely, so that when I watched the Open two months hence I would be able “to identify with all the twists and nuances of this fine venue,” I waxed with airy conviction.   They informed me as politely as they could of my overall greenness and lameness, in so many words, by way of explaining that for the next couple months nobody on Earth was allowed to play the course prior to the Open other than members, and that they had a major golf championship to put on so could I please stop annoying people etc.   I pretended not to be embarrassed, and settled for simply walking and exploring the eighteenth fairway, with their kind permission.   I remember studying a deep, unplayable pot bunker right in the middle of the 18th fairway, about 290 yards from the tee.   I remember thinking that the pros will have to lay up with a 3-wood or a 2-iron to avoid this ill-placed disaster.   Nobody pulls the driver on eighteen at this Open, I remember thinking….

Two months later, locked in a playoff with Mark Calcavecchia, Norman pulls the driver on eighteen and promptly bombs it far down the fairway….right into the middle of this bunker.   Game over.   Like Mickelson, Norman never really did learn that in golf, as if Life, sometimes it’s better to back off a little.

 Speaking of playoffs, Norman has underachieved his way to the ultimate golf grand slam in reverse.   Over the years he has somehow managed to lose all four of the major “Grand Slam” tournaments—the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship—in a playoff.   No, I’m not kidding.   Is that pathetic or what?   And you thought only the Atlanta Braves and Buffalo Bills specialized in coming up with so many creative ways to blow the Big One….  

 Conversely, sometimes losing a heartbreaker was simply not Norman’s fault at all.   As I said, no one in golf history has had to suffer through such inexplicable, agonizing ill fortune as the Shark.   Perhaps no one in sports has ever been as patently and unreasonably unlucky as he.

I myself know a little bit about being unreasonably unlucky.   I’m the kind of guy whose favorite menu items in restaurants routinely get purged from those menus for no good reason.   (“I’m sorry Mr. Eastland, as of yesterday we no longer offer that item—perhaps you’d like a tasty club sandwich and a diet Coke instead?”)   One of my novels was scheduled to be published in 1996 by a small, unknown publisher in Salt Lake City (but at least it was going into print), when just a few days before going to press, special agents of the State of Utah Attorney General’s office raided the publishing house and closed it down at gunpoint for fraud and embezzlement.   (I, of course, was one of the authors who didn’t know he had been embezzled.)   The book never did get into print, but at least the publisher and his son were thrown into prison.   I once bet on a racehorse who, while leading by four lengths and cruising to victory, decided to jump the inner railing one stride shy of the wire.   One stride!   He was disqualified.   The whole grandstand could be heard laughing at my misfortune.   Speaking of horse racing, I once sent away for special grandstand tickets to a big race in Chicago.    A week or two before the race, the track burned to the ground.   No, I am not kidding.   A friend of mine called me to tell me about it, laughing hysterically.  (“Eastland, turn on the news, this could ONLY happen to you!”)

Anyway, when it comes to being unlucky, I know what I’m talking about.   But Norman, at least as it pertains to golf, has elevated bad luck into something of a cruel art form.

Allow me to present the evidence.    In five of those eight majors where he came in second, his conqueror was a virtual no-name who never won another major before or since.   At the ’86 PGA, Bob Tway (who?) blasted out of a bunker and into the 18th hole to beat him.   Ripped the Shark’s heart out, right on national TV.   In 1995, at the U.S Open, Greg had it locked up but then little Corey Pavin hit the shot of his life, a perfect 4-wood from over 230 yards out to within six feet at the last, and Norman was a loser again.   Pavin, all of 5-foot-9 and about 140 pounds, would win only one more tournament during the next ten years.   Just last year, at age 53, Norman led at the Open with only nine holes to go, but lost to an Irishman twenty years his junior with bigger front teeth than even he possesses.  

But it has been at the Masters more than at any other theater of pain where Norman’s quarter century of public emasculation has been the hardest to watch.   In ’86 the great Jack Nicklaus shot thirty on the back nine to rip the Green Jacket right off Norman’s shoulders.   It got worse the next year, when the skinny-necked, perfectly accountantesque and decidedly not great Larry Mize hit the luckiest winning chip shot ever, a one in a million stroke of luck from 45 yards off the green, his ball moving so fast when it hit the flagstick and dove into the hole that had it not hit the flagstick it might have rolled right off the 11th green and into the water.   (Mize was so completely inspired and thoroughly buoyed by his success he didn’t win another golf tournament for six years.)   And finally, in 1996, Norman authored the greatest single-day collapse in the annals of golf, blowing a 6-shot lead to Nick Faldo on Sunday and winding up losing by five.   It was so bad, that at the end Faldo embraced Norman the way a father might comfort a 12-year-old son who has just blown the Little League championship game by walking eleven guys in a row, Faldo remarking famously, ”I just wanted to give you a hug.”   Good grief.

How has this guy managed to not kill himself???

 Norman, thank goodness, has not been forced to struggle through Life with no luck at all.   He is worth about $300 million dollars, he does have his own private jet, and the guy did land on his feet quite well last year, after his well-publicized, bitter divorce.   Recently divorced myself, I hope to profit from Norman’s sterling example.   (I think it would be easier if I had the $300 million and the private jet to distract me.)   Norman’s solution was to marry his best friend and soul-mate, tennis queen Chris Evert.   Remember her?   That prissy, overachieving little ice-maiden from the 70s and 80s with eighteen major championships to her credit?   She’s got eighteen majors, Norman has two.   You’ve got to admire a guy who is so humble and so comfortable in his own skin that he’s okay with marrying someone with sixteen more Grand Slam titles than he has.

 And that’s the point.  That’s the thing about Norman and all his disillusioning, gut-wrenching, I-just-want-to-crawl-into-a-hole-and-then-kill-myself defeats.   He never let it get to him. 

He never cursed like a madman and gnashed his teeth like a baby (see Tiger Woods), never complained about bad luck to the press, moaning how the golf gods were all against him (see Sergio Garcia), never whined “I am such an idiot” after a match to explain his perennially poor decision-making (see Phil Mickelson).   When he lost he always slapped on the crazy Nicholson grin, shook the hand of his victorious opponent, and told everyone within earshot what a great champion his competitor was and how he, Norman, did his best but that it just wasn’t good enough on this particular day and by the way isn’t golf a great game, or something mindnumbingly classy like that.  

 Amazing.   I know I couldn’t do it.   I’m like most people.   I’d be saying something like, “I can’t believe that _ _ _ _ _ _ _ chipped in from the freaking bunker!!!” or “What are the odds that that pencil-necked geek could hit the _ _ _ _ _ _ _ flagstick from forty-five yards off the green?!?!? “

In fact, back in the 80s and 90s, I always thought that Greg Norman was just about the nicest, classiest, most gracious guy in sports.   You know why?   Because he was.   And still is.   For me he is and has always been the absolute role model for how to behave in Life.   Everyone makes poor decisions.   Everyone is an underachiever, compared to his childhood dreams.   Everyone has lots of bad luck.   I guess it’s all how you deal with getting knocked down.   The Greg Normans of the world get up off the mat every time, wake up every morning with a smile, and tee it up again.  

I want to be like Greg Norman.   I’m trying.

I will say one thing, though.   If I ever do get married again, I guarantee you it won’t be to some overachieving egomaniac of a woman with sixteen more major championships than me.    I might not have much athletic ability, but I’ve got my pride.    

Brad Eastland, t.s.p, is an author, historian, film buff, and sports nut, in no particular order. Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under The Sports Philosopher and also in Viewpoint under Brad Eastland’s View. Brad also has written four novels and over 20 short-stories. Samples of Brad’s fiction work can be discovered within the links below : 





















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