Greg Norman's Masters return brings cheers and memories

AUGUSTA, Ga. – It was difficult to tell whether the response to Greg Norman on his return to his beautiful hell, applause and cheering so loud and enthusiastic, was out of admiration or sympathy.


"Everybody wants to live in the past," Norman said Thursday, answering a question about what might have been had he not come apart in that final round of the 1996 Masters, a final round he doesn't want to remember and no one else wants to forget.


So many chances to win this major played out beneath the Georgia pines, golf's tribute to spring and history.


Norman was the man of a decade, from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. Always in contention. Often in frustration.


Jack Nicklaus edged him by a shot in the '86 Masters, then a year later Larry Mize holed a chip to win over Greg in a playoff. Then after we spent seasons taunting Norman with our thoughts and analysis, he constructed a six-shot lead over Nick Faldo with 18 holes remaining.


At last, we believed, there would be redemption. Instead there was more agony. Faldo not only beat Norman, he beat him by five shots.


Greg returned another half-dozen times, even coming in as high as third in 1999, but then his life changed. There were injuries. His marriage was unraveling. He concentrated on his numerous businesses, from turf grass to boat building. The Masters was left in the distance, his last appearance in 2002.


Until now. Until gaining a place in the field through a surprising third-place finish in last July's British Open. At 54, Greg Norman was back to challenge the greens and demons. In the first round, he met that challenge, shooting a 2-under-par 70.


And naturally, someone wondered, euphemistically of course, if Norman had played that awful final day in 1996 as he did this wonderfully reassuring first day in 2009, "what you might have shot on an earlier Augusta National."


Norman was not fooled. He understood the meaning, and he offered his punch line about us living in the past.


It's a different Greg Norman now. He said his marriage to retired tennis star Chris Evert, after a $100 million divorce from his wife of some 25 years, Laura, has proven to be stabilizing.


Chrissie's calm approach, understanding of competition and willingness to accept Greg's hours of practice, have been a balance Norman said had been lacking.


Greg and Chris talk to each other like husband and wife, and athlete and athlete.


"She wishes she could get back out there and play," said Norman, who in contrast has gone back out there and is playing, "because she sees the passion I have, and I'm at the age – we are both at the age – where golf allows me to do it, or my sport allows me to do it for whatever crazy reason."


And Evert, also 54, unable to race about a court as she did three decades past, finds vicarious success in Norman's golf. "She can still hit all the shots," he said. "But she feels, especially now, she loves the competition, wants to make sure everything is right around me. Because she's been there and done that and wants nothing more than to see me just happy playing golf, whatever happens on the course."


What happened Thursday was Norman had three birdies and only one bogey. And at each green and each tee, the crowd was more than gracious, it was excited.


"Hey everybody loves me," joked Norman. Nothing wrong with that is there? Are you guys jealous?"


Greg, with his swashbuckling ways, with his nickname, "The Great White Shark," was forever a favorite. He took chances. He took figurative blows to the jaw.


"No matter where I play in the world, I've been connected to the gallery," said Norman. "I play with my heart on my sleeve, and I've done very well out of the game. And when I come here, people probably feel for me – some of the things that have happened here -- and really enjoy seeing me back here.


"I played my way into this tournament, which very few people can say at age 54, and it's a feather in my cap, to say the least. A seven-year hiatus, and it feels like the very first time I played here."


That was 28 years ago, 1981, and Norman, albeit on a more receptive course not toughened and lengthened, shot a 69, only one stroke better than the last time he played here, Thursday.


Norman, in his 22 Masters, has finished second three times and third three times. So close. And too far.


"Can a 54-old-man win this golf tournament?" a journalist asked Greg Norman in closing.


"We'll have to wait and see," Norman said with a shrug.

Or, knowing what the Masters has done to Greg, wait and hope.


SF Examiner: Tiger injects life into the Masters

AUGUSTA, GA. – One word. One name. Tiger. And it all changes, in golf, in sports. One name, and we’re thinking differently. One name, and we’re paying attention again.

One name, and the game is on.

It’s not a comeback for Tiger Woods. Not at the Masters. He was here in ’08, as in ’07 and the 12 years before that, two as an amateur.

He missed golf for eight months, June to February, recovering from knee surgery. And certainly golf, so dependent on individual stars, missed him.

But here under the Georgia pines, here where Amen Corner lurks, here where history can be found on virtually every magnificently trimmed fairway or hellishly fast green, it’s as if nothing has changed. Because nothing has changed.

Tiger is playing and thus, weeks of rehabbing and months of doubts to the contrary, Tiger is the favorite.

What a great few days in sports, the Final Four, the beginning of baseball season, the Masters. A tradition like no other, CBS tells us. Tiger Woods, a golfer like no other, and nobody needs to tell us.

What the fans tell Tiger, shout it out, is “You’re the man.” Which he is. Golf is dozens of great players, Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim, Geoff Ogilvy, Greg Norman, returning to his scene of heartbreak. Golf is one person, Tiger Woods.

Does he do it this week, win a fifth Masters, a 15th major? Or does he fail, and his short streak without a Masters victory extend to four, which would be the longest since he turned pro and, with that crushing triumph in 1997, turned golf upside down?

Either way, Tiger becomes the tale, the focus. Either we’re going to say, “How about Tiger?” or “What happened to Tiger?” The world distilled into good and bad, right and wrong, Tiger or not Tiger.

The Giants and A’s have started their long season.

The 49ers and Raiders are trying to figure into the NFL Draft. All of it is interesting, as opposed to Tiger, who is compelling.

Golf, as tennis, is constructed on personalities. Arnie took the game out of the country clubs. Jack Nicklaus awed us with his success. Greg Norman was exciting, sometimes in a negative way. Then along came Tiger, breaking par, breaking barriers, becoming as much a symbol of progress as a champion athlete.

And now here he is, and here the Masters is, and we can’t help but pay attention and perhaps pay obeisance to arguably the finest golfer ever and maybe the best-run tournament ever.

The Masters the last couple of years hasn’t been as exciting as we remembered. The weather was cold. The course had been toughened. The familiar roars of appreciative fans were lacking.

Tiger the last three years wasn’t quite as exciting at the Masters as we preferred, although two third places and a second isn’t exactly a collapse. More a tease.

“The last couple years, my putting has been streaky here,” was Tiger’s explanation before today’s first round. “I got on rolls where I make everything, and I get on rolls where I didn’t make anything.”

For sure, Tiger has made himself impossible to ignore.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on and E-mail him at

- - - - - -
Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company


KNBR Radio: Art speaks with Brian Murphy from Augusta


"The guys congratulate golf writer Art Spander on his Lifetime Achievement Award and talk a little Masters."

Listen here

RealClearSports: The Best of Sporting Times and Tigers

By Art Spander

Our Aprils, contrary to the T.S. Eliot poem, never are cruel. In the space of a few days they give us a sporting mixture that is irrepressible, full of baskets, fast balls and here, beneath the pines of Augusta National, 300-yard drives that confirm, no matter what the conditions, spring has arrived.

The NCAA Final Four, with its oversized crowds came first, and were followed by the baseball openers teasing the long season to come. Now, at a site as legendary as the men who have competed here, the Masters.

Now Amen Corner, Hogan Bridge and the man whose very presence has transformed golf into more than a weekend pastime, Tiger Woods.

Have we come down from North Carolina’s brilliant victory over Michigan State? Or Francisco Rodriguez’ excellent relief performance in his first chance for the Mets? It is time to get up once more, to follow Phil and Padraig and particularly, Tiger. Time to pay attention to the 12th hole, called by some the most difficult par-3 in golf, and to greens that as Dan Jenkins once wrote, are as slick as the top of Sam Snead’s bald head.

There is a special fascination with the Masters as the first major tournament of every year. The name itself lends a cachet not found anywhere else in sport.

Golfers last a lifetime. Jack Nicklaus won a Masters at age 46 and was playing the tournament well into his 60s. Greg Norman is back this time, and even the most callous of individuals finds sympathy for a man in his 50s known less for success than for his failures, including that 1996 Masters, when he blew a six-shot lead the last day.

We are familiar with so many of them -- last year’s winner Trevor Immelman, and Vijay Singh and names which persist like the blooms of the dogwood trees.

We remember when Tom Weiskopf took a 12 on that 13th hole, and when Mickelson made that winning putt on the 18th and jumped, what, all of three inches? And we remember when, in 1997, Tiger crushed the scoring record, sending a signal that golf would never be the same, as he became the first African-American to win the Masters.

Since then, it’s been all about Tiger, and this year -- the year of the great return -- the focus is even greater. From his first shot in Thursday’s opening round to his last, he will be the focus, and perhaps the champion. He was gone eight months after surgery on that anterior cruciate ligament and legitimately or not, because we should be wary of doubting the great ones, there were questions of whether he would be his old self. They were answered quickly enough.

Tiger stood over that 15-foot putt nine days ago on the 72nd hole at Arnold Palmer’s tournament and seemingly as if predestined, knocked the ball into the cup to win. The way he had done before the layoff. The way he always will do.

“I really wanted to get into contention,” Woods said Tuesday of his victory, “and feel the rush again on the back nine. I was not in it at Doral; I was on the periphery. The past week at Bay Hill was great to feel that, and to see how my body would react again. It’s been a while and a lot of uncertainty over the months upon months of rehab. And it felt great to hit shots.”

Uncertainty? With Tiger Woods? Deep down, he knew. So did the rest of us. He was going to win again. It was inevitable. That he needed only three tournaments was maybe a surprise. Or was it?

I learned not too long ago, never to be unsure of Tiger. It was the 1996 U.S. Amateur, his last before turning pro a few days later. He was 5-down in the final, at match play, and on a radio broadcast I declared his reign, after winning the previous two years, was at an end.

Not at all. Woods caught Steve Scott and won on the second extra hole, the 38th. Scott could only sigh, “Against Tiger Woods no lead is safe.”

A couple days later, Willie McCovey, the Hall of Fame baseball player, confronted me and said, “How could you give up on Tiger? I don’t care how far teams and players get behind, when they’re good you have to believe in them.”

I believe. Tiger may not win this Masters, but who wants to pick against him? In these wonderful few days of April 2009, not me.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

- - - - - -
© RealClearSports 2009


RealClearSports: North Carolina is a Quick Winner

By Art Spander

This was one in which reality crushed reverie, power overwhelmed hopefulness. This was one in which the best college basketball team in the land proved it was the best college basketball team in the land, and the experts knew exactly what they are talking about.

Over the weekend, we had been immersed in the tale of Michigan State, and how its ascent was being felt by this city that once was the proud hub of a flourishing auto industry, but now reflects all the problems of America’s stumbling economy. It was going to be so glorious, so uplifting when the Spartans came through. But they could not. North Carolina never gave them a chance. The Tar Heels ran and jumped and harassed. And Michigan State was in a state of bewilderment.

In the end, Carolina won 89-72, took its fifth NCAA basketball championship, finished as the Final One of the Final Four, verified that indeed as in October’s preseason polls and now in April’s glory, the Tar Heels are an unquestioned No. 1

They hit quickly and hard, stunning not only Michigan State, but a record crowd of 72,922 at Ford Field, the majority of which naturally was cheering for the Spartans. Carolina was up 22-7 within six minutes gone; then 34-11 with 9:44 to play in the half.

Would the Tar Heels score 100? Maybe they should have. Would they beat State worse than in December, when Carolina, in the very same building, the home of the NFL Detroit Lions, dismantled the Spartans, 98-63? Maybe they could have.

“They’ve kind of given us our lunch, haven’t they?" Tom Izzo, the Michigan State coach asked with great prescience the day before the game. “But that’s because they’re a great program."

The greatest going this season.

Sunday night, Roy Williams, the Carolina coach, dined on fried lobster at the Detroit Fish Market for the second time in 48 hours. “I’m not superstitious," Williams said when confronted as he left the restaurant, “but I ate here Friday night and I didn’t want to take any chances."

With the team he put on the court, there were no chances to be taken. Carolina forced a supposedly disciplined State team into 21 turnovers. “Fourteen in the first half," said Izzo. “We couldn’t do anything. I was disappointed. I also thought we missed some good shots early. I thought we looked either shell-shocked or worn down."

The championship was a reward for Carolina players such as Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green, who ignored opportunities to join the NBA and came back for a senior season of not so much retribution as relish.

The 6-foot-9 Hansbrough, last season’s Player of the Year, was castigated because he did not lead Carolina to a title. When Williams was asked if that would diminish Tyler’s career, he was adamant in his denial. “Ernie Banks never won a World Series," Williams reminded.

But now Hansbrough has won an NCAA, and when the final seconds ticked off and the confetti was shot from those special air guns, he was a little kid beside himself, belying a reputation for a lack of emotion.

“This was the best way to go out," Hansbrough shouted into a CBS television microphone, “after what we had been through. We climbed all the way." Hansbrough had 18 points, behind Ty Lawson’s 21 and Wayne Ellington’s 19. Center Goran Suton scored 17 in his last game for Michigan State.

“We couldn’t stop Hansbrough inside,” said Izzo, “and we couldn’t stop Lawson from getting to the line.” Lawson got 18 free throws and made 15 as he drove inside and drew foul after foul.

“All I know,” said Williams, who has led Carolina to two championships in his six years after moving there from Kansas, “is I’m the luckiest coach in America. I am so proud of this team. We overcame a lot during the season."

They also scored a lot. Eight times Carolina reached 100 points or more, and when the Heels led Michigan State 55-34 at intermission, it appeared inevitable they would do it a ninth time. But Carolina got a bit loose and sloppy, and so the rout became merely a one-sided victory.

Magic Johnson, the Michigan State alum, and Larry Bird were in the building on what was the 30th anniversary of their memorable battle in the 1979 NCAA championship, won by the Spartans over Bird and Indiana State. And Michael Jordan, a Heel, David Robinson, Vivien Stringer and John Stockton made an appearance as part of being voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Quite a night for greatness. And North Carolina was a major part of that, much to the frustration of the state of Michigan and Michigan State.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

- - - - - -
© RealClearSports 2009