Augusta – We hold a special place in our hearts for the lovable losers. The Chicago Cubs. The Jamaican bobsled team. Wile E. Coyote, who for some realize never realizes that the fuse extending from the Acme TNT is wrapped around his big toe.
To label Greg Norman a lovable loser might seem like overstatement because, well, he has won over $16 million playing golf, runs several successful businesses and is married to Chris Evert. But at the Masters, his identity is more closely associated with meltdowns than successes. Golfers just don’t finish second three times in the same tournament and nose-dive from six ahead to five behind on Sunday without resembling some exploding cartoon figure.
But something weird happened Thursday. Returning to his personal azalea-lined Hades, Norman was embraced by fans like the family Labrador who had gone missing for seven years. His traveling gallery probably was surpassed only by Tiger Woods’, and that’s as close as any mortal gets.
As Gregory Norman, son and caddy for the 54-year-old, put it: “Everywhere, there’s always been people who have supported him. But it seemed like everyone was supporting him here.”
And Norman reciprocated. He put up a red number.
Shooting his first Masters round since 2002, he fired a 2-under-70, despite leaving a few birdies on the greens. It was tied for the second-lowest Thursday score in his 23 Masters, behind only the 63 he fired in 1996 (when he led after three rounds, and we don’t have to talk about the rest).
“Hey, everybody loves me,” Norman cracked later. “Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
He referenced having fun at golf again. He reflected how going through a divorce for three years drained him. He talked about how special it was to have Evert, whom he married last June, follow him around the course. It was she who encouraged him to play in the Masters after he qualified with his third-place finish at the British.
“I saw her about seven times,” he said. “I know exactly where she is. And I know her voice, too.”
Evert caddied for her husband in the par-3 Wednesday. But she seemed intent on keeping a lower profile when the tournament opened. When asked if she agreed with Gregory Norman’s comment, “We got a feel for the crowds – all of the love out there, we felt it,” Evert responded: “Yes – and deservedly so.”
But she otherwise was reticent to speak. “This is Greg’s time,” she said. “This is his week.”
Norman has been amused by his sudden universal popularity. Earlier in the week, he noted: “Friends have flown in from Australia to come watch me play and they never did that in the ’80s and ’90s.”
He didn’t play like his age or an extended absentee. He birdied three holes and bogeyed only one. He was strong and accurate off the tee, and with his second shots. His 2-under easily could’ve been a 6-under. But he missed potential birdie putts on the first three holes (all four-to-10 feet) and another on 18.
But Norman remained at ease afterward. He freely spoke again of mistakes. He has answered every question about the past, explaining: “If you let the demons take control of you, then you’re never going to do your job properly.”
He looked around Thursday. He noticed some of the same fans sitting in the same places as years past. He took note of their reactions to him.
“When I come here, people probably feel for me, some of the things that have happened,” he said. And they’re all on his side.