James Lawton: Norman goes down under the weight of years but with the heart of a fighter
Did a world-class sportsman ever have better reason to dislike Sundays?
He tried to reinvent his competitive life at a tricky age and in a tricky wind but here last night 53-year-old Greg Norman began to subside. However, the way he did it was, deep down, no doubt worth all the trouble.
He did not allow it to happen without a fight – he made a lovely, cool birdie on the 15th green, his first real encouragement of the day – but there was no real doubt about his fate.
He started the day as the unlikeliest candidate to be oldest champion of golf's oldest great title – and he finished it, if not an old man, an ageing and deeply disappointed one, arching the last of his hopes against the wind that had blown four days, which was one too many for some of the bravest, most thrilling golf he had ever played.
In the end he just could not fight beyond the weight of too many years – and too much baggage. But he tried, how he tried.
Twelve years after he was dismantled by Nick Faldo on the last day of a US Masters he appeared to have brought to its knees, Norman had fought his way to the verge of redemption on a wild coast of Lancashire, but in the end he was back among the azaleas, the dogwoods and bitter disappointment of Georgia.
He was back in the terrible truth that some men will always show more promise than achievement and that, maybe, in pursuit of those ultimate honours which separate competitors like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus from the rest of the field, well, he belonged if not anonymous in that group but some way from the upper echelon of the game he had so often threatened to overwhelm with the force of talent and the weight of his ambition.
Anonymous? Anything but that. The statistics of his major title appearances may speak of a failure to take more than a fraction of his chances – but they also single out someone who even at the age when most of his contemporaries are pottering around the seniors' tour – or paddling with their grandchildren – was ready to reach out for lost glory one last time.
It would have been a gesture to take some of the pain out of those figures which spoke so poignantly of vast talent but limited rewards. Twenty five times he had fought his way into the top 10 of the major tournaments. Eight times he had gone into the last day leading, with the galleries screaming for him to make his way home in victory.
The prize on offer yesterday was of course quite extraordinary. Had he survived with the two-shot lead he had fashioned so gamely over the previous three days he would have been a minimum of seven years older than any previous holder of one of the major titles – and he could have said, when his career was packed away in favour of tennis whites or sailing jackets – that he went back to the battleground and rescued a considerable amount of honour.
He did that anyway, and though he was beaten once again in his bones sometime before the end, it was maybe the fact that he still lurked, with some of that old charisma and aggression, that provoked his playing partner and defending champion, Padraig Harrington, into the shot of the championship – and one of those of the ages – on the 17th.
It was always going to be Norman's defeat, and it was one which had to be feared some hours before, when a spell was broken and the magical prospect of the greatest story golf would ever have told became another of sport's fantasies, but somehow the pain went so far beyond the old hero and his new wife.
It seemed to touch so many of his audience – of all ages. It was the defeat not just of a once hugely successful golfer but also of an idea – an idea he had been declaring on the eve of almost certainly his last great contest – the declaration that if you want something badly enough, and fight hard enough, it might just be yours.
It was not so for Greg Norman but he came with all the hope in the world and he did not abandon it easily.
As it was so often when he was at the peak of his powers, and, it would turn out with such sickening regularity, the depth of his frailty, Saturday had again been a moving day of dazzling, if hardly believable possibilities. But did ever a world-class sportsman have better reason to declare that he didn't like Sundays?
Sundays that brought the bleakest moments of his professional life. Sundays when the harshest reality came kicking back at him with a sickening venom. Sundays when he found out that, for all his style and his panache, moving day had taken him, yet again, to a place no more uplifting than a blind alley.
Yesterday took on all those bleak properties of another Sabbath from hell when, with his wife, Chrissie Evert, as anxious in the gallery as in those days when Martina Navratilova began to apply fierce pressure on Wimbledon's Centre Court, Norman again felt the lifeblood of confidence draining away.
The damage came in what threatened to be an unstoppable rush : three holes, three bogeys, three chances to recreate the mood of mellow opportunism that stunned the golf world over three days of something rarely less than tempest, three plunges into the worst and most haunting of his past.
It did not help that Harrington came out with the irresistible demeanour of a fighter filled with belief and bouncing on the balls of his feet – or that the brashest of contenders, Ian Poulter, of the exaggerated wardrobe and, sometimes it seemed, sense of himself, was making the charge of his life.
Harrington's agony over the last hole of his major-winning breakthrough in Carnoustie last year might have been several continents and decades in the past as he moved into what seemed like a lead that could only grow longer, at least in relation to a playing partner who seemed to be locked into old doubts, old horrors.
Harrington had the bearing of a champion, Poulter the strutting of a young man who believed his time had come and Norman was, suddenly, the Norman we remembered from before he attempted to turn the history of his career upside down.
Well, not completely so. Among the rubble of disappointment there were those two Open wins to go along with the blows that came in losing six of those major leads, and if Norman was no doubt sad to finish his great tournament with a seven-over par round – five worse than his second-highest round in the most testing of the conditions on Saturday – he could draw satisfaction that in the wars of attrition he had repeatedly struck out with the hope of rescuing everything.
Indeed, when Harrington himself faltered on the outward nine – slipping to three straight bogeys of his own between the seventh and ninth holes – there was an old surge of belief from the Great White Shark. He kept stretching himself with his big old driver and there were times when it seemed that his defeat might become total, even crushing.
It did not happen. Norman pushed himself on – and this was true even when Harrington regained his nerve and finished the last few holes with the restored hauteur of a champion.
For Norman there was the consoling embrace of his champion wife – and the sense that he had done everything he could to show that he was a man who indeed knew how to fight.
He could not reproduce the extraordinary sense of epic sporting achievement that was produced on Centre Court at Wimbledon two weeks ago by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, but he did bring the possibility that an old dream of his could be restored.
He went out to take on the greatest odds he had ever faced, and, if it is said that he failed, it has to be allowed that winning and losing are often matters of degree.
Said Norman: "I can stand here now and say, 'yeah, I'm disappointed'. Where does it rank? Probably not as high as some of the other ones. Quite honestly, I know I came here and surprised a few people."
Under the pressure of his age and his situation, Greg Norman didn't always pick out the right club and play the right shot, but then there was never any question that he was not prepared to fight.
He could not make history or reinvent his career. But he could remind us of what it is to fight for the best of what you have always tried to represent. For four days he did this not in the fashion of the nearly man some have alleged him to be. No, Greg Norman didn't win but he never stopped fighting in the way of a champion.