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Norman's conquest

AUGUSTA, Ga. – He awoke to find the local newspaper had a front page picture of him getting a kiss from Chris.

By the time Greg Norman teed off at Augusta National, a sizeable throng of fans were waiting to cheer him on. Hole by hole they grew. Then he made three birdies, one bogey and finished with a satisfying 2-under 70, with wife of nearly 10 months, Chris Evert, waiting for another embrace.

"I'm not complaining at all," he smiled.

This was Norman's personal house of horrors, of course. Four times he had a legitimate, if not overwhelming, chance to win the Masters and all four times he lost. That includes three of the most improbable defeats in the event's history.

In 1986, Jack Nicklaus made five back-nine birdies and one eagle to come from behind and beat him out. In 1987, Norman watched Larry Mize drain a 140-foot chip during a playoff to win the green jacket.

Then in 1996, Norman blew a six-shot, final-round lead to lose by five strokes to Nick Faldo.

At age 54, Norman returned here for his 23rd Masters, but the first in seven years, intent on keeping expectations low and the enjoyment high. When, in a sense, he was again upstaged by Mize, who shot 67, he didn't flinch.

"Good for Larry," Norman said.

The guy wasn't going to find a negative in a day he figured would never happen. Norman thought his Augusta moments were over until he finished third in last year's British Open and unexpectedly qualified for the Masters.

He isn't the old guy who made it because he's a former champion. He's the old guy who made it because he beat out the young guys for a spot. He's here on his own merit; fair and square he got one more trip down Magnolia Lane.

"I played my way back into this golf tournament, which very few people can say at the age of 54," Norman said.

He decided early on that this trip to Augusta would be about positive memories. Yes he's lost some heartbreakers, the worst being that epic collapse in 1996. What's lost is lost though. Dwelling on it is not going to help. He's reapplied himself to golf, rather than his other business which became a priority for awhile, because he wants to, not because he has to.

"I'm enjoying playing golf again … it feels like the very first time I played here," Norman said. "I went through a pretty tough three years. That was a bit of a drain and took a lot of energy away from the game [business and personal]. I really didn't want to go play golf to tell you the truth.

"But now I've got great support with Chrissie. She wants me out there to play. She knows how much I enjoy playing. She actually comes and watches me practice. She will sit there and watch me hit balls hour after hour, and even chip-and-putt. She's very encouraging in that way."

Now he's found out he's more popular than ever; a large gallery Thursday trying to will putts to fall.

"Hey, everyone loves me," he laughed. "Nothing wrong with that, is there?"

Maybe it's compassion. Maybe it's remembrance. Maybe it's the wine business or clothing designs that has reminded them to be fans. Maybe it's his natural charisma or his famous wife who screams the loudest of anyone when he makes a good shot.

"I know her voice," he laughed.

"I think no matter where I play in the world, I've always been connected to the gallery," the Australian said. "I play the game of golf 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 around here, and really enjoy seeing me back here.

"I think that they respect what I've done over my career and how I've handled some of the things that have happened around here."

Norman kept reminding himself that his goal here was to play solid golf and have fun. He entered with low expectations and said he wouldn't allow them to change just because he's only five shots off the lead and in good position to make the cut.

This entire experience is surreal. His game is coming together. His concentration is improved. His personal life is soaring. Business remains great.

"Everything seems likes it's falling into place to some degree," he said.

He led the British Open last year after three rounds. All of a sudden, anything seems possible.

Can a 54-year-old win the Masters, he was asked. Can a guy who lost Masters he was supposed to win, actually win one he's suppose to lose?

"We'll have to wait and see," the Shark smiled.

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