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How to Lose the "Loser" Image

By John M. Ross,
Greg Norman
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Greg Norman, winner of the 2001 Skins Game. (.)

The tension had built to an unnerving pitch. The Skins Game had gone through sixteen holes without a winner and everyone in the grillroom had an opinion on who was going to take all the marbles. My foursome quickly decided on a lottery and someone tore up a bar napkin and put a player's initial on each of the four pieces.

"Wow! Wow! Wow!" Billy bellowed, rattling the glasses on the back bar. "I've got the winner - where's the money?"

Of course, he had picked the rolled-up slip that contained a "W" - as in Tiger Woods.

Ray wasn't as excited when his selection showed an "M" for Colin Montgomery. He had won the Skins Game last year, but that wasn't going to help him here.

"My wife's family is from Scotland," Ray said wistfully. "Maybe it's an omen."

I've won only one pick-'em raffle in my life - and I didn't collect the prize for that. It was at a church school bazaar, and the big prize of the afternoon was a beautiful doll with a whole wardrobe. It was worth about $200, and all the little girls were drooling over it.

I had been helping out with some of the chores that afternoon when my old friend, Father Joe Sheridan, asked me to pick the winning ticket in the doll raffle. I obliged and, much to my dismay, I realized I had miraculously selected my own ticket from the big drum.

"It's my own ticket," I said to Father Joe. He howled laughing, and almost immediately a bitter eighth grader in the back cried out, "Fix!" before he was throttled by a fast-moving nun.

I told Father Joe my ticket had suddenly become lost, and that I would pick another. This time a little girl with long curls had the winning stub, and she cried ecstatically when Father Joe handed her the doll. Later, when she tugged my fingers and said, "Thank you, mister," I knew I had the best prize of all - a moment that would last.

I didn't cry when I drew the slip with Jesper Parnevik's initial on it, but I wasn't overjoyed, either. I did find some consolation in the fact that I had told someone at the start of the two-day shootout that I thought a long shot would win. Well, I had the long shot of this foursome, and I was ready to bite my tongue.

There was only one piece of napkin left on the bar now, and everyone knew its identity. But that didn't keep Al from pounding his forehead after opening the slip. "Oh, no! he cried, "Greg Norman, the last-hole loser."

Everyone laughed, but not many disagreed with him. That was the Great White Shark's reputation. Oh, sure, he's been one of the best players we've had out there for almost 20 years. He's won the British Open twice and tournaments galore all over the world. But, unfortunately, he's best remembered by many for the championships he's blown in the final minutes of play - at least two Masters and a PGA Championship, among others.

But he's remained one of the game's most popular and most colorful players over the years. He's had a name and an image that separated him from the rest - the gunslinger's hat and stovepipe pants, the rolling walk, the toothy smile and platinum blond hair. And he could always hit it out of sight - a sure way of winning the gallery.

The more I think about it, Norman is an early version of Phil Mickelson, the brilliant shot-maker who seems to have trouble holding onto leads and winning the big ones. Phil gets razzed for this constantly by the media, and yet he sits up there No. 2 on the money list with $4.5 million in his pocket. He deserves more respect, but he doesn't complain.

Norman has never complained either. Indeed, there was a line in Greg's very moving acceptance speech at his recent installation into the World of Golf Hall of Fame that explains this. In paying tribute to his golf idol, Jack Nicklaus, who was on hand for the ceremony, Norman said: "He taught me how to win, and he also taught me how to lose."

He taught him well.

Back to the Skins Game - unique in all the years it's been on the tube on Thanksgiving weekends. They decided to change the format this year to make it a bit tougher to pick up a quick bundle. A player winning a skin didn't collect the money unless he at least halved the following hole. As a result, not a dime had been paid out since the 18-hole match had started the day before.

At the 17th, with the match winding down and the skins piling higher and higher, the excitement also built around the big tube in the grillroom. It was particularly exciting for me because my man, Parnevik, was ready to pick up a whopping $730,000 skin. The only block in his path - and the only thing keeping me from reaching for the pot - was Norman's next stroke.

Al, too nervous to watch, turned his back to the tube, mumbling, "Let him make it. Just this one time."

Few players get the chance to wipe out a negative image with one stroke of the club, but that's exactly what Greg Norman did on that 17th green. He canned his 10-foot birdie putt to put him on the threshold of winning the first skin. And when he validated it with a simple par putt on the 18th, he had $800,000.

But that wasn't all. In the playoff for the 18th hole skin, Norman birdied again on the second extra hole and pocketed another $200,000. And that was a complete sweep of the $1 million pot. Norman, who had not been in the winner's circle since his own event in Australia in 1998, broke all kinds of Skins records with his sweep. But, more important, he shattered the "loser" curse that had haunted him. There are few in this golf world who would dare to call Greg Norman a loser from this day forward. And, seeing him scoop up the money in the pot, Al certainly won't be one of them.

Aside from Norman's startling turnabout, the other stunner was Tiger's failure to win even one skin - or, as a matter of fact, a single dollar. That also might qualify for a notation in golf's record book.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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