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For Greg Norman the countdown begins this week when he starts
his 1997 season at the Dubai Desert Classic in the United Arab
Emirates. Zero hour will come on Thursday, April 10, at Augusta
National, the place where he came apart a year ago. Did Norman's
closing 78 in the Masters destroy him or, by failing to kill
him, make him stronger? The ghoul in all of us wants to know.

Not that it's macabre to believe that something vital might have
snapped deep inside Norman when his six-stroke lead over Nick
Faldo proved so brittle. For the next six months the No.
1-ranked player in the world finished no better than fifth on
the Tour. His back began to hurt, his face hardened into a
sullen mask, and only a lone no in a family vote, by his
11-year-old son, Gregory, kept them all from moving back to
Norman's native Australia. Although he regrouped at the end of
the year, after enlisting the aid of Faldo's Svengali, David
Leadbetter, to win the Australian Open and the Andersen
Consulting World Championship, hard-boiled observers viewed
those wins as a dying rather than a regenerative twitch.

But to bury Norman is to dismiss his past. He has made a career
out of drawing power from his disappointments, and if he can do
it again, Norman will have a free run at this year's Masters.
That's the upside to the most horrifying collapse ever in a
major. It has given him the power of a man who has hit bottom
and let him shed the artificial aura of the Great White Shark.
Norman can go for broke with impunity this time because the 11
shots he lost to Faldo on the final day destroyed his reputation
as a force in the majors. While Tiger Woods will be burdened
with the extra attention and pressure that go with being the
favorite, Norman will come to Augusta with more to gain than to

This Masters is the big chance for golf's alltime "nearly man."
A victory would arguably be as popular as Jack Nicklaus's epic
triumph in 1986, and although a win would only be Norman's third
in a major, such a dramatic turnaround would go a long way
toward erasing the stigma of previous failures and would mark
him as a player for the ages. Surely he knows it. For the last
two months Norman has worked hard to prepare himself physically
and mentally. He turned 42 on Feb. 10, and despite a long-held
belief that his best golf will come in his 40s, he knows that
time is running out. "For the next six weeks," says a close
friend, "he's doing nothing but getting ready for Thursday
morning at Augusta."

Norman has gone all out for the Masters before, sometimes with
disastrous results. The pressure he has put on himself in the
majors has been enormous and generally too much to handle. Seven
times he has led or been tied for the lead going into the last
round, and only once, at the '86 British Open, did he win. "Greg
hasn't often played with the inner peace that makes pressure
more manageable," says a contemporary. "As well as he plays, you
just sense things are building up mentally. Down the stretch in
a major, I wouldn't want to have his stomach."

But if something did die inside Norman last year, it might have
been the demons that have gnawed at his gut. As he embarks on
his latest comeback, Norman is taking a softer, more
philosophical approach. "My head is cleaned out and ready to
go," he says. Norman seems to realize that equilibrium might be
the weapon that he has lacked all along. "In the past my goals
have been golf related, but I'm not interested in riding just
that horse anymore," he says. "There's a lot more to life, and
I'm just starting to understand that. My goal now is to be the
best person I can be. And that may help my golf."

It has already helped him come around to a healthier view of his
Masters flameout. "I flat screwed up," says Norman, who once
absurdly insisted that he had hit only two bad shots in the
final round. "But last year was last year. This year I'm going
to enjoy the challenge of playing, and the challenge of
answering the questions."

After warming up in Dubai, Norman will get a chance to make his
first serious statement of the season at next week's Doral-Ryder
Open, where he's the defending champion. Last year's victory
seemed to indicate that Norman would be able to stand up to the
pressure if he got into contention at Augusta. A month later
that theory was blown apart.

Here's another hypothesis. We haven't seen the last of Greg
Norman. It's more likely--because he no longer has to fear the
worst--that we haven't even seen the best.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [Greg Norman golfing]