DUBLIN, OHIO -- A slightly confused Greg Norman was looking for his lost golf ball, which he had struck in the direction of a large and adoring gallery following him even through a practice round.
"Okay, where is it?" Norman asked.
A small white sphere soared from deep within the crowd, arched across the rough and landed in smooth fairway.
Perhaps the culprit could not bear the thought of Norman enduring any more poor luck than he has in the past 10 months, when he lost two unnerving and unforgettable major championships. Or perhaps it is that Norman, with ambition and a smile as wide as his shoulders, is quite possibly the most talented and popular player on the PGA Tour today. Whatever the reasons, it is clear the great fortunes and huge misfortunes of the Shark have become a deep affair of the heart to those following him.
Recently, as he strolled off a green after practice, Norman, 32, found himself torn between two warring camps of spectators waiting for his signatures and favors. He hesitated and looked to his left. They roared. He looked to the right. Roared louder. Delightedly, he raised his arms to the left. Huge roar. To the right. Big-time roar.
"I think people feel for me because of what happened," Norman said. "They really can relate to that. I think I've probably gotten more notoriety from what happened than if I had won."
It is obvious the affection Norman receives is unusual; it is the kind usually reserved for winners of five or more major championships, not one, and is vaguely reminiscent of that given to another man of the people, Arnold Palmer. One explanation is that Norman's career has been more adventurous than most, and fans have come to consider him one of those few who in any week, whether it is the British Open or the Kemper Open -- which begins at Avenel Thursday -- is capable of winning at will or losing with grandeur.
Certainly, no golfer has experienced the losses in major championships that he has. Chiefly, there were the unprecedented chip-ins on the final holes, first by Bob Tway at last year's PGA, then by Larry Mize eight months later on the second hole of sudden death at this year's Masters. Last year, he was also runner-up in the Masters, losing to Jack Nicklaus, and led the U.S. Open before failing badly in the last round.
He did win the British Open, meaning he led all four major championships of 1986 going into the final day. But the count stands at one major title and four major disasters, and he has to wonder what will happen to him next.
"I'm now a strong believer that when it's your turn, it's your turn," he said. "And I wasn't at all inclined that way before. There are times when you're playing so good, and nothing happens, it just wasn't meant to be. Then sometimes you win and you say, 'Hey, I wasn't playing that good.'
"I've got to be philosophical about it. The losses are more obvious with me because they were more visible. When you lose back-to-back like that, it's freakish."
As Norman relaxed on a driving range at Nicklaus' Muirfield Golf Course where he was playing in the Memorial, he twirled a set of car keys and remarked that having coaxed his new Ferrari to 145 mph, he would like to try 160. This is a man who likes to push his water jet skis to 40 mph in the middle of the ocean.
This also is a man talking Grand Slam. For if there is a sense that Norman has been hugely victimized by the inexplicable, there also is the sense he has whole fistfuls of major championships to come.
"He'll be fine, as soon as he gets in contention in a tournament he really wants to win," said Nicklaus. "Then it's bye-bye."
A large help in overcoming the losses has been Norman's friendship with Nicklaus. Norman and his family have moved from Orlando, Fla., to the same North Palm Beach development where Nicklaus and his family live, called Lost Tree. They play an occasional practice round together, and have frequently discussed his major disasters, although Nicklaus downplays it.
"Don't remember what I said," he shrugged.
Norman does. Nicklaus lost the 1972 British Open at Muirfield when Lee Trevino chipped in on the 71st hole to save par, and then 10 years later, when Tom Watson holed out for birdie on the 71st hole of the U.S. Open.
"It's happened to him," Norman said. "He always felt that when he was in contention people would play better. They wanted to beat Jack as much as they wanted to win the tournament. We've had long discussions about it. He says things like that are going to happen, and to just keep playing."
Or as Nicklaus puts it, a player who is in contention all the time is going to be victimized part of the time.
Just not eight months apart, and in such staggering fashion. But those losses are also two reasons why, unlike many golfers, Norman maintains that a slam is still possible. Nor does he trouble to hide the fact that it is one of his ambitions.
"I believe I can do it, so I don't mind saying it," Norman said. "Why not say what you feel?"
Another thing Norman feels is that his game is suited to the task, with the length -- he is the third longest driver on tour -- and scrambling ability. But more importantly, he may finally have overcome some foolhardiness he displayed earlier in his career and acquired more of a shotmaker's mentality. "He's better up here," Nicklaus said, pointing to his temple.
"Maturity is the word in the equation," said Norman. "I'm not trying to go for the one-in-20 shot that's going to be a double bogey. But a couple of times I'll still get myself in that situation when I'll go for it. That's my nature."
For those who scoff at a slam, consider Norman's position going into the final round of the four majors in 1986. He led by a stroke on the third day of the Masters, then tied for second behind Nicklaus' miracle round of 66. He led by one going into the final round of the U.S. Open and finished tied for 12th. He led by four at the PGA, and finished second again, when Tway chipped in. He led by one after three days at the British Open, and won.
Before this season, Norman and caddy Pete Bender chatted about the upcoming majors and decided that the courses, all of them long, were suited to his game and might represent a good chance at a slam. To lose the first one, and on a miracle shot like Mize's, was bitterly disappointing.
"It took him at least a couple of weeks to get over it," Bender said. "He was very moody. He had a short fuse. You can't blame him. He's hungry for a major, and that was one gone."
Norman's overall record this season suggests he was not entirely crushed by his major losses. Going into the Memorial, he was 14th on the money list, with earnings of $230,231, and sixth in scoring, with an average of 70.28 per round. He had finished everywhere in top 10, except first.
"A lot of people might think it's been a good year," Norman said. "And if Mize doesn't chip in, it's a whole different thing. But I haven't liked it because I felt I could have won by now."
Bender, who has been with Norman for three years, intends to hang around to watch the rest of it unfold.
"I like a guy who talks about all four," he said.