BIRMINGHAM -- Around golf, only the happiest stories get out. The press corps has been asking itself all week why a Birmingham cracker had to emit a foul burp before the subject of racism was opened. But the reason is as obvious as the racism. Nothing in golf is told straight.
The press tent at a major tournament constitutes the sportswriters' equivalent of Shangri-La. A number of its occupants, a surprisingly pale lot, decline to venture more than a few feet beyond the portal for fear they might oxidize like the woman in "Lost Horizon." The tent bustles with news of the tour, everyday swatches of ordinary information that could breathe spirit into the mannequins on the caravan if the truth were ever reported.
Except among the public, it is no secret that Greg Norman, the popular choice for penultimate golfer, is held in far less esteem by his fellow competitors. In the press tent, the Australian-Floridian strongman with the straw hair and hatchet face is referred to as "The Great White Shark." In the locker room, he is called "The Great White Carp." The writers treat him as a coming Nicklaus; the golfers consider him a very fine player with a magnificent press agent.
Norman and Britain's Nick Faldo, the best golfer in the world, hide their mutual disdain only from galleries. Payne Stewart, the best American golfer, signals his palpable contempt for Norman only in safe places, like the interview room. Paul Azinger and Norman nearly had a fistfight recently. Constructed out of pipe cleaners, Azinger took a second look at Norman's biceps and demurred. The beatmen enjoyed a lovely laugh, and left it out of the paper.
The players are jealous of Norman, of course, but of his standing not his skill. He has won one-third as many major championships as Larry Nelson, half as many as Andy North. In the United States, Norman has collected a total of none. At 35, a year older than Arnold Palmer was when Palmer stopped winning majors, Norman still is discussed in terms of historic potential. In the meantime, he is the only contemporary player who ranks with Palmer and Nicklaus on the side-money ledger, a more-telling tabulation than official earnings. Without any major titles, Tom Kite is golf's all-time money winner.
Relentlessly recalling Larry Mize's chip-in at the 1987 Masters and Bob Tway's blast-in at the 1986 PGA, the writers describe Norman as snakebit. The golfers point out that neither shot was to tie, and as Fuzzy Zoeller and Mark Calcavecchia demonstrated forcefully, Norman is no lock in playoffs.
He's a big hitter and a big misser who can make the hard shots but not the easy ones. Besides his judgment, the players wonder about his heart. Had he taken a wood off the last tee at Augusta and an iron off the last tee at Troon, Norman might have grabbed both the Masters and British Open one year. He did the reverse. When not to be aggressive, where not to err, which direction never to aim, are eternal mysteries to Norman, whose brain seems to malfunction over and over at the climactic instant. The golfers also read something unsavory into Norman's propensity for playing his way out of tournaments early on and then rushing back into them on Sundays.
While the American writers were building up Norman, their European cousins were tearing down Faldo. They just didn't like him, and still don't. Faldo isn't a hale fellow well met. He once lived down the street from George Bernard Shaw's old house, but must never have touched it.
Faldo and Norman share one of the rarest distinctions in golf. They are mother's sons in a father's game. Literally a stage mother, Faldo's mum saw him as "another Olivier." Considering Nicky's "smashing legs," she thought Nureyev was in trouble too. When Faldo first started fiddling with a golf stick on the porch, she called out swing corrections from the kitchen. Norman's mother, meanwhile, was a low-handicap golfer. As a teenager, he needed all his muscles and a savage swing to keep up with her.
At the British Open last month, Faldo and Norman came to the third round tied and paired. The ancient St. Andrews stage was set for a staring contest that some of the pros suspected might be to the death. It wasn't much of a contest. In that metronomic way of his that Fleet Street still abhors, Faldo added a second British Open to a second Masters. Except for one, fanciful, lipped-out putt at the U.S. Open in June -- the single stroke that kept him out of a playoff -- Faldo might be alive in the Grand Slam today, though 15 strokes off the PGA lead.
Never once looking Faldo in the eye at St. Andrews, Norman fell nine shots out in that excruciating third round. In Saturday's third round, he shot 76 to rest 11 strokes back. The following day in Scotland, Norman regained his golden projection and dynamic walk. He was back breaking par with aplomb. When he holed a nifty putt at 18 that meant nothing, he threw his arms in the air to theatrical applause. He was the one who became Olivier.