Times Staff Writer

Nearly a year has passed since that sunny Sunday in Augusta, Ga., when Greg Norman, very possibly the greatest golfer in the world, went into the final round of the Masters golf tournament leading the field and went home shaking his head in wonderment, not at being beaten, but at being beaten by the greatest of greats, his boyhood hero, Jack Nicklaus.

Not long thereafter, near his home in Orlando, Fla., Norman was enjoying himself playing in a four-man novelty event called the "Shark Shootout," a benefit he organized to raise money for the Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital. He was in great company, playing alongside Nicklaus, Palmer and 1986 U.S. Open champion Raymond Floyd.

At the event's conclusion, a dinner was held, at which Nicklaus got up and gave a little talk about the exasperation he had experienced prior to the Masters, missing cuts, playing lousy, making only $4,000 or so in the tour's first three months. It seemed, Nicklaus said, as though he could do absolutely nothing right until the Masters.

Norman, seated nearby, shouted: "Why the hell did you have to pick that week to play good?"

The audience erupted in laughter, and so did Nicklaus. He was wiping his eyes, laughing so hard.

"I didn't know you were going to choke like that," Nicklaus finally shot back.

There is nothing in the world that Norman, 32, enjoys more than a little give-and-take, on or off the course, with Nicklaus, who is 14 years his elder. Norman did not even begin to play golf until he was a teen-ager in Queensland, Australia, and was given by his mother a book on golf that Nicklaus wrote.

All these years later, on a recent morning at the Huntingdale Golf Club here in Melbourne, where Norman would, for the fourth time, win the Australian version of the Masters, the "Great White Shark" could still remember vividly his first encounter with the "Golden Bear."

"I'll never forget it," Norman said. "It was the 1976 Australian Open, and at the first tee I could see there must have been 20,000 or 30,000 people lined down the fairway, and I had never played with Jack before, and I idolized the man. I was so nervous, I topped it off the first tee."

Nicklaus has a pretty good memory, too, although his recollection tells him Norman was 19 years old at the time, and the dates of the tournament would make him more like 21. "I've enjoyed watching Greg grow through the years," Nicklaus says, now that Norman has all but succeeded him as the king of clubs, and has definitely become the blond having the game's most fun.

They will get together again soon at Augusta, where once again Norman will launch a bid for the Grand Slam. No one in quite some time has come so close as he did in 1986. He led after three rounds at the Masters, the British Open, the U.S. Open and the PGA, although he won only the British.

Well, not only the British. Norman, all told, all over the world, won 10 tournaments last year, including a string of six in a row that mounted a temporary challenge to the thought-untouchable record of Byron Nelson of 11 straight tournament victories. Norman won the rich Las Vegas Invitational and Kemper Open, the British, the European Open, Suntory World Match Play, Dunhill World Cup Team and four consecutive Australian events, the Stefan Queensland Open, New South Wales Open, South Australia Open and West Australia Open.

It was at the British Open at Turnberry, Scotland, where the Shark finally got a monkey off his back, taking one of golf's majors for the first time. In terrible conditions, he scrambled to a 74, then put together an amazing 63, then managed another 74 in the rain, then closed out with a 69 in good weather that included so many good shots, he considered it a much better round than the 63.

On the Saturday night following the third round, with the pressure mounting, Norman was dining at his hotel across the street from the course when he was approached by Nicklaus, who was out of contention. Nicklaus pardoned himself and asked Norman if he would care to take a couple of minutes for a talk.

A couple of months earlier, at the Masters, Nicklaus had completed his final round and was watching the television in Bobby Jones' cabin near the 18th hole when Norman hit his second shot. "As soon as I saw his backswing, I said, 'I don't know if the ball's going to end up by the hole, but he didn't make a good swing at it.' And as you remember his ball went way out to the right, and of course he bogeyed the hole." Naturally, Nicklaus was in no position to help Norman at the time, since it was already the 72nd hole of the tournament and he was fighting for the championship himself. Out of courtesy, he had to wait until much later to mention the thing about the swing.

In Scotland, he had no such concerns. "At the British Open, I saw him repeat that swing on a couple of holes at the Saturday round," Nicklaus said. "And I thought he might like to know why he did it. I was pretty sure why he did. So, I went to him and said, 'Greg, I don't want to be presumptuous, but what I mentioned to you about your swing after the 18th at Augusta, well, I saw you do it three more times today. If you'd like me to tell you about it, I will, but if you don't, I'll be happy to keep my mouth shut and walk away.'

"He said, 'Oh, no, I'd like to know. I didn't like those swings, either.' So, I told him that under the pressure of the tournament or whatever, I saw that he'd gotten a little more left-hand pressure on his grip, and it was affecting his swing. And we talked about it for a while. I don't know if he used the advice or not, but I know I would have felt bad if he hadn't won the tournament after that. I think I was as happy as he was to see him win his first (major) tournament."

The idolatry Norman has always felt toward Nicklaus has a lot to do with accepting guidance from him. On the other hand, despite their age difference, the two men also remain friends because they are not shy about busting one another's chops now and then, as evidence by the exchange at the Shootout.

"A lot of people are intimidated by him," Norman said. "They see Jack Nicklaus the golfer and they forget he's also Jack Nicklaus the fella. He knows I admire him, but I'm not afraid to give him a hard time. I'll yell out, 'Hey, Jack! You couldn't outdrive me in a million years! You could stand up there all day!' And he gives it right back."

So many people have come to regard Norman as "the new Nicklaus" that they have great expectations for him--perhaps too great. He has only one major championship behind him to Jack's 20, and yet their names are expected to be forever linked. Tour competition is better than ever, yet it is understood by some that Norman will rack up one major after another in the years to come. Perhaps beginning with the next Masters.

Paul Cellano, one of Norman's closest friends and the club pro at Grand Cypress in Orlando, Norman's virtual home away from home, might be biased toward his friend, but believes the world of golf will be his. "He certainly has the potential to rank up there with Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gary Player, whoever, and he definitely has the desire. You don't have a whole lot of athletes with that. I don't think a Grand Slam is out of the realm of possibility at all."

Norman's view of the matter: "Well, I think 1986 was a start for me, and hopefully I can convert that start into something good. I can project myself into the future a little better now. I'm not out to make $50 million or $100 million or anything like that. All I want to do is go out and enjoy what I do, win some tournaments, win some money, and maybe be remembered in golf in a pretty good way. That's all I want."

Then, he says, 15 or 20 years later, once his two children are grown and the seniors tour is beckoning, Norman has other plans. "I've already spoken to my wife about it. I'd like to buy a cattle farm and move back to Australia and do what I've always wanted to do--live in the middle of nowhere and be a regular old farm boy."

It is the morning before a round at the Australian Masters, and before you can say "driver, please," Greg Norman is driving a companion crazy. Behind the wheel of a borrowed Jaguar, he is whipping through the streets of Melbourne, zipping down the left side of the road, weaving in and out of traffic, driving like Mad Max. He pulls into a narrow alleyway at high speed, hits the brake hard, then turns and looks at his white-knuckled passenger.

"Frustrated race-car driver," he says, and gets out.

Into the side door of an office building he goes. It is the company where Norman's golf shoes are manufactured, and he has gone upstairs to pick up a new pair and shoot the breeze with a few of the executives. Striding through the office quickly, like a man heading toward the 18th with a two-shot lead and a two-foot putt remaining, Norman turns heads in the office.

"Morning, Mr. Norman!" a secretary says brightly. "Happy birthday!"

"How'd you know that?" he asks.

"I heard it on the radio this morning," she says.

This is no surprise, because in Australia, Norman is a sporting hero something on the order of Nicklaus in America, except there are not any football or baseball or hockey players of as great a stature to share the glory. Norman is the most famous of Australia's active athletes today, not just one of them. Tennis player Pat Cash, golfers Jan Stephenson and David Graham, sailor Iain Murray, a couple of cricket and Australian Rules Football stars--they are big here, but not as big as Norman. Not even close.

In the office of the shoe-company executives, Norman is roundly greeted. A visiting exec is in from America, and Norman asks if he still resides in Seattle. "Sure. Sports capital of the world," the gentleman jokes.

"Sports capital of greater Oregon," Norman replies.

Back in the car, Norman hits the road and picks up speed. Maybe it's the slow pace of his chosen profession, but away from golf, he is a speed freak. A Navy pilot recently took him up in an F-16 and let him take the controls for a while. At home in Orlando, Norman owns two speedboats, and his driveway is occupied by a Ferrari, an Aston-Martin, a Jaguar, a Rolls-Royce and a 4-wheel drive vehicle, at least for now. One good friend of Norman's describes him as "a car pervert."

Peeling toward an intersection, Norman suddenly spots a young couple riding in the opposite direction in a battered black Jeep. "Oh, God!" he says. "I've got to have that!"

Making a sweeping U-turn, Norman swerves the Jag in and out of two lanes until he finally pulls up alongside the Jeep. "Want to sell that thing?" he calls out to them.

"How much?" the driver responds.

"How much ? For that thing?" Norman asks, smiling brightly. "Hey, turn here. Pull over there. OK?"

The girl in the passenger seat of the Jeep has done what the driver has not, namely, recognized the guy in the Jag, and she is simply staring, glassy-eyed, and grinning.

The two cars pull over to the side and Norman gets out to inspect the Jeep, which is a 1972 model with 70,000 kilometers on it, scratches and nicks all over the sides and white printing in front that says "PEDESTRIAN BASHER." He gives the owner a slip of paper and gets his name.

"That thing is perfect," Norman says later, back in the car. "Every chance I get, I go off into the bush with a bunch of guys and go hunting and just get lost for a while. A wreck like that is just what I need. Plain old transportation."

Next stop before the golf course is a posh men's clothing shop, where Norman, who has a tapered 32-inch waist and prefers bright colors, picks out a couple of shirts and places a few orders. Three men suddenly walk into the store, which is virtually empty save for Norman and the people waiting on him. In a minute or two, it appears that these three Aussie customers are going to glance up and see who's in the store with them and be in for a shock.

Sure enough, one of the men notices Norman and points. The others notice, too. One of them approaches the golfer, excuses himself and sticks out a hand.

"Hi," he says. "We're with Kenny Rogers."

It turns out they are three Americans who are part of the entourage traveling with Rogers and Dolly Parton, who are touring Australia. "I know Kenny would just love to meet you?" the man says. "Would you care for a couple of tickets to tomorrow night's show and then come backstage and say hello to Kenny?"

Norman says he would be delighted, and the next night, at the Kooyong Tennis Stadium where the concert is being held, will do precisely that. Kenny Rogers, in turn, will walk on stage, pick out Norman in the seats up front and do a mock golf swing, a la Johnny Carson.

The guy is definitely big here.

Not so big, though, that he is immune to criticism. Although it is difficult to find anyone who has met the good-natured Norman who doesn't like him, in the car he mentions a well-known American magazine writer who "hates my guts, and never misses a chance to try to humiliate me." And as he approaches the gate of the Huntingdale Golf Club, Norman points to a spot near the driveway where, as he says, "That's where they're going to be waiting for me this week."


"The anti-apartheid people," he says.

Norman, who refuses to refuse to play in Sun City, South Africa, has incurred the wrath of an Australian anti-apartheid lobby as well as a United Nations group that has blacklisted him, and he has been the object of picket lines and protests at two of the Australian events he has entered prior to rejoining the American tour. "I have friends there, black and white, and Sun City is a completely integrated place," Norman argues. He will have a plain-clothes armed guard following him on the course during the Australian Masters, and has instructed his caddy to "deck anyone who makes a move to get close."

Australia's Anti-Apartheid Movement has been trying to convince athletes and entertainers to sign a pledge not to play South Africa, but Norman, adamant on the subject, says: "They can go to hell. I'm a professional golfer and I'll play wherever I want." Sun City's million dollars in prize money convinces some people that Norman's motivation is greed. He says it's friendship and freedom of choice.

Huntingdale is a golf course rife with red flowering gum trees filled with small violet birds. Near the third hole, a par-3, where $25,000 in gold awaits anyone at the Masters who can make a hole-in-one, there is a black 1926 automobile from "Dodge Brothers, Detroit, USA" and a mannequin of a man in a pinstriped suit and fedora, guarding a wheelbarrow of phony gold coins with a toy gun.

One of the souvenir stands at the club is selling Akubra hats, the bushman's hat that Norman, except in exceptionally warm weather, now wears whenever he plays golf. It is more like a cowboy hat than a cap, and they sell for about $50, U.S. money, apiece. Norman has a contract with the manufacturer that could bring him as much as $1 million from hat sales over the next five years. The galleries at the Australian Masters have been full of spectators wearing the hats, and President Reagan won one from Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke in their wager over the America's Cup yacht race.

For himself, Norman chose to play in a black hat after hearing of the death of Graham Keir, a member of the Akubra board of directors who died, at age 46, over the weekend, shortly after speaking to the golfer on the phone.

Money is coming to Norman in many different ways these days, from equipment and product endorsements to prize money to appearance fees. His support of Australian tour events has been known to triple and even quadruple attendance, so tournament organizers feel they get their money's worth as when he gets $50,000, U.S., from the West Australia Open sponsors merely for agreeing to show up.

Norman gives as well as takes. He filmed a TV spot, free of charge, for the Aussie Masters in which he emerges from a Huntingdale pond in a skin-diving outfit to demonstrate, theoretically, that the Shark is back in Australia. And when Fred Malcolm, 15, of Ashley State High School asked the school's most famous alumnus to donate a trophy to the golf team to bear his name, Norman showed up unannounced, delivering the trophy himself, and wound up speaking to a school assembly. While there, he asked to meet an old instructor who "gave me the cane," the down-under version of a teacher's paddle.

An admitted lousy student, Norman was a jock who, to this day, lists his interests as fishing, hunting, snooker, football and so forth. "I've been hooked on sports all my life," he says.

With golf, he only wishes he could have started sooner. "I don't think I ever even picked up a club until I was in my teens," he says. At the Aussie Masters, when he is introduced to a blond schoolboy from Sydney named Matthew who recently scored a hole-in-one at age 6, Norman is delighted. "You'll be shooting in the 50s someday," he jokes.

A sucker for kids, Norman is preparing to tee off on the first hole of the Masters when a child with a camera is being pushed forward by his mother. Norman, about to walk up to his ball, notices the commotion and asks the boy: "Got any film?" The kid nods. "Better get 'em now," he says, and strikes a pose. Then he invites the boy to his side, puts his arm around him and lets a caddy snap the two of them together.

Two days before, also at the first tee, the club's chef presented Norman with an orange-frosted birthday cake in the shape of a shark. And everyone around the tee sang happy birthday to him.

Says his friend, Cellano: "Greg has Arnie's charisma and Jack's talent and dedication. You consider those two things and you realize that he could become the greatest player ever."

It is Norman's energy and relentless practice, not his shot-making, that might well be the strongest part of his game. Cellano has often seen him out by 7:30 a.m. and hitting balls for six hours in 100-degree weather. Charlie Earp, the Australian who taught Norman to play, says Norman has been banned from certain courses for periods of time because by the time he's done leaving divots by the hundreds, it "looks like pigs have been digging there."

Says Norman: "I love to practice six to eight hours a day. I get more pleasure out of that than actually playing, sometimes."

The time he spends practicing and time he spends abroad can leave his wife, Laura, alone with their two children for weeks at a time. Norman lived alone in a hotel suite during his recent three-week stay here, and ran up a $200 bill wiring Valentine's Day roses alone.

They met on a plane after the 1979 U.S. Open. "I was an air hostess and we were delayed over New York, and his manager introduced us," Laura says. "The next thing I know, Greg asked me to come to the British Open to see him play, right there on the flight. I said, 'This guy's crazy. I don't even know him.' But we had a drink that night, and he called me in New York and came to see me, and a couple of months later, I went to England."

She misses him when he is gone, but at least she doesn't have to watch him eat breakfast. In the morning, as a steak is served to him, he tells the person across from him: "Don't be surprised at what I'm about to do." What he does is take several small packets of honey and smear the contents all over the steak before eating it. "Gives me all the energy I need to get through 18 holes of golf," he says.

Shark food.

A few days later, in front of the pack by nine strokes, Greg Norman is once again the winner of the Australian Masters. Not to say that they swiped the idea from the U.S. Masters, exactly, but the ceremony for the winner includes the moment when he slips into the traditional champion's jacket--a gold jacket.

"You know what goes good with gold?" Norman asks later. "Green."

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