For Greg Norman, a British Open that started out as such a wonderful and completely unexpected fairy tale story came with a very familiar ending: he entered Sunday's final round with a two stroke lead and finished up in a tie for third, six strokes behind winner Padraig Harrington, who claimed this title for the second year in a row. This is the seventh time that Norman held or shared the lead in a Grand Slam event going in to the final round but did not win the tournament; he won the 1986 British Open after having a 54 hole lead and he also won the 1993 British Open despite trailing going into the final round. Those are Norman's only Grand Slam wins, though he famously "won" the so-called "Saturday Slam" in 1986: Norman led after the third round in all four majors only to come up empty each time other than his British Open victory.
When Norman electrified the golf world by taking the lead in this year's British Open, the Chicago Tribune's Mike Downey rightly noted that no one should feel sorry for Norman because of his previous disappointments in the final round of Grand Slam events. After all, Norman still must be considered one of the greatest golfers of all-time. He topped the end of the year Official World Golf Rankings seven times (1986-87, 89-90, 95-97) and finished second on three other occasions (1988, 1993-94). Only Tiger Woods (nine) has ranked first at the end of the year more times than Norman has. Norman spent a total of 331 weeks ranked as the number one golfer in the world, second only to Woods' 504 weeks at the top--and the next closest competitor is, frankly, not even close: Nick Faldo was ranked number one for 98 weeks. Norman was the leading money winner on the PGA Tour in 1986, 1990 and 1995 and in 1989-90 and 1994 he won the Vardon Trophy for posting the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour.
It is hard to understand or explain why such a talented and highly accomplished athlete has fallen short so many times in Grand Slam events. It is easy to mock Norman as a "choker," but that label is clearly inappropriate regarding this year's British Open: he set a record by becoming the oldest player to hold the 54 hole lead in a major championship and finishing third is quite an accomplishment for a 53 year old who hardly even plays golf anymore. This result is so much better than anyone could have reasonably expected that it cannot be classified as a failure for Norman, particularly considering how well Harrington played in the final round.
As for Norman's disappointing Grand Slam finishes during his prime years, they are frankly quite puzzling; he obviously won a lot of big events in order to maintain his world number one ranking, so it's not like Norman does not know how to manage final round pressure and emerge victorious. I don't believe in luck but Norman seemed to have a lot of bad fortune that directly coincided with good fortune for his opponents in those situations. Perhaps the best explanation is that the traits that make Norman great also leave him vulnerable: he is a confident, aggressive golfer, so the same bold strokes that enable him to carve out big leads can also result in bogeys at the most inopportune times.
Woods is something of an "anti-Norman" in terms of Grand Slams. While Norman will forever be known as the Shark who let many "fish" get away, Woods has never lost a Grand Slam after having the 54 hole lead. As I mentioned in a July 23, 2007 post titled "The Difference Between Winners and Champions," "I hear golf analysts make much of the fact that on the one hand Woods rarely gives up a lead on Sunday but on the other hand he has never come from behind on Sunday to win a major. I think that the former is much more significant than the latter. When Woods has his 'A' game, as he would put it, he wins, point blank--he gets a lead, he keeps it and they put his name on the trophy. When he has his 'B' or 'C' game, he still may be in contention just because he is so good but someone else who is having the tournament of his life may end up winning."
According to the standard that I mentioned in that post, Woods is a "champion" while Norman is a "winner" but I wonder if in this case that harsh distinction is really fair or accurate. Norman spent the better part of a decade ranked as the number one player in the world in his sport and he did win two Grand Slams. Even though Norman has come up short so many times in Grand Slams, I must say that he is still a champion--just not as great a champion as Woods, who seems to be on a path to become the greatest champion in golf history and one of the greatest champions in sports history.