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Norman Returns To Regular PGA Tour

March 4, 1999

MIAMI (AP) _ Greg Norman should have realized a year ago that his left shoulder was falling apart. No other tournament seems to gauge the state of his game quite like the Doral-Ryder Open.

From the time he first made the Florida swing the unofficial start of his PGA Tour season, Norman has finished out of the top 10 at Doral only twice.

In 1991, he never shot better than 71 and finished in a tie for 36th. He proceeded to have his worst year on the PGA Tour _ no wins and 53rd on the final money list, the first time he finished outside the top 50 since he joined the tour in 1984.

And then there was last year.

Norman failed to break par and missed the cut for the first time at 3-over 147. He withdrew from The Players Championship and then missed the cut in the Masters. Ten days later, he was on the operating table and was done for the year.

What will this year hold for Norman?

He could get an early indication today when he plays his first 72-hole event on the PGA Tour since the Masters.

``At the end of this year, I could be very, very happy,″ Norman said Wednesday.

This would be a great place to start.

Norman has had more success at Doral than any other PGA Tour event. He has won three times, and two of those victories include a course-record 62. Norman’s scoring average at the Blue Monster in 38 rounds is 70.

``I love to play again. I love being out there,″ Norman said. ``I think that’s what I missed the most. I didn’t miss the game, but I missed being out there on the golf course playing at a competitive level.″

How quickly Norman returns to his competitive standards remains to be seen. After missing the cut in the Holden International, the first time he has done that in Australia in two decades, Norman finished second in the Australian Masters when he was beaten by Craig Spence with a birdie on the last hole.

Then last week, he collapsed down the stretch in the second round against Eduardo Romero. Three-up with four holes left, Romero squared the match with one of the best shots of the year, a 7-iron from 169 yards into a foot on the 18th, then won on the third extra hole with a 25-foot birdie putt.

Still, his peers say winning appears to be only a matter of time.

``It doesn’t look like he has been away from the game at all to me,″ Nick Price said. ``He is very strong right now and he has put on a bit of weight, which I think he has tried to do. He’s still got that intensity in his eye.″

Ernie Els said the confidence of being in contention is all that Norman is lacking.

``I think his game is back,″ Els said. ``It’s just pulling the trigger and trying to win tournaments now.″

Even though he has fallen to No. 31 in the world rankings, Norman is the biggest name at what is usually one of the strongest tournament fields of the year.

In fact, Norman once said the PGA Tour doesn’t really start until Doral.

``That’s changed,″ he said.

A look at who is taking the week off indicates that much.

David Duval, who has been skiing in Idaho when not shooting 59 on Sunday, decided to go home to Jacksonville for the first time since New Year’s Day. Tiger Woods opted not to play for the sixth straight week. Mark O’Meara is trying to see if the slopes will do for him what’s it has done for Duval _ he’s in Utah this week.

Els, at No. 4, is the only player in the top seven at Doral this week. A year ago, it had five of the top six players in the world and nine of the top 10 on the PGA money list. Most of it has to do with the Match Play Championship, the first of three $5 million world events added to the schedule this year.

Golf’s elite could no longer wait until Doral to start getting their games in shape for the Masters, not with a $1 million carrot dangling at the end of the stick at La Costa. And not even a $1 million increase in the purse at Doral could change some players’ minds.

Also, players have criticized the redesign of the Blue Course two years ago, when Raymond Floyd added a bevy of fairway bunkers.

``There were a number of years where Doral stood out from everybody else primarily because of its purse and the golf course,″ Finchem said. ``It’s leveled off a bit. We will look at it, but honestly, I can’t be overly concerned. We’ll have a great leader board and a great tournament.″

If Norman is back on his game, maybe Doral will have a great champion again.

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