“I love you whether you win or lose. But it would be nice if you won.”

— Laura Norman, to her husband Sunday.

TURNBERRY, Scotland — “Four, three . . .

Greg Norman was squaring off on his approach shot. He was in the middle of the 18th fairway, the final hole, and the massive British Open crowd was pushing at the ropes and counting down.

“Two . . .

Norman hunched slightly, bringing his club head to within a grass blade of the ball.

“One . . .

He swung, and that was it. Zero. He never saw where the ball landed. The screaming mob was on the fairway like locusts, surrounding him, cheering him, celebrating him as if he was one of their own — until the platinum-blond Australian disappeared, momentarily swallowed by success.

Gotcha.

A major championship. The first one. How long had he been waiting? Ten years as a professional? A lifetime as a dreamer? Norman, 31, had led the last two majors going into the final round — and lost them both. And in 1984, he dropped the U.S. Open to Fuzzy Zoeller in a playoff.

He was becoming the golfing world’s Ed McMahon, the recognizable name only recognizable because he sets up the biggies. What had he done but come close?

“It was a monkey on my back,” he would say later. “Everybody is always asking why didn’t you win this one, why didn’t you win that one? It can get you down, and I woke up nervous this morning. But this time I said, ‘OK. I’m gonna stay nervous all day.’ “

And only in that sea of hysteria, that romp to the 18th green — where two putts later he would claim the British Open crown — did Greg Norman finally begin to calm down. Help from a friend

It was a long time coming — even though Norman led this tournament since Friday. On Saturday night, he and his wife had been sitting in the Turnberry Hotel restaurant when another blond-haired golfer came over and asked to speak with him. Norman said OK. The two men separated from the table. They talked for a few minutes.

“What did he say?” his wife asked him later.

“He gave me a few tips,” Norman replied. “And then he said, ‘Nobody wants you to win this more than I do.’ “

She smiled. Norman smiled. Coming from Jack Nicklaus, that meant quite a bit.

Especially because it was Nicklaus — or rather Nicklaus’ books — from which Norman first learned the game at age 16 in Queensland.

And especially because it was Nicklaus to whom Norman surrendered the Masters this spring. You remember that, don’t you? Norman missed the green badly — real badly — on the 18th hole and wound up second by a stroke. Bridesmaid again.

No chance of that here. True, Norman did not play what you’d call classic golf Sunday — he hit only five fairways — but every time he got into trouble, he escaped beautifully. Like a Houdini in cleats, the more dire the situation, the more impressive his performance.

“Were you ever worried?” he was asked.

“When I bogeyed five,” he said. “I forced my tee shot on seven. It hooked. I never do that.

“But that’s when Pete (Bender, his caddie) said to me ‘OK, walk the same speed as I do. I can see you’re going too fast. You’re too pumped up.’ “

Norman slowed himself, matching steps with his caddie. By the time he reached the eighth hole, he was at, shall we say, championship pace?

“I sank a birdie on eight, and I said, ‘Well guys, I’m playing too good. Shut the gates.’ ” Savoring the moment

Cocky? Well, yes. A bit. This is the man they call “The Shark,” the guy who goes for greens from the next town away, the guy who — after blowing the lead at the U.S. Open in Long Island last month — hates New York fans and is not afraid to tell you why.

He has a sort of jutting confidence, just on the edge of brashness. But then, you need that when you’re ankle deep in the Turnberry rough. And Norman was there quite a few times Sunday.

The one he remembers — the one most people will remember — came on the par-4 14th hole, when he and a half-dozen stewards had to beseech the crowd to give him enough space to swing. With the flag barely visible, he whacked a 7-iron shot that rose in a low trajectory, fell to earth on the putting surface nearly 200 yards away, and hit the stick.

He birdied. He was ahead by five strokes. The crowd following him was becoming his coronation parade.

“I always wanted to win my first major by a lot,” Norman said, “It’s nice to play with a lead. You can savor the moment. I said to Pete, ‘Let’s just walk slow. I love it.’ “

Of course, he was helped by the rest of the field, which had fallen too far behind in the previous three days of chill and wind and, sometimes, rain. Nicklaus, Watson, Ballesteros were all way behind. Norman, who came into the day at 211, one over, was being rewarded for braving the elements for three rounds, for entering the clubhouse soaked and wind-whipped, and for staying near par when almost nobody else could.

Only Tommy Nakajima, Norman’s playing partner, had any chance to catch him Sunday. And Nakajima — who would finish at 289 — never got any closer than three strokes.

Crowd favorite

Which brings us back to that mob scene on the 18th hole, where Norman was momentarily lost.

“All I could see were the back of people’s heads,” he said. “I tried to get near the BBC truck. I figured they wouldn’t run over that.”

You can forgive the crowd their enthusiasm. Many of them had suffered the dismal conditions for three days, just like the golfers, and now, suddenly both Norman and the sun were emerging as genuine. The moment was ripe for celebration.

When he finally reached the green, Norman had a final-putt chance to break par for the tournament. The only player to do so. He tapped the ball and it rolled close, close, but went past the hole. The crowd sighed. Turnberry had given its message: “You can have me. But you can’t beat me.”

Norman plunked in the finale. The crowd exploded. Even par, 280. In four days, he and Turnberry had fought to a standoff.

But everything else had changed. No more monkey. No more Ed McMahon. This was one for all the second-placers in life, for all the understudies waiting for their big days.

A silversmith inside a small office began to work feverishly on the Open’s silver cup. On went the letters: “Greg Norman at Turnberry, 280 strokes.”

Thirteen minutes later, that cup — and a check for 70,000 British pounds
— was being presented to Norman, while the fans sang his praises.

“You can spend all your money,” Norman said into a microphone, “you can lose everything you have, but you can never lose your trophy. I’m so happy to win this cup here.”

He wiped away a tear. A Concorde jet flew overhead from nearby Prestwick Airport and, apparently informed of the news, dipped a wing in salute to the new champion.

Norman held the trophy high, and with the waves of the Firth Of Clyde slapping in the distance, he planted two kisses on it. The first, perhaps, a goodby to No. 2, the second, a friendly peck at being No. 1.

Gotcha. At last.

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