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Tuesday, Apr. 13 1:19pm ET
Harig: Not the people's choice

It was one of the most important shots of The Masters, a perfectly placed 6-iron that hit softly on the slope at the right side of the 16th green, then ever so slowly trickled toward the cup, where it stopped just 3 feet away.

 Jose Maria Olazabal
Jose Maria Olazabal was not the man most fans wanted to wear the green jacket.

When Jack Nicklaus hit a similar shot 13 years ago during the final round of The Masters, the scene was one of delirium. Same thing a few moments earlier on Sunday, when Davis Love III hit a remarkable chip shot that somehow found the cup for a birdie.

But for Jose Maria Olazabal, the shot produced nothing more than polite applause, a reluctant realization that the crowd favorite was not going to win.

Olazabal's clutch birdie all but clinched The Masters. And when he holed out on the 18th green with a two-shot victory over Love and a three-shot advantage over Greg Norman, it was more than apparent the Spaniard was not the people's choice.

"I knew before teeing off that everybody was going to be rooting for Greg," Olazabal said. "I said to myself, 'Prepare yourself for it.' I really did enjoy that cheering and shouting. That's what makes this tournament special."

No disrespect intended for Olazabal, who has now won two Masters and became just the fourth champion since 1981 to play the back nine on Sunday without a bogey. But for the second time in four years, there was a feeling of despair at the tournament, almost as if the wrong player had won.

That is the kind of respect and admiration Norman receives from golf fans, especially at Augusta National. They are well aware of his shortcomings in the world's most famous tournament. Three years ago, he blew six-shot lead in the final round to Nick Faldo. He now has nine top-six finishes in 19 Masters appearances.

"I was more disappointed in '96 than I am now," he said. "No question about that. That was a totally different animal tournament-wise. This was a successful week and a sad week all rolled up into one."

At age 44 and just a year removed from major shoulder surgery, Norman was glad to get in the battle again. But when the tournament was on the line, he could not produce the shots necessary to win.

Maybe he should be praised for getting so close again. Nobody has put himself in position to win in the past 15 years as often as Norman. And it's not like Norman has been without success. He is, after all, the PGA Tour's all-time leading money winner.

And Norman deserves kudos for contending so quickly. Although Norman has been playing golf for some six months after returning from surgery, he's not been tournament tested. This year, he had played in just four events leading up to The Masters. He finished second at the Australian Masters, was defeated in the second round of the World Match Play, tied for 19th at Doral and missed the cut at The Players Championship.

But the near miss only adds to Norman's legacy. He has won two British Opens, but how many majors could he have? There have been playoff losses in all four major championships, runner-up finishes eight times.

This time, there was no collapse as there was in 1996, no miracle shot, as Larry Mize produced in 1987, no blunder at No. 18, as Norman missed a playoff with Nicklaus by one shot in 1986.

He did, however, fail to seize his opportunity again. After emerging from the 13th green tied with Olazabal, he made successive bogeys at the 14th and 15th holes. There is no shame in making bogeys at Augusta; it happens to everyone. Olazabal, for instance, bogeyed three straight holes on the front nine.

Yet Norman always seems to find an inexplicable way to do so. After falling behind with a bogey at No. 14, he missed the green at the 15th with a sand wedge from 98 yards. Not only did he miss the green, he found a bunker. That's simply inexcusable for a player of Norman's ability. And it cost him. Again.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Norman from here. He, of course, does not need tournament golf. He could walk way with his head held high. But he appeared more comforted than bothered by his performance.

"I don't see any reason to hang them up and go do other things," Norman said. "I never doubted my ability to put myself back in the position to win. Whether it's a major championship or a tournament.

"The thing you have to understand is when you've won a lot and been in position a lot, sometimes you want it back quicker. That's why I've learned to take my time and let it happen and let it flow. But I didn't doubt my ability to get back."

Perhaps his fans will have a chance to cheer him once again.

No 60s
For the first time since the final round of the 1972 Masters, an entire round was played without a single player shooting in the 60s at Augusta National. The last time it happened, Jack Nicklaus shot a final-round 74 to win his fourth green jacket by three strokes.

On Sunday, the lowest round was a 70 by David Duval. Olazabal's 71 was just one of seven scores under par.

Conditions like that make the possibility of a player shooting all four rounds in the 60s appear very remote. Even Tiger Woods, who won with a record score of 18-under 270 in 1997, couldn't pull it off, shooting a 70 in the first round.

"The greens here are too elusive for anyone to shoot in the 60s in all four rounds," said two-time champion Ben Crenshaw.

New qualifications
Beginning next year, players who win PGA Tour events will not automatically qualify for The Masters. That was among several changes made to the qualifications for invitation.

Instead of the top 24 from this year's tournament earning an invitation, the number has been reduced to the top 16.

Among other changes: the top 40 on the final PGA Tour money list (up from 30); and the 50 leaders on the final Official World Golf Ranking at the end of the previous year and again the fourth week prior to The Masters.

"I think the changes we've made have strengthened our field," said Masters chairman Hootie Johnson. "Change has come about in the World Golf Ranking, and while we think it's not perfect, it is a good benchmark for qualifications."

Where was Tiger?
Why did Tiger Woods struggle? He has failed to shoot in the 60s since his victory in 1997, and this time there appears to be a good reason. Putting.

Although Woods led the field in greens hit in regulation, he was second to last among players who made the cut in the putting stats.

Record watch
At the PGA Seniors Championship this week, Hale Irwin will attempt to match a long-standing record by winning the tournament for a fourth straight year. Walter Hagen won the PGA Championship when it was contested at match play every year from 1924-27.

"I'm not certain I would ever want to compare myself to Walter Hagen," Irwin said. "I'm delighted to have an opportunity to become a footnote in history. There are some special moments that come along that truly are significant and that you give some thought to.

"But I don't like to get too far out on that branch. Often, it will break behind you."

Bob Harig, who covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, writes a column every Tuesday for ESPN Golf Online.

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