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FRUSTRATED GREG NORMAN MAY SIMPLY BE BURNED OUT

Scott Hoch had just completed a 4-under-par 68 in the second round of the Open to climb into contention. When he got to the interview tent, only a handful of reporters showed up.Where were the rest? Staking out the mobile fitness center, where Greg Norman was holed up. After playing the front nine in 1-under 35 Friday morning, Norman withdrew because of an inflamed disk in his lower back.

Normally, this is not headline news. But when anything happens to Greg Norman, it becomes a story.

Norman is the Joe Montana of pro golf. The public can't get enough of him. His good looks, charisma and bold style have made him the sport's top attraction, and he hasn't been shy about capitalizing on his popularity.

The 36-year-old Australian makes an estimated $8 million to $10 million a year in golf endorsements and investments made for him by Mark McCormack's International Management Group. Last year, he led the PGA Tour in earnings with more than $1.1 million, and received the Arnold Palmer Award for the second straight year for best cumulative performance.

With an attractive wife, a healthy daughter and more money than he can spend, what would Norman possibly have to complain about?

"I guess the bottom line is I can't get used to it all being there," he said. "I really feel like I'm a country boy from Australia who all he wants to do is go out and get on a horse and muster some cattle and just be away from it all. That's really the way I am."

After missing the cut at the Masters last April, Norman went to Mexico and the Australian Outback for a month, his first vacation in eight years. He drank beer and went mud-crabbing, and tried to forget what people have been saying about him lately.

In the May edition of Golf Digest, Johnny Miller said, "There are players who say he has the heart of a grape seed." At least one player has labeled him "The Great White Carp." In a Sports Illustrated story, Nick Faldo said he "sucks up' to Jack Nicklaus, his Florida neighbor.

Ray Floyd, the 1986 U.S. Open champion and a close friend, disagreed.

"In my mind, there's not a better player in the world," Floyd said. "He has the ability to absolutely overpower a golf course. He'll be back."

Floyd thinks Norman is burned out. He has played so much worldwide during the past eight years, his batteries need recharging.

"Everybody goes through it," said Floyd. "You can't sustain a high level of play every year. Nobody can."

To his credit, Norman hasn't made excuses. But not surprisingly, the potshots have been painful.

"Everybody seems to throw daggers in my back, but I have never done anything to hurt anyone in this world," said Norman, whose best showing this year was a tie for fourth at the Kemper Open two weeks ago.

"Everybody's entitled to their opinion, so you've got to be thick-skinned and accept that some people might not like you or the way you are or what you've done."

A refreshed Norman expected to contend at Hazeltine Golf Club. Instead, he opened with a 6-over-par 78, then pulled out Friday with lower back and hip problems. Norman, who will lay off until next month's British Open, was clearly frustrated.

"I saw him in the locker room," said former USGA president Sandy Tatum of San Francisco. "He's in a very serious emotional state."

Hard to blame him. Like most great athletes, Norman strives for perfection, especially in the major tournaments.

"A good player has to put pressure on himself," Floyd said. "There's no superstar that lays back. Greg is a superstar."

According to Floyd, the better you play, the more others want a piece of you.

"It's a vicious cycle," he said. "The worst thing that happens when a good player is playing well is the demands of the press. Every time you finish your round, there are about 10 messages to call reporters."

But that comes with the territory. Has Norman spread himself too thin?

"That's impossible," said Floyd. "I've worked my rear end off to get so busy. So has he."