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Jilted, not jaded: Despite heartaches, Greg Norman loves Augusta

April 4, 2014 - 1:21 am
England's Nick Faldo (right) and Australia's Greg Norman walk off the 18th after Faldo won his third  Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 1996.
England's Nick Faldo (right) and Australia's Greg Norman walk off the 18th after Faldo won his third Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 1996.
By Scott Michaux |

 

Greg Norman won British Opens at Turn­berry and Royal St. George’s. He won 89 events worldwide in iconic places such as Royal Melbourne, St. Andrews, Sawgrass and Congressional. He’s designed more than 70 courses on six continents and has his own vineyard.

Yet perhaps the one place in the world Australia’s Great White Shark is most associated with is the one course he couldn’t conquer: Augusta National Golf Club.

Despite repeated heartbreaks in Masters Tournaments that seemed his to win, Norman still has a soft spot in his heart for Augusta.

“Tom Watson always felt that Oakmont was always his friend, even though he never won around there,” Norman said. “I always thought Augusta was my lover. Because I do love it. Everything about Augusta, I love.”

It was an often excruciating love. He was in love even before he first set foot on the property for his Masters debut in 1981.

“When I was growing up, that’s all I watched was Augusta,” he said of his days in his native Queensland. “I didn’t watch the British Open. I didn’t watch the U.S. Open. I didn’t watch the PGA. It was the Masters. We just had highlights.”

The highlight he remembers most was in 1975 when Jack Nicklaus drained a crucial putt on the 16th hole and leapt into the air with his putter held high.

“I do remember that pose, the photograph, the grainy image on the TV screen,” Norman said. “I do remember that one.”

So when Norman showed up as a rookie in 1981 and took a share of the first-round lead with 69, it was a harbinger of things to come. He started 23 times in the Masters, finishing runner-up three times, third three more times, with two other top-fives, including a fourth by three shots in that 1981 debut.

“The one that people don’t really talk about is ’81, my first year,” said Norman, who was in the mix after 36 holes. “I was so naïve, I was such a rookie, I could have easily gone on with that. If I had had one or two people around me that could advise me the right way that Saturday morning and Sunday morning. ... I was so naïve and so raw, my golf skills I didn’t doubt one bit. I had the confidence oozing out of my body. But I just couldn’t refine it all because there was so much going on. You know what I mean? If I had the ability to corral it through good advice, who knows what would have happened?”

Norman at Augusta is a well-worn catalog of disappointment.

There was 1986, when he rallied with birdies on 14, 15, 16 and 17 to tie 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus for the lead. But Norman hit his 4-iron approach wide right of the green on 18 and failed to get up-and-down for a par to lose by one.

“When I look back at ’86, every time I’ve been involved with golf, and Augusta is part of golf, I’ve been just a great verse in a fantastic play,” he said. “So you sit back and go, OK, look at the big picture. It was really good for Jack. Was it good for Greg? You know what, people were counting me out with four or five holes to go, and I came back and I put myself in a position, all right. But an hour and a half earlier, they were saying, ‘No way he’s going to win, it’s Nicklaus.’ So when you actually strip it down and you see it for the moment‑by‑moment mini‑series that were going on with it, I think it’s fantastic to be part of it.”

Norman’s near-comeback was inspired, but Nicklaus’ last birdie putt on 17 prompted Verne Lundquist to exclaim, “Yes, sir!”

“I remember walking down 14 when he made that putt on 17,” said Norman, who muttered an expletive when he saw Nicklaus raise his putter. “And then you knew, you knew you had to do something, because he was going to take it home from there.”

Norman’s positive vibe carried right into 1987, when he got into a playoff with Seve Ballesteros and Augustan Larry Mize. Ballesteros bowed out with a bogey on the first playoff hole before Mize chipped in from off the green on 11 and left Norman stunned.

“I never expected Larry to chip it in,” Norman said in an Australian television documentary last year. “You know, I didn’t even look at his shot until it was halfway down the green. But when it hit the flag (claps hands) and dropped in, you know it was like, I had to regroup big time. Because I’d never heard a noise like that in my life, because you’re in like an amphitheater there. You could feel the energy and the atmosphere, like, ‘Oh, god.’ It was just incredible. Even when I was over the putt, now everybody’s thinking, ‘Oh, my God, we thought he was going to win, now he’s going to lose.’ ”

Norman wasn’t the only one taken aback by Mize’s shot.

“It was bad luck with somebody doing something that was quite unexpected and unusual,” said Peter Thomson, Australia’s most decorated major champion with five British Open wins. “It was very much the act that (Norman) found difficult to match, and that was that.”

The most difficult, however, came in 1996. Norman matched the course record of 63 in the opening round and seemed headed for a wire-to-wire romp when he carried a six-stroke lead into the final round over Nick Faldo. With all of Australia expecting a long-awaited coronation, Norman melted down with a 78 to lose by five shots to his rival.

“Greg was larger than life at that point,’ Adam Scott said. “By 1996 he was enormous. He’d played most of his career by that point. He was in the last few years, where he was really competitive. He’d been No. 1 player in the world for a long time and not just the best Aussie player. We thought, ‘This is it. He’s going to win.’ Because we’d watched him for 10 years going so close, and he had such a great way of getting around that golf course. It suited him. It was the one he wanted. We all just assumed he was going to win after that.”

Norman revealed in the television documentary last year that back issues might have contributed to his collapse.

“There’s more to it than people realize,” he said. “Because I did have bad back issues that morning, and I tried to walk it off, but I couldn’t. I told my coach, ‘Today’s not going to be easy.’ ”

It was brutal, with the memorable images of Norman dropping to his knees in anguish when his chip failed to fall on 15 and bending over in resignation when his last hopes sank in the pond on 16. Yet Norman has a different perspective on 1996.

“When I had that six-stroke lead and it didn’t work, I mean, I was elevated in the world of the public eye by losing, not by winning,” he said a few years ago. “That changed my life, I can tell you that, dramatically, just by the outpouring of e-mails and letters and support that I got. ... So I won in a lot of ways, but I didn’t win the green jacket.”

His last chance came in 1999 when he went head-to-head on Sunday with 1994 champion Jose Maria Olazabal. The momentum leaned toward Norman when he rolled in an eagle putt on No. 13 to prompt enormous roars. But Olazabal calmly rolled in his own 20-footer for birdie on top to remain tied. Norman bogeyed the next two holes and slipped to third.

Norman reflects often on his Masters experiences, but not in the way you might think.

“Only when you guys ask me questions about it,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t wake up in the morning (thinking about 1996) … Believe it or not, I didn’t have any pain. I had disappointment in myself in ’96, right, probably the most one.”

When Scott rolled in a birdie on the second playoff hole and became the first Australian to win the Masters last April, Norman had no moment of bittersweet reflection that it could – perhaps should – have been him years before.

“No. And I mean that 100 percent,” Norman said emphatically. “Never in that situation did I ever think that. My time was done. See, I don’t look back. I’ll talk about the past, but I don’t sit back and say, ‘God, I wish that was me.’ Never do. I know how hard success is to achieve, so when somebody achieves success, I’m very, very happy for them, and I’m proud of them. There’s not a jealous bone in my body, so I like to see people do better than what I’ve done. So, no, I’ve had my time.”

Scott thanked Norman in his Butler Cabin interview for his inspiration and support.

“I think it was the right time, and Greg was worthy of a mention at that point whether it was me or someone else who won it,” Scott said. “He deserved the credit for everyone since him playing golf in (Australia) because he was larger than life. If there was a Tiger Woods before Tiger in Australia it was Greg Norman. He inspired a nation. He inspired a whole group of young kids from Stuart Appleby to Robert Allenby to Geoff Ogilvy and myself. I felt like I definitely owed him a little moment of respect.”

Norman still plays Augusta National once or twice a year with members. At age 59, he’s not shooting 63 there anymore, especially from the Masters tees, where he still plays from.

“I go back there anyway just to see what it’s like,” he said. “I can still hit it as far as I hit it in the ’80s, but those tees are way back. That’s the big difference.”

Norman has a standing invitation as a former British Open champion to come to the Masters every year and play a practice round and in the Par-3 Contest. But he’s always declined.

“It’s not my place to be there,” he said. “And it’s all with due respect to the players that are in the Masters. It’s all due respect to the Masters champion. I’ve done well in the sport, and yes, it’s great to get an invitation to come back. But I don’t truly believe it’s my place to be there, because this is their week.”

Norman has attended the Masters since his last appearance in 2009, but he has no plans to be there this year, with Scott in the spotlight as the defending champion. What if Scott asked him personally?

“Might be different, I don’t know,” he said. “I probably would still say no, to tell you the truth. It’s Adam’s show, not my show.”

Close Calls: Greg Norman

All signs pointed to a “Norman conquest” in 1996 as he opened the Masters with a 63, matching his good friend Nick Price’s 9-under round in 1986 as the best in tournament history.

A 69 in the second round and 71 in the third put Norman six ahead of Nick Faldo and seven clear of Phil Mickelson going into the final round. Norman and Faldo teed off under perfect conditions that Sunday, and it didn’t take long for Norman to show signs of vulnerability. He bogeyed the first hole but came back with birdie at No. 2, then bogeyed Nos. 4 and 9 for 38. Faldo played the front in 2-under 34, and as the two set off on the final nine, the margin had been reduced to two.

The pressure was now squarely on Norman, who promptly bogeyed Nos. 10 and 11 and saw the rest of his lead disappear. Faldo applied more pressure on the 12th when he hit the green with his tee shot. Now it was Norman’s turn, and his iron shot hung out to the right. The ball hit the bank and trickled into Rae’s Creek, leading to double bogey.

Augusta’s patrons, not to mention millions of television viewers, were in shock. Norman now trailed by two.

Norman matched Faldo over the next three holes with two birdies and a par, but at 16 he hooked his tee shot so far left that it found the pond that guards the green, and the resulting double bogey left him down four. After that tee shot, Norman bent over at the waist and stared at the ground, and the resulting image became the cover shot for the next week’s Sports Illustrated.

It was over, and Norman’s 78 to Faldo’s 67 left him five behind, and it set a record for futility as the biggest blown lead in major championship history.

Norman was gracious in defeat, and he put it in perspective in his session with reporters after the round.

“I let this one get away,” Norman said. “I’ll wake up tomorrow morning still breathing, I hope.”

– John Boyette, sports editor