Poor Greg Norman. That is incorrect, of course – Greg, now aged 61, is far from poor. Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods apart, no golfer has ever parlayed his on-course skills into so much money for pouring into (possibly) off-shore accounts. He was officially the world No. 1 for a total of 331 weeks, second only to Woods, who got to 663. Notoriously, though, in the context of golf’s major championships, the former golden wonder boy of Australian was an under-achiever, winning just two, both of those in Britain: the Open Championships of 1986 and 1993.
For a man whose life was essentially American, Greg was star-crossed when it came to that country’s biggest championships. In 1986, he completed the ‘Saturday Slam’, leading all four majors after three rounds but winning only at Turnberry. Indeed, during his career Norman lost playoffs for all four major championships, under three different formats. The two occasions we’re considering here were none of those but they represented serious sporting heartache: the Masters Tournament of 30 years ago and the one of 20 years ago.
The 1986 Masters is mostly remembered for the incredible victory of Jack Nicklaus, winning the last of his 18 majors on a glorious spring Augusta afternoon at the age of 46 with a closing round of 65; remembered also for the collapse of Seve Ballesteros, who seemed to have the title in his hands until he drowned his golf ball in the pond on the 15th. Quite how close Norman came to winning is often overlooked, maybe because with five holes to play he seemed out of it. Four successive birdies from the 14th altered that and on the 18th tee he was par-four away from a playoff, a birdie-three away from ruining the Nicklaus fairytale. His second shot was a 4-iron from 175 yards. (Uphill, granted, but these days that’d be about a 9-iron.) His ball didn’t find the green. It found the gallery. Worse, he’d short-sided himself. He pitched to 15 feet but the putt went by the hole and his chance had gone.
Three months after that, Norman would win his first major, that Open in Scotland. By the time he arrived at Augusta ten years later, he’d added his second Open. When he opened up with a course-record equalling nine-under-par 63, he looked set fair at last to nail down that elusive Masters victory. (He had lost a playoff to Larry Mize in 1987.) Subsequent rounds of 69-71 gave him a significant lead with a round to play, a six-shot advantage over Nick Faldo (the third man on that all-time No. 1 list at 97 weeks), who had won the Masters twice among his five majors. Attending a golf writers’ function that evening, the British journalist Peter Dobereiner bumped into Norman as he was leaving the locker-room. “Well, Greg,” he said in friendly fashion, “I don’t think even you can f*** it up from here.”
Faldo had other ideas. He had birdied the final hole to get himself into the last group with Greg. He knew, as did Norman, that in the third round of the 1990 Open, he had played with Norman and shot a 67 to his rival’s 76. Why could lightning not strike twice? And by the time they reached the 9th tee, Norman’s lead had been halved. It was game on again. But for only four more holes.
Norman’s approach to the 9th was too short and it rolled back off the green. Bogey. He missed the green at the 10th. Bogey. He three-putted from 15 feet at the 11th. Bogey. At the par-three 12th, his tee shot landed on the bank and rolled inexorably into the water. Double-bogey. Making nothing more remarkable than four straight pars, Faldo had picked up five shots. There was no danger of him throwing it away. With the pressure off, Norman birdied the 13th and 15th, both par-fives, but so did Faldo. In the end, it was worse than it had been at St Andrews: 67-78. Faldo won by five for his sixth major. For Norman there would be the odd close call again but no big-time redemption. When his playing days were over, Augusta National still owed him, but it never paid him back.
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen