Tuesday 15 October 2019

Augusta's nearly men hold a special place in our hearts

‘As part of my doomed Norman piece of 1996, I noted that Greg Norman had shown up for every one of 51 second-place press conferences’. Photo: Phil Inglis/Getty Images
‘As part of my doomed Norman piece of 1996, I noted that Greg Norman had shown up for every one of 51 second-place press conferences’. Photo: Phil Inglis/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

It was 2.30 in the afternoon of Masters Sunday at Augusta National and all was well in my world. Having just completed a 1,300-word profile of the anticipated winner, I almost skipped up the hill towards the first tee where the last pairing would drive off in about half an hour.

Certain lines in the piece seemed to strike the appropriate chord. Like the one describing "a remarkable sportsman, whose indomitable self-belief finally delivered the grandest prize of all." And how he had eventually "secured the coveted green jacket."

For the remainder of that fateful afternoon, however, I was to see my carefully crafted prose come undone, paragraph by paragraph, through the passing of every hole. This was April 14, 1996 and Greg Norman was being overwhelmed by the controlled skills of Nick Faldo, 84 years to the day since the Titanic had lost its battle with a different sort of icy obstruction.

By the time the outcome had become inevitable and Norman's six-stroke lead had been consigned almost to wild fantasy, another reality had to be confronted. With the five-hour time difference creating a particularly demanding deadline, I now had to replace the Norman piece with a similar effort on his conqueror.

All of which became my modest contribution to the untold stories behind spectacular failures at golf's so-called cathedral in the pines. And the reverence accorded anniversaries in Augusta's relentless preoccupation with tradition is a source of further pain.

We think of Ed Sneed, who carried a five-stroke lead into the final round of the 1979 Masters only to lose a play-off to Fuzzy Zoeller after he had three-putted the last three greens. I remember sitting down with Sneed in 1998 in New Zealand, where he was working as a commentator on golf's World Cup. And carefully avoiding the Masters, we talked instead about his second-place finish in the Irish Open at Portmarnock later that year.

The other Sunday collapse which immediately comes to mind is that of Rory McIlroy in 2011 when an opening 65 led to a four-stroke cushion entering the final round. And because of his youth and place of birth, we almost shared his distress through each ill-conceived stroke of a crippling back nine.

McIlroy's youth, however, also made his failure very different, when taken with his breathtaking talent. There would be many other opportunities down the line.

But not for Norman. The Australian came to mind last week on noting Sandy Lyle's comments regarding the 30th anniversary of his 1988 Masters triumph.

"Every time I come here, I get chills driving down Magnolia Lane," said the warm-hearted Anglo-Scot, who celebrated his 60th birthday on February 9. "It's always quite an experience for an overseas player like me."

Lyle then acknowledged that his Masters playing days "are numbered", though he's not prepared to call a halt, just yet. "I'm taking things year by year, and when I feel it's time to stop, then I'll stop," he said. "But that's the thing about golf - all of a sudden you might find something in your swing and think, 'Hey, I might have something here.'"

You imagine that for Norman, who is almost exactly three years older than Lyle, such an opportunity would remain priceless. Indeed it prompts speculation as to how much of his reported fortune of $500m the Shark would be prepared to trade in exchange for Masters status, especially against the background of remarks made by a close confidant of his to America's Associated Press.

"It kills him that he can't go into the champions' locker room [at Augusta National]," he said. "It kills him that he can't go to the champions' dinner. It kills him that [Nick] Faldo can play in the Masters for the rest of his life and he can't. It kills him that he does not have a green jacket."

Especially notable was the 1999 Masters in which Norman produced something of a last stand by finishing third. While walking onto the final green in the company of Jose Maria Olazabal on a sun-splashed afternoon, he found himself murmuring as if in a dream: "Is that it?"

Having known so much pain in his quest of a green jacket, he couldn't grasp the idea of quietly-executed skill rather than eye-catching spectacle delivering such a splendid prize. Especially in a final round of 71, which Olazabal shot for a second Masters triumph.

Norman's Augusta swansong came in 2009, as a reward for finishing third behind Pádraig Harrington in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale the previous July. With rounds of 76 and 71, he missed the cut by two strokes. Interestingly, a consolation award of $10,000 was only $6,000 less than he had received when finishing fourth behind Tom Watson on his Masters debut in 1981.

None of the other Majors seem to have inflicted such scars, except possibly the 1970 Open Championship loss for Doug Sanders at St Andrews. You don't hear of Arnold Palmer's three second-place finishes in the PGA Championship, which denied him the career grand slam. Nor the four runner-up finishes which left Sam Snead unfulfilled in the US Open.

As the Masters approaches a climax later today, an appropriate selection of members' green jackets in various sizes will be set aside in the Butler Cabin. In view of his top-three finishes, a size 44 would have awaited Norman on as many as six occasions, while a 42 was there for Scott Hoch, back in 1989.

Even when their competitive lease has almost expired, professionals will still find a good reason for coveting another championship. Which would explain the crushing disappointment of the 1976 winner, Raymond Floyd, after losing to Faldo in a play-off for the 1990 Masters. "At 47, it would have been the greatest thing I'd ever done," he said bleakly.

As part of my doomed Norman piece of 1996, I noted that he had shown up for every one of 51 second-place press conferences during his career up to that point, which is more than could be said for quite a few of his contemporaries. Even the most cruel setback was borne with a patient shrug, but the dignity with which he handled defeat later that day was nothing short of exemplary.

So, what remains now for the ill-fated nearly-men of Augusta National? Perhaps it's the unique consolation of the Masters that we remember its losers so well.

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