Paul Kimmage: Once you get a taste of being in contention at The Masters it can drive you nuts
On a late Saturday evening in April 1996, Greg Norman handed his putter to his caddie, Tony Navarro, and walked off the practice green at Augusta National. He was the last man on the golf course, and for 15 years had been making the same walk, always turning left when he entered the clubhouse, never taking the stairs to the Champions Room where the legends reigned.
The west wing changing room — the preserve of those who had failed — was deserted when he entered. Unable to find the light switch, he took off his shoes and sat for a moment in the darkness, contented and drained.
"Your last night in this locker room," a friend observed.
"Damn I hope so," Norman replied.
He was 26 years old when he first sat in this place. The year was 1981 and after tying for the lead in the opening round, he had finished fourth behind Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, three of the sport’s biggest names. It was a brilliant debut and Norman had rarely felt happier. He loved Augusta National. That Green Jacket was made for him. But each year it slipped away . . .
But now he was back, and sitting in the clubhouse with a six-shot lead. Not since 1976, when Ray Floyd led Jack Nicklaus, had anyone led by so much going into the final round of the Masters. Floyd had held his nerve and won easily. Norman had similar plans.
He closed his locker and stepped outside and was about to exit the clubhouse when he happened upon Peter Dobereiner, a British golf writer and a friend of long standing. "Well Greg," he enthused, "not even you can fuck this up."
But he did.
Rory McIlroy was six years old when Norman lost to Nick Faldo that Sunday. It was his first memory of the Masters but the drama — Norman’s pallor, Faldo’s ice, the crowd gasping and averting their gaze — was lost on him. It was just winning and losing.
A year later, he joined the golf club in Holywood and registered every shot when Tiger won the Masters. He thought the challenge of the game was the draws, and the fades, and what the players were doing to the ball. But later he would understand. The real challenge of the game was what the ball was doing to them.
My last meeting with Ernie Els was during the US Open a week ago. That was when he took it upon himself to order an Irish colleague and me out of the locker room at the Olympic Club to which, incidentally, we had unrestricted access.
I had sought him out after a third round of 75 in which he finished with two bogeys. The objective was for some preview material for the Murphy’s Irish Open, which he is returning to at Druids Glen next week no doubt in receipt of handsome appearance money.
In the event, Els had had several minutes to cool off, if he needed to, when an official informed us that he would not be coming to the interview area. The official then suggested that my colleague and I might try talking to him in the locker room, though it would be out of bounds to the camera crew.
When we arrived in the locker-room Els happened to be walking towards us. I said, "Ernie, I wonder
. . ." whereupon he responded: "Give me a minute." As I stepped back he suddenly snapped, "Leave me alone." Then, waving an arm he shouted, "Get out of here" as one might address a meddlesome dog.
It was behaviour somewhat at variance with the popular image of him as the ‘Big Easy’.
The Irish Times, June 1998
Ernie Els has always made sport look easy. Gifted at tennis, cricket and rugby he started taking golf seriously at age 14 and beat a prodigy (Phil Mickelson) a year later to win the World Junior Golf Championships. Two years after that he’d won the South African Amateur Championship and was beating the pros.
In his first three Majors — the 1992 Open, the ’93 US Open and the ’93 Open — he had three top 10s. A year later, he was eighth on his debut at Augusta and outplayed Ben Crenshaw, a Green Jacket, in the second round. "You know," Crenshaw said, "you’re going to win this tournament if you keep putting like that."
Two months later, he travelled to the US Open at Oakmont and won the first of his four Majors at the age of 25. Golf had a new superstar; the Big Easy was born.
And then the game started to get hard.
In 1995, he blew a three-shot lead in the final round of the PGA Championships at Riviera; three second-place finishes at the Open, two second-place finishes at the PGA, one second-place finish at the US Open. But it was the Masters that revved his engine.
"GET OUT OF HERE!"
The ’04 loss was devastating. He had played the final 12 holes in six-under and was standing on the practice green with his caddie Ricci Roberts, preparing for a play-off, when Mickelson holed an 18-foot birdie to win. "When you heard the roar, it was like somebody reached into your chest and pulled your heart out," Roberts explained. "Ernie didn’t throw it away, he just got beat."
But that didn’t stop the pain.
For the next two years, he was a dead man walking at Augusta but a practice round with Gary Player before the ’07 tournament seemed to renew his belief. "He walked up to me on 17 today," Els explained, "and said, "This is the best I have ever seen you play. This should be your best chance ever."
But Player had just thrown petrol on a fire.
Two days later, as he prepared for his 13th Masters, Els seemed jumpy and agitated on the range. He was chewing gum — his pressure release — like it was going out of fashion and began the round with a pull hook, his Achilles heel, into the trees and a double-bogey six. Five hours later, he was 11 over par and looked a beaten man as he marched toward the clubhouse.
His caddie that day now works for Rory McIlroy.
What if JP Fitzgerald was destined never to win the Masters?
A glorious Sunday afternoon in February at the Riviera Country Club on Sunset Boulevard. Rory McIlroy raises his right arm and acknowledges the roars of the crowd. The 18th at Riviera is one of the game’s great finishing holes and Rory, one of the game’s true stars, has delivered some stardust: a monster drive on the blind uphill tee shot; a well-struck iron from primary rough that just misses the green; a sublime wedge from 20 feet that ignites the crowd as it rolls and drops for birdie; a deafening chant as he marches with Adam Scott towards the clubhouse . . .
But all is not as it seems.
Five hours earlier, he had started the final round of the Northern Trust Open two shots behind the leader Bubba Watson and bristling with intent: "I’m going to eagle the first and put the shits- up Bubba," he smiled, walking to the tee. He boomed a drive down the fairway, lasered an iron to the green and holed the putt for eagle.
"Go Tiger!" a man shouts, as walks to the second tee.
But the three-putt on four is not Tiger.
And the bogey on six is not Tiger.
And the bogey on seven is not Tiger.
And did Tiger ever start a round two shots off a lead and finish ten shots back?
The birdie on 18 is scant consolation. He scales the hill to the clubhouse and signs his card and his manager, Sean O’Flaherty, is waiting as he exits the recorder’s room: "No media," he says. "We’ve a 20-minute drive (to the airport) and it’s wheels-up in an hour."
Six reporters and a TV crew pursue them down a corridor. Rory stops for a brief interview and has already reached his plane when John Feinstein — the celebrated author, journalist and commentator — is delivering some thoughts on the Golf Channel: "The surprise for me," he says, "was the meltdown of Rory McIlroy."
A week later, he misses the cut at the Honda Classic in Florida. A week after that, he takes a three-shot lead into the final round of the World Golf Championship event in Doral but finishes in a tie for third. Four months have passed since he last won a tournament; eight months have passed since he was World No 1.
And on Tuesday afternoon, when he meets the press on the eve of the Masters — his eighth — he’s using words we have rarely heard him use.
(It affected him last year.)
(He has not won since November.)
(He will not be playing in the Par 3 contest.)
(This is the Major he hasn’t won.)
One question from the floor stood out: "You have an opportunity to do something (a career grand slam) that only five other people in history have done. Do you think you have found the balance between how that motivates you and how that pressures you?"
Rory paused and tilted his head.
"I’ll tell you at the end of the week, I guess."
I understand that fear is my friend but not always. Never turn your back on fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed. - Hunter S. Thompson
Late Tuesday evening, as Rory heads for the gym and a relaxing evening in his rented home in the suburbs, Ernie Els is the last man on the golf course. He has played 18 holes, spent an hour on the range with David Leadbetter, his former coach, and made his way to the practice green.
The place he stood when Mickelson won.
The day they reached into his chest and pulled out his heart.
The day he walked the old walk back to the locker room; always turning left when he entered the clubhouse, never taking the stairs to the Champions’ Room where the legends reigned.
Seventy professional career victories.
Seven World MatchPlay titles.
Four Major championships.
Two World Golf Championships.
No Green Jacket.
"GET OUT OF HERE!"
It’s Champion’s Dinner night and some workers are lingering on the clubhouse terrace, watching the arrival of the great and the good. Ernie is focused on his putting. He does not see his compatriot Trevor Immelman (11 professional career wins, no World MatchPlay titles, no World Golf Championships, one Green Jacket) step from the champions’ car park.
He does not notice Jordan Spieth’s immaculately scrubbed face or his pink tie. The surprise at the menu does not interest him. "It’s a Texas barbeque!"
Nor does Zach Johnson’s reply: "I’m hungry."
He’s not watching when Tiger Woods is whisked into the clubhouse with more guards than Barrack Obama and he is certainly not watching when Phil Mickelson (white shirt, red tie) arrives.
It’s seven o’clock when he leaves the putting green. He by-passes the clubhouse and happens upon a journalist lingering near the carts.
"There’s another green by the range," the man observes. "Why have you come up here?"
"Because they haven’t watered it yet and it’s hard and crusty," he explains. "And there’s no people around."
"I feel like I’m a good enough player. I feel like I’ve got everything I need to become a Masters champion. But I think each and every year that passes that I don’t, it will become increasingly more difficult." Rory McIlroy
It’s one o’clock on Thursday afternoon. Ernie Els walks onto the first tee for his 22nd appearance at the Masters. He has been drawn with Matt Kuchar, a Georgia boy, and Jason Day, the World No 1, but there’s no mistaking the crowd favourite:
"THANKS FOR WHAT YOU’RE DOING FOR AUTISM MISTER ELS!"
He shakes hands with Kuchar and Day, shares a polite exchange with a Green Jacket — there are five members on the tee — and pulls the cover from his driver.
The wind has picked up since morning. Grains of precious white sand are blowing from the fairway bunker.
His first shot of the tournament is a good drive down the right. His second is a good iron that flies a little left and rolls off the green. His third is brilliant — an exquisitely played chip to three feet. It’s a good start. He looks calm. He is not chewing gum.
But his wife, Liezl, is.
He takes his putter and studies the line and steps into his routine. He shuffles his feet. He waggles his shoulders. He is about to putt but someone from the Adam Scott group has missed a short one on the eighth.
He backs away from the ball and composes himself.
He steps back in and shuffles his feet but backs away again. His caddie steps in and they briefly confer but he’s still not happy and backs away from the putt again. And then it starts. He finally pulls the trigger but the ball misses the hole.
He putts again.
And now we can’t watch.
Ernie Els, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, is being tortured on the green.
"I can’t explain it," he says later. "I couldn’t get the putter back. I’ve made thousands of three-footers but I just couldn’t take it back. I don’t know what it is. I can go to that putting green now and make 20 straight three-footers. And then you get to the course and you feel a little different and you can’t do what you normally do."
The American writer Jaime Diaz once observed that every year Greg Norman set off for the Masters he touched down with more baggage than a jumbo jet.
Rory is still flying private but he has been landing at Augusta for eight years now; this place does funny things to people.
Johnny Miller, three times a runner-up, described it last year as Augusta fever.
"It’s such a sweet tournament," he says. "The course is so thrilling, the setting just reeks of golf history and once you get a taste of being in contention it can drive you nuts. It doesn’t allow you to play your normal, comfortable game, because you want it too much."
Rory has never wanted it more.
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