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Greg Norman … The best that never was

Universally known as ‘The Shark’. One Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, Greg Norman became ‘the hunted’.

Eoin O’Neill looks back on his career and that fateful day.

At almost 6:30pm on April 14th 1996, 2 men stood alone on the 18th green of the iconic Augusta National Golf Club. One had just reduced the other to a crumbling wreck. The two men embraced and uttered some brief words. They walked from the green towards the scorer’s tent arm in arm, yet a feeling of uneasiness descended over the course. This was not the usual victory parade of a newly crowned champion, a man who has just claimed his third Green Jacket. What the spectators had witnessed that day was a man disintegrating before they’re very eyes.

The man whose disintegration they had witnessed was no ordinary golfer; he was the best golfer in the world. For sixteen years, Greg Norman had developed a fixation on winning the US Masters. It was almost his god given right to finally don the green jacket. For Norman, we had been here so many times before. Norman had everything, the swing, the looks, the charisma, the money, the golf game, everything but the mental fortitude that’s needed at the very highest level of golf. The image of Norman crumpled to his knees on the side of the 15th green, that day, is embedded in the mind of most golf followers of a certain age.

On the journey to Augusta that fateful day, his daughter Morgan-Leigh Norman spotted a graveyard and prayed that her Dad would finally land the big one. On the Saturday evening, following a 71 in tough conditions, Norman sat alone in the Augusta locker room. He was the last one to leave the course. A friend of Norman’s passed by the locker room, tapped him on the shoulder and told him “Greg, old boy, there’s no way you can mess this up now!”.

The victor, Nick Faldo, had duelled with Norman many times before. The 1990 Open at St Andrews, 1993 Open at Royal St George’s. A win apiece, yet you always felt Faldo was to Norman what Auric Goldfinger was to Sean Connery … a nemesis. The two men could not be further apart both in terms of mental ruggedness and fan popularity, yet they were intrinsically linked. Although Norman claimed his two major titles at the British Open, his seemingly unlimited ability to throw away title after title is his legacy.

The great, the good and the average have reached in and pick pocketed a series of major titles from his grasp. From Jack Nicklaus to Paul Azinger to Bob Tway. Norman it could be argued was a victim of his thrilling all out attacking philosophy, yet on other occasions you begin to wonder if darker forces were at work? Tway’s holed bunker shot at Cherry Hills in the 86 PGA is well remembered, what’s not remembered is that Norman started the back nine on Sunday with a 4 shot lead. By the 17th, this lead had evaporated. Mize’s holed chipped shot down the slope in the 87 Masters playoff, yet another example.

Golf can be a cruel game. Roberto De Vicenzo, who signed an incorrect scorecard after tying for the lead after 72 holes in the 1968 Masters, never fully recovered. You sense Norman never recovered from his 1996 collapse. This is the man who was on the receiving end of a Robert Gamez holed 7 iron from 170 yards, which defeated Norman at Bay Hill in 1990. In a sense, you feel the golfing gods conspired against Norman.

When people now refer to Norman, they mention his vast business empire, but they also mention that fateful day in April 1996. It was to be Faldo’s last of 6 major victories. In a perverse way it was probably his most satisfactory but his conscience won’t allow him to enjoy it. Norman briefly held the lead in the final round of the 1999 Masters, following an eagle on the par 5 thirteenth. Just as we could hear Verne Lundquist shouting home Jack Nicklaus on the 17th green in 1986,

Maybe? , YESSSSS SSSSIRRRR

we did the same for Norman on that 13th green. As ever, the euphoria with Norman didn’t last. He subsequently bogeyed the next hole and with it his chance of victory evaporated. It was to prove his final tilt at Masters glory.

In 2008 Norman gave us one final throwback to the glory years. He led by two after the 3rd round of the British Open at Royal Birkdale. After 3 days of precision links golf, Norman’s final round jitters, again, proved his undoing and he was quickly overtaken by the defending champion, Padraig Harrington who romped to victory.

For the nation of Australia, Greg Norman retains iconic status. When Adam Scott became the first Australian winner of the Masters in 2012, he dedicated his victory to Norman’s on-going influence and legacy. For his nation he was a sporting trailblazer, on a par with Don Bradman. For the rest of us, he is the ultimate ‘what might have been’ sporting hero.

 

Eoin O’Neill.

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