Out on Augusta National’s front nine, Greg Norman had birdied the 180-yard sixth hole to go nine under par for the Masters, but his name was not yet on the leader board.
“They must know,” a voice in the gallery said with a smirk, “that he’s going to choke.”
But as the Masters wound down in the shadows of the towering pine trees, Greg Norman didn’t choke. He just didn’t win. Again. With a 4-under-par 68 for 277, he finished 11-under, enough to win many Masters, but he finished third, three strokes behind Ben Crenshaw and two behind Davis Love III.
“I had the kind of tournament,” the 40-year-old Australian was saying now, “when you wake up in the morning, you’re disappointed, but it was a good tournament.”
Not quite good enough. That has been the story of Greg Norman’s life in the tournaments people remember. And Sunday, only a stroke out of the lead at the time, he pulled a sandwedge that rolled long and left on the 17th green. When he three-putted from 50 feet for a bogey as Love birdied, he was done.
“I only had 106 yards left, but I had a hanging lie,” he said, referring to the 400-yard 17th hole. “I don’t like hitting a sandwedge that far; I like 104 yards. But with a pitching wedge, you can’t cut it off a right-to-left slope. The ball landed only about 15 feet from the cup, then took the slope.”
But a bad shot at a bad time has haunted Norman’s career. In the 1986 Masters he pushed a 4-iron into the gallery at the 18th hole; his eventual bogey there kept him out of a playoff with Jack Nicklaus.
In the 1987 Masters he lost a sudden-death playoff when Larry Mize chipped in at the 11th hole. In the 1984 U.S. Open he created an 18-hole playoff with Fuzzy Zoeller by holing a 40-foot putt on Winged Foot’s 18th green after pushing a 4-iron into the gallery, but lost to Zoeller in an 18-hole playoff. In the 1989 British Open he lost to Mark Calcavecchia in a playoff after a towering drive into a bunker.Twice in PGA Tour events, he was victimized by others holing a shot on the final hole: Robert Gamez with a 7-iron at the 1990 Nestle Invitational, David Frost at the 1990 USF&G; Classic.”But the big thing this time,” Norman said, “my putting wasn’t as strong as it should’ve been. I’m disappointed, yes, but it wasn’t to be, unfortunately. The eagle putt on 15, I thought I made it in the center of the hole, but it decided not to go in. The long breaking putt on 16, I thought it made it when it was going down the slope.”
Putting sabotaged Norman’s length at Augusta National, where he played the four par-5 holes in a total of 15-under-par.
At the Masters, like every other golf tournament, scores rise and fall every year, usually depending on how the weather and the wind harden the greens and the fairways. But in Friday’s second round, 20 golfers shot in the 60s, a Masters record for any one round.
Yes, maybe there are more skilled golfers now than in other eras, but Jack Nicklaus believes that livelier golf balls are the reason for the lower and lower scores, not merely in this year’s Masters but overall on the PGA Tour and the various tours around the world.
“Arnold Palmer and I were talking about it the other day,” Nicklaus said. “He thinks the same way I do, that if we don’t get to the golf ball and the equipment we are going to make a joke out of the golf courses. It’s the No.1 priority in the game as far as I’m concerned.”
To the 55-year-old six-time Masters champion, putting a speed limit on the ball is more important than altering, say, metal woods or graphite shafts.
“The ball is the biggest thing,” he said. “I think the technology and the balls that we have now are fine for the average player. They need all the help they can get, and I think that’s great. But if we go to a golf ball that’s a tour ball, a tournament ball, each manufacturer can make exactly the same one.”
Now Greg Norman will take his length to the U.S. Open on June 15-18 at Shinnecock Hills where he finished tied for 12th in the 1986 Open after holding the 54-hole lead. On the 14th hole of the third round he had objected loudly to the taunts of a voice in the gallery.
“I’ve got great memories of Shinnecock,” he said. “I enjoyed that course; it’s like a Scottish links. I just hope that guy’s not in the gallery again. He might be a litle older and wiser now.”