The Biblical “How are the mighty fallen” could have been designed for Greg Norman on the afternoon that the Greek god of a man surrendered a six-stroke lead to Nick Faldo at Augusta – and finished a crushing five shots to his rear. It was, quite simply, the biggest character of the day involved in one of the biggest golfing collapses of all time.
Had Norman been some mousy-haired non-entity, he might have crept quietly from the wreckage. As it was, his natural swagger, his blond good looks and that hat of his all conspired to have him looming larger by the minute. And contributing to a situation in which Faldo’s feats – the Englishman had a closing 67 against Norman’s 78 – would barely get a mention in the next day’s papers.
In recent years, Jean Van de Velde is the man who would have the best sense of how Norman felt. The Frenchman, who lost the 1999 Open in Carnoustie’s Barry Burn, is alone in having made such a splash in finishing second.
Yet, where Van de Velde had no prior experience of being in contention going into the last round of a major, Norman had history. In 1986, the year he held the lead after three rounds in all four majors, he needed a par to tie Jack Nicklaus but sprayed his 4-iron well wide of the home green to pave the way for Nicklaus to win at the ripe old age of 46. And in 1987, to cite another example, he had the misfortune to lose out to a Larry Mize chip-in at the second extra hole.
He has never owned to anything other than “feeling good” going into the last day in ’96. Others, though, did not share in that apparent confidence, with one of the more oft-repeated lines going the rounds, “Surely, he can’t lose from here.”
After the worst had happened, one of the first questions put to the player was where and when he thought things had started to go wrong.
Norman began by reciting what had gone right. On waking up at nine, he had felt 100 percent. “I did all the regular stuff … I read magazines – I never read papers – and went for a walk with my wife for half an hour to kill time.”
He was not prepared to admit to anything impinging on his healthy mental state until it came to his second to the ninth. Still three ahead, he had 98 yards to the pin and played it as if it were 100 yards. In the event, the ball came up five feet short and rolled inexorably back to the fairway. That, he said, was when he muttered to himself, “Man, what’s going on here?”
The leaderboard at the close of that hole read Norman -9, Faldo -7.
Faldo adopts a quizzical frown when he listens to the Norman version. For his part, he had been able to scent blood as early as the first when Norman’s drive trickled off the left edge of the fairway and cost him a five. As he walked from the green, he said under his breath, “Lovely, I’ve got one back already.”
He then watched with interest as Norman gripped and re-gripped his driver on the second tee in the manner of a man who simply could not get comfortable. As the Australian got slower and slower over the ball, so Faldo responded by walking taller and taller.
“I wanted to remind my opponent, ‘Hey, I don’t know about you but I’m all right, mate.’ ” Standing on the 10th tee, Norman reminded himself, “You love the back nine … just be patient.”
Meanwhile, Norman’s good friend Nick Price was about to run out of that virtue. Price followed play on TV in the clubhouse until that moment when Norman knocked his approach through the back of the 10th green. “I can’t,” he said, as he made to leave, “stand watching this happen to Greg.”
When Norman took three putts at the 11th, he and Faldo were level at 9 under. And when Faldo hit a 7-iron to 12 feet at the short 12th and Norman deposited his ball into Rae’s Creek, Faldo was two clear.
Thirteen years later and Faldo’s most enduring image of that afternoon is of standing on the 12th tee and taking in the changing of the tide. “It was a bit like a match-play situation and I had to hit the good shot first,” he says. “I went with a half 7-iron, a little left of the flag and I did okay.”
As he walked from the green, so he turned to Fanny Sunesson, his caddie, and said a wry, “Bloody hell, it’s mine to lose now …”
For another shot which, like that at the 12th, is apt to come back to him in his sleep, Faldo picks his 2-iron “over the water and in the middle of all that atmosphere” to the heart of the 13th green.
Though the two-stroke difference remained unchanged over the next three holes, that did not stop Norman’s impending doom becoming ever more obvious. His wife and daughter, holding hands by way of sharing the tension, watched in agony as Norman’s eagle chip at the 15th flirted with the hole – and missed. Norman crumpled to ground and such wind as was left in his sails was spent.
“My mind left my body and my body left my mind,” he said. All of which explains how he came to haul his shot into the water at the short 16th – a misadventure that left him four behind with two to play.
Faldo, as he would concede during his reign as Ryder Cup captain, has no illusions as to what he was like in his major-winning days. “I was a selfish bugger, if you like. My great hero was Bjorn Borg and that’s how I believed I had to be. I was totally focussed.”
Yet, that day at Augusta he was different. Mirroring the mood of those spectators who, according to Sports Illustrated, “actually looked down, hoping not to make eye contact as Norman passed among them on his way to the 18th tee,” Faldo did not begin to court cheers on his victory walk. Instead, he was respectfully muted to the last.
Once he had holed the winning putt, this then least “touch-feely” of men – wives and girlfriends apart you would have to assume – embraced his rival. “I don’t know what to say,” he began, “but I just want to give you a hug.”
Later, it came out that he had added a reference to one of his least favourite bodies of men, the press. “Don’t,” he advocated, “let the bastards get you down over this.”
Norman has never hesitated to say that Faldo’s handling of him was one of the redeeming features of that grim day.
In his press conference, there was one writer, clearly not a golfer, who asked, “How could you not win?” To which Norman replied, “I am a winner, I just didn’t win today.”
By way of an antidote to that question and others like it, he saw fit to mention that he had “40 million bucks in the bank” – and that in such circumstances he could hardly feel too sorry for himself.
Faldo, in retrospect, was not so sure that those 40 million bucks were much help in this instance.
“I honestly believe,” said Sir Nick, a Knight of the Realm since 2009, “that Greg would gladly swap his bank book and the vast majority of his 70-plus victories for a single Masters or U.S. Open triumph.”
What Faldo struggled to believe – then and now – was that he had come out on top. “When I put my hands up on the 18th green,” he remembers, “it was as much in amazement as anything else.”