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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GOLF - 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 sixstroke 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.

None of the other Ma­jors seem to have in­flicted such scars

‘As part of my doomed Nor­man piece of of 51 sec­ond-place press con­fer­ences’ 1996, I noted that Greg Nor­man had shown up for ev­ery one

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