Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Part 2 of my countdown of the 10 Greatest Masters will look at the fourth, fifth, and sixth best tournaments of all-time.  For those who didn't see numbers 7 through 10 yesterday, you can read about those here.  They include Mark O'Meara's major breakthrough, Gary Player's magnificent back nine charge at age 42, Gene Sarazen's legendary double eagle at the 15th, and the final epic duel between Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.

The 4 tournaments from yesterday chronicle the exploits of great players summoning up their best on golf's greatest stage.  But kicking off today's listing is the other side of the coin that makes The Masters such a compelling spectacle: the heartbreak of falling short on golf's biggest stage.

#6     1996 - 

Masters history is filled not only with stories of great shots and career defining victories, but also tales of historic collapses and career altering defeats.  Men like Ed Snead and Kenny Perry who were unable to make the pars that would have earned them a green jacket when playing the final few holes.  Hubert Green, Tom Kite, Johnny Miller and others faced makeable birdie putts on the 72nd hole to force a playoff, only to watch in agony as the ball missed its target.  Add to it the dozens of contenders who found any one of the water hazards found along the back nine to dash their hopes and the list of near champions is longer than a phone book.

But no man ever suffered more heartbreak on Sundays at Augusta than Greg Norman.  Norman dominated the golfing world in the 80s and 90s, spending a then-record 331 weeks at #1 in the World Golf Rankings.  But majors were a source of constant disappointment in his career (his 2 Open Championship wins notwithstanding), and no place proved a bigger source of frustration for Norman than Augusta National.

Norman took to contending at the Masters, finishing 4th in his debut in 1981.  Norman held the lead after 3 rounds at the '86 Masters, faded well back with early bogeys, then surged with 4 straight birdies late to tie Nicklaus with one hole to play.  But a bogey at 18 left him a stroke short of a playoff.  The next year Norman made it to a playoff with Larry Mize and Seve Ballesteros.  Norman seemed likely to win when Mize's approach at the 11th missed well right, only for Mize to dramatically chip in from 140 feet to claim the green jacket.  In 1989, Norman nearly duplicated his '86 effort.  He birdied 6 of 9 holes from the 9th to the 17th to tie for the lead, only to bogey the 72nd hole to miss a playoff by a stroke.  With other strong finishes in 1988, '92, and '95, Norman had 7 top-10 finishes in 15 starts at Augusta.  But the green jacket had eluded him.

But for 3 days it seemed the 1996 Masters was finally going to be his time.  Norman came out of the gates with a 9-under 63 that tied the lowest round in major championship history.  Following up his history tying round with a Friday 69 and a Saturday 71, Norman was 13-under par after 54 holes & a seemingly insurmountable 6 shots ahead of 1989 and 1990 champion Nick Faldo and 7 ahead of 25-year old Phil Mickelson in 3rd.  Finally it seemed that the golfing gods were smiling upon Norman.

The warning signs for Norman on Sunday began almost instantly.  A bogey at the 1st cut Norman's lead to five strokes and, after both players birdied the par-5 2nd, another bogey at the 4th moved Faldo a shot closer to the lead.  Faldo bogeyed the 5th to temporarily give Norman a 5-shot lead again, but Faldo birdied the 6th and the 8th as Norman's lead was just half of what it was to start the day.  Then it happened: the first of several memorable images of futility for Norman on this day.  His approach at the par-4 9th came up short, and Norman could only watch as his ball rolled down the steep slope fronting the green.  Another bogey, and Norman's front nine 38 had trimmed 4 shots off his overnight lead.

Still, for all the struggles he had already faced in the final round, Norman stood on 10 tee in a position every golfer in the field would have taken sight unseen at the start of the week: 2 shots ahead with 9 holes to play.  If he could just get to the end of Amen Corner still holding a lead it could still be the finish he'd dreamed of.  But the bogey at 9 had clearly rattled the Shark.  His chip shot from just off the green at the 10th was hit far too strong, and rolled 20 feet past. Another bogey, and the lead was down to a single shot.  Norman actually had a makeable look at birdie on 11, but it rolled 2 1/2 feet past the cup.  As a stunned gallery looked on, the short par putt lipped out on Norman.  A 3rd straight bogey, and Greg Norman's 6 shot lead to start the day had evaporated in just 11 holes.  But no Augusta meltdown is ever truly complete without a ball finding Ray's Creek.  Taking dead aim at the par-3 12th, Norman pushed his iron right and short and found the water.  A double bogey 5 meant that he had played holes 9 through 12 in a disastrous 5-over par, and now Faldo had the lead for the first time all week.

Two back with just 6 holes to play, it was hard to imagine how on earth Greg Norman could regroup in time to win.  But Norman had experienced somewhat similar positions late on Sunday in '86 and '89 only to make rallies that left him tied for the lead on the 18th tee.  So maybe, just maybe, he had one more back nine rally left in him.  Norman composed himself enough to birdie the par-5 13th, matching Faldo's birdie, and both players parred 14.  Norman just barely cleared the water with his 2nd at the 15th, his ball resting on the bank between the green and the pond.  With Faldo in prime position for a birdie 4, Norman needed 1 great shot to close to within one and put some of the pressure back on Faldo.  As his pitch rolled toward the hole it looked to be tracking toward the hole, but the ball would only burn the lip of the cup as it slowly rolled past.  Norman fell to his knees in agony, a man who had taken one blow too many to come back from on this day.  Still 2 back as he reached 16, Norman took an aggressive line to the flag.  His tee shot would be badly pulled and find the middle of the pond short and left of the green, and any chance he still had to win sunk like his wayward tee shot.

Birdieing 18 to shoot an underappreciated 67 in the final round, Nick Faldo won his 3rd Masters and the last of his 6 major titles by 5 shots.  But the story of the day was a broken and humbled Greg Norman.  His Sunday 78 had included double bogies on both par-3s on the back and an inward nine of 40.  Within a year, his place at the top of golf would be taken away by Tiger Woods as Norman's game rapidly faded.  Incredibly, he would find himself in contention one last time at Augusta three years later.  An eagle at 13 would leave him tied for the lead with 5 holes to play, only for Norman to fade one last time to a 3rd place finish that would be the last of his 9 top-10 finishes in the Masters.

Many golfing greats have cemented their legacies with Masters victories, but Norman is perhaps the only truly elite golfer to have his legacy largely defined by a defeat.  In his nearly two decades of competitive action, Norman was the consumate Augusta bridesmaid: always in the hunt, flashing stretches of greatness that repeatedly brought him to precipace of victory only to crash on the rocks.

#5     1975 -

 Sometimes tournaments are defined not only by the man who won, but the man (or men) who lost.  1975 stands out as one of those tournaments.  For Jack Nicklaus, the final result would be a record-breaking 5th green jacket.  But for the men who finished tied for 2nd, Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller, it would be the closest two of the best golfers of the 70s would ever come to being called a Masters champion.

But for 2 days it seemed there would be no drama on Sunday afternoon.  Nicklaus was at the top of his game with rounds of 68 & 67 that left him on 9 under par, 5 shots clear of the field heading into the weekend.  Weiskopf was just 3-under and 6 back, while Johnny Miller's 75-71 performance put him a whopping 11 shots behind after 2 rounds.

But moving day at Augusta brought about something that rarely happened.  Nicklaus stumbled to a 1-over round of 73 that opened the door for his competitors, and Weiskopf and Miller took full advantage.  Weiskopf, already a 3-time runner-up at the Masters, carded a third round 66 that gave him a one shot lead over Jack entering Sunday's play.  Miller, who had been well off the radar as the day began, went even lower.  His 65 was low round of the day, and vaulted him all the way to solo 3rd at 5-under, four shots back.  Augusta had not adopted the now standard practice of pairing players strictly based upon their standing on the leaderboard at the time, and Miller and Weiskopf would be paired in the final group on Sunday.  Nicklaus was in the group in front, paired with Tom Watson.

Miller picked up where he had left off at the start of Sunday, firing a 32 on the front nine to reach 9-under.  Nicklaus and Weiskopf both made the turn 2 ahead of that mark at -11.  Miller made bogey at 11, but birdied both par 5's to reach -10 with 3 to play.  Weiskopf also bogied 11, but birdied 14 and 15 to reach -12 and hold the lead by himself.  Nicklaus followed a bogey at 14 with a birdie of his own at 15 to get back to -11 when his tee shot on 16 left him 40 feet short of the back right hole location.

Jack's birdie putt was a treacherous one.  Coming up and over the big ridge that runs down the middle of 16's green, a 2-putt par would be a good result.  But with Weiskopf and Miller forced to watch helplessly from the tee box, Nicklaus' putt slammed into the back of the cup and fell for an improbable birdie that tied him for the lead.  As the crowd erupted in a timeless Augusta roar, Nicklaus joined in and jogged around the green in triumph.

Undoubtedly rattled by what he had seen, Weiskopf proceeded to bogey the 16th and fall out of the lead.  Nicklaus parred the final two holes to post 12-under 276 in the clubhouse.  Needing to birdie the final two holes to force a playoff, Miller made birdie at the 17th to climb within one of the lead.  Both Weiskopf and Miller left themselves makeable birdie chances at the last to tie Nicklaus and go to a Monday playoff.  But both attempts went begging, and Nicklaus emerged victorious to break his tie with Arnold Palmer for the most Masters victories.

For both Miller and Weiskopf, 1975 proved to be the most crushing of the series of close calls each had at Augusta.  Miller, runner-up in '71 and '81 as well, played the final 36 holes in an absolutely scorching 13-under par.  But his slow start proved to be just a little too much for his excellent weekend play to overcome.  For Weiskopf, '75 was the 4th time in 7 Masters tournaments that he had been the runner-up.  But he would never again seriously contend for the green jacket on a Sunday afternoon.  As great as both men were that week in April, they were unable to overcome the greatest force in Masters history.

#4    1960 - 

Golf fully entered the TV era in 1960, and with it came the coronation of The King.  Arnold Palmer had won his 1st Masters title 2 years earlier, and had already established himself as the best golfer in the world at the time.  Palmer had won 4 times on tour in 1960 prior to The Masters, and came into the event the prohibitive favorite.  But his superstardom beyond diehard golf fans had still not come.

The 24th Masters Tournament was about to change that, and provide the defining moment of Palmer's career.  Showing the form that had been dominating the PGA Tour, Palmer charged to the lead in round 1 with a 67.  But rounds 2 and 3 saw Palmer's momentum stall.  Shooting 73-72 narrowed Palmer's lead to a single stroke heading into Sunday.  5 players sat tied for 2nd at 213: Ken Venturi, Dow Finsterwald, future Masters Champion (and one of the most underrated golfers in history) Billy Casper, Julius Boros, and the legendary Ben Hogan.  Sunday held the promise of dramatics, and it would not disappoint.

Hogan, Casper and Boros would fade on Sunday, leaving the title a 3-man battle.  Playing several pairings ahead of Palmer, Venturi and Finsterwald both went to the 18th tee -5 for the tournament.  While Finsterwald would miss an 8-foot par putt on the green to fall to -4, Venturi parred the last to lead in the clubhouse at 283.  Palmer had failed to take advantage of either par 5 on the back nine, parring both 13 and 15, and he stood on the tee of 17 where he had begun the final round at -4.  Venturi looked likely to win: at minimum, surely he would be in an 18 hole playoff with Palmer on Monday.  

With the flag at 17 at the back of the green, Palmer's approach checked up too quickly on him and stopped 30 feet under the hole.  With spectators behind the green moving around, Palmer was twice forced to back away from his birdie effort to tie Venturi.  On his third look at it, Palmer hit a putt that lingered for a split second on the front lip of the cup before dropping for the birdie he had to have.  Now tied with Venturi at -5, Palmer could go to 18 needing only a par to force a playoff.  A birdie would earn him a 2nd green jacket.

Determined to do no worse than par, Palmer's tee shot at the last was played with safety in mind.  Coming up the hill and into the wind on his 2nd, Palmer would hit the shot of his life.  Palmer played a punch 6-iron to the green that landed just two feet right of the flag, nearly hit the pin and came to rest inside of 5 feet of the hole.  The birdie putt was never in doubt, and the first Masters of the TV era to have live, extensive coverage of the final holes saw the charismatic Palmer birdie the final 2 holes to win.  

1960 had the added bonus of a pair of historic firsts.  Now a staple of Wednesday at Augusta, the first par-3 contest was held that year.  3-time champion Sam Snead shot 23 to win the title.  It was also the very first Masters start for a young amateur from Ohio named Jack Nicklaus.  Flashing a glimpse of the form that would net him a record 6 green jackets, Nicklaus would finish his 1st Masters tied for 13th and shared the low amateur with Billy Joe Patton (an amateur mainstay of the tournament for years who finished in the top-10 at Augusta 3 times).

Part 2 of the countdown recognizes that the Masters is not solely a straightforward golf tournament.  It's high drama at its finest, able to provide crowds a glimpse of pure euphoria or crushing despair in an instant.  My final post in the trilogy tomorrow will cover the 3 greatest Masters tournaments in history, featuring:

- A Tiger Slam
- A Lefty Gets One Right
- And The Bear Comes Out of Hibernation

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