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Master Strokes
Rick Reilly
April 22, 1996
Nick Faldo won a third green jacket, but only after Greg Norman suffered the worst collapse in major tournament history
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April 22, 1996

Master Strokes

Nick Faldo won a third green jacket, but only after Greg Norman suffered the worst collapse in major tournament history

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So who calls up out of the blue? Fred Couples. He had heard the Shark was ailing, and he offered to send over his back therapist, Tom Boers, to fix him up. Boers is the miracle-thumbed genius who had fixed Couples up two weeks earlier, allowing him to win the Players Championship. He fixed Norman up too. On Thursday the Shark opened with a course-record-tying 63. Couples shot 78. "Well," said Couples's fiancée, Tawnya Dodds, half kidding, "you picked a helluva time to make Greg Norman feel like a million bucks."

On Friday, Norman had more Couples luck. At the par-3 12th, his eight-iron caught the wind, hit a bank and began rolling back toward Rae's Creek. Only it stopped inches from the water—a la Couples during his '92 win—and Norman saved par.

Through three rounds, Norman's 63-69-71-203 put him at a garish 13 under par, six shots ahead of Faldo, seven beyond Phil Mickelson, miles past everybody else. Faldo hadn't contended in a major in two years. He is in the middle of a $12 million divorce and a tabloid frenzy over his relationship with 21-year-old Brenna Cepelak, a former Arizona golfer. Faldo had tried to make his move on Saturday, but Norman had shut him down. Norman was more relaxed and playing more magnificently than he ever had among the humps and hollows and biosphere domes they call greens at the National. "I'd like to see ol' Norman win," another Augusta native said on Sunday morning. "He's just had this thing slud out from under him one too many times."

Still, there were some who went out of their way to note that where there is a Saturday-night Norman lead (seven times in majors), there are a whole lot of Sunday banana peels (only one win). "If he blows this," ESPN's Dan Patrick said on Sunday, "it will be the biggest collapse in modern golf history."

Faldo admitted that he did not expect to win. In fact, he was so nonchalant about what he assumed would be Norman's coronation walk that he got caught up watching auto racing on TV and showed up at the course a half hour behind schedule, unthinkable for someone as meticulous as he is.

But from the beginning on Sunday something in Norman's swing made you squirm. He hooked his drive at 1 into the trees and made a bogey. There was a nasty par save on 3, a bogey on 4 and a god-awful pull on 8.

Faldo, meanwhile, was as steady as rent, making two-putt par after two-putt par. (He three-putted once all week.) He drilled a four-footer on the 6th for a birdie and a 20-footer on 8 to cut the lead to three. Then came the most catastrophic four golf holes in Norman's life.

His wedge came up six feet short of the pin on the rockface that is the 9th green and slid 30 yards back toward him, an ignominy from which he couldn't save par. Two-shot lead. Still, Norman had riddled the back nine all week: He had played those holes in 11 under going into Sunday. If ever a back nine could be a safety net, this was it.

It wasn't. On the 10th Norman put a butcherly stroke on a simple uphill chip, sending the ball eight feet past and missing the putt for a bogey. "That's when I knew," said Faldo, "things were going to be tight." One-shot lead.

Up on the hill Nick Price, Norman's best friend on the Tour, left the clubhouse looking pale. "I can't stand to watch," he said and headed to his car.

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