Head-to-Head championship golf is a bloodless sport grounded in the goriest truths. Its deadliest warriors are methodical, emotionless stalkers with a cruel instinct for the pending implosion of a fellow competitor and a cold surety that majors are lost far more often than they are won. The alltime exemplar has been Jack Nicklaus. But in the last decade, no one has mastered this approach the way Nick Faldo has.
On Sunday in the climactic moments of the 60th Masters, Faldo girded himself in his steel-tempered technique and iron resolve to become a final-round leader's worst nightmare. By the quality of his shots and a demeanor that has withstood, and often thrived in, golf's tensest moments, the 38-year-old Englishman made it clear that the six-stroke lead with which Greg Norman started would not be upheld with anything less than first-rate golf.
As well as Norman had played for 54 holes, the target that Faldo saw in his crosshairs was a player under enormous stress. He knew that Norman not only wanted desperately to win the major championship he most covets but that he was also under added pressure because everyone expected him to protect a seemingly insurmountable lead. Although Norman will have to deal with the fact that the physical and mental fortifications he has built into his game to make himself the best player in the world ultimately crumbled, his fourth-round 78 should not be viewed with shame. Norman was pushed down a slippery slope to disaster by the most intense pressure a player can face: a golf course specifically designed to victimize someone in his position and, most of all, a classic final-round performance by a savvy and relentless opponent.
"I was in control, which is the big thrill," a deeply satisfied Faldo said afterward. "I hit all the shots where I intended to hit them on the day it had to be done."
As disconsolate as he was, Norman had to acknowledge that, just as he has buried others, so was he overwhelmed. "That's golf," he said simply. "I'll wake up tomorrow morning, and I'll breathe, I hope."
Faldo's 67 for a 72-hole total of 276 was carried out with the dispassion of an executioner. It included only one bogey as well as putts for birdie or eagle on all but one hole, and was the lowest round of the weekend. For Norman to have won outright, he would have needed a respectable 72.
Most important, Faldo's round contained the ruthless opportunism reminiscent of other seemingly impossible comebacks, such as the one in the 1966 U.S. Open by Billy Casper, who rallied from seven strokes behind Arnold Palmer on the final nine. Like Casper, Faldo stayed maddeningly within striking distance of a player who wouldn't have been human if he hadn't been half expecting a cake-walk. Faldo gradually created so much discomfort that Norman, the game's most consistent performer, cracked.
After chipping three strokes off the lead on the first seven holes, Faldo began planting his daggers. When Norman saved par on the 8th hole after hitting his second shot into the trees, his apparent psychic victory was turned into a defeat because Faldo topped him with a 20-footer from the fringe for a birdie that cut the lead to three. When Norman, who had lost another stroke with a bogey at 9, pulled an eight-iron approach at the par-4 10th, Faldo patiently put his nine-iron shot on the green, which induced Norman to play a sloppy chip and bogey again. After Norman showed real frailty by missing a 2½-foot putt for par on the 11th that squandered the final stroke of his lead, Faldo delivered a merciless body blow to his gasping adversary on the 155-yard 12th by drilling a majestic seven-iron over Rae's Creek to within 15 feet. The shot carried such authority that there was little surprise when a shaken Norman put his own seven-iron shot into the water with the same kind of weak block to the right that has derailed him in past major championships.
It was at this point that Faldo began to take command. Although he held a two-stroke lead, the turnaround had been almost too sudden for him to feel in control. "I knew that now I had the pressure," he said, "I had to be careful." After hitting only an average drive on the 485-yard, par-5 13th, Faldo watched Norman, from a poor lie in pine needles to the right of the fairway, reluctantly lay up short of the creek fronting the green. Although a mistake could mean blowing his hard-earned advantage, a strong instinct told Faldo to go for the green. With 206 yards to carry to the front, he pulled out a five-wood but didn't like the way the head sat behind the ball off his sidehill lie. After cogitating for more than a minute, Faldo finally took out his two-iron, leaving himself almost no margin for error. "I had to button it," said Faldo. "If I don't hit it solid, it's in the water. But I felt good, so I obeyed that feeling."
What ensued was a purely struck line drive that will rank with the best shots Faldo has ever hit. It carried on the green to within 30 feet of the pin, and from there he two-putted to match Norman's scrambling birdie. Faldo's two-iron made the statement that while Norman may have handed over his lead with blunders, Faldo had seized it in the vice grip of his flawless game. "That was the whole shooting match," said Norman. Five cleanly played holes later, Faldo had an amazing five-stroke victory and the satisfaction of a man whose life-work and passion have been perfectly applied to the kind of moment for which he lives. Although being the prime force in the destruction of another man's dream C compassion for Norman by embracing him on the 18th green, there had been no sentiment in his play. "Once I realized that Greg was in trouble, I was just getting harder," said Faldo, "just doing everything a little bit better. The pressure was immense."