Golf Plus recently asked its readers whether they thought Greg Norman would ever win the Masters. Amazingly, 39% answered yes. O.K., here is my question: Do you think Norman, Fred Couples, Tom Lehman, Mark O'Meara or Nick Price will ever again win one of the majors? Trust me, the answer is no.
All five had their names engraved on at least one major championship trophy in the '90s. But though it is not yet obvious, all have embarked on the same downhill trail as the one taken recently by Nick Faldo and Corey Pavin, two other majors winners of the '90s whose careers are toast.
I can hear you now: O'Meara washed up? He won two majors only last year. My response: Remember Curtis Strange. Ten years ago he walked up the 18th fairway at Oak Hill, waving to the crowd with a big grin on his face. He had just won his second straight U.S. Open, something no player had done since Ben Hogan in 1951.
Strange was 34. He had won 17 tournaments in 13 years on Tour and had been No. 1 on the money list for two seasons running. Yet, unimaginable as it seemed at the time, he never won again, not even a Quad Cities. His career plummeted, and today he is a TV analyst in the ABC tower at 18. He still plays a bit, 16 tournaments last year, but making the cut has been cause for celebration. Strange is living proof that a career can disappear as fast as a ball in a water hazard.
Faldo and Pavin can vouch for that. When Faldo beat Norman at Augusta in 1996 for his third Masters title, he was 38 and one of the top players in the world. Who would have dreamed that his game would unravel so quickly that in his last nine majors he would miss the cut five times and place no better than 44th? At this year's Masters, Faldo opened with an 80. His two-round nine-over-par total put him two strokes behind 61-year-old Charles Coody.
Pavin was the grittiest of players, the go-to guy on the Ryder Cup team. He was 35 when he won the '95 Open at Shinnecock with his funny little swing. But since then he has won only once. He's still gritty and his swing is still funny, but nothing is working right.
Winning a major, much less two in one year, can raise hob with a player's game. In February, O'Meara, the winner of the 1998 Masters and British Open, took a hefty appearance fee to play in Dubai before the World Match Play. He returned to lose in the first round at La Costa and has not threatened to win since. Strange made the same mistake after his second Open victory, taking big appearance fees to play in Japan.
Norman and Lehman are joined at the hip, both in their 40s and coming off shoulder surgery. Jerry Pate might tell them how difficult that can be. Pate, who won the U.S. Open at 23, was only 29 when he required surgery on his shoulder. He was never the same player.
The most amazing story out of Augusta this year was not so much Norman's losing still another Masters but that he was even in contention. The man is 44, and because of the surgery he had been essentially out of golf for a year. He is in remarkable condition, but like an aging prizefighter, he has taken a lot of punches over the years—Tway, Mize, Faldo, Ol�zabal—and should he ever again contend in a major, those memories will hurt him.
Lehman, too, has had his share of disappointments. For the last four years he has been in the final group at the U.S. Open, and four times he has come up empty. Add to that near misses at Augusta in 1993 and '94. Good as he has been—he was ranked No. 1 for a week in 1997—he has not won in 2� years and has only four career victories on the Tour. The desire is there, but age and injury are working against him.