The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday. As a 14-year-old, getting to the back nine on Sunday was an achievement in itself. BBC television coverage meant Augusta National was far more accessible in the 90s but parental rules provided the nasty counterargument when it came to a Sunday night and a golf tournament played in eastern standard time.
By the time Nick Faldo and Greg Norman reached the 9th fairway on what was, for the Australian, the fateful date of 14 April 1996 I was losing the argument. Norman started Masters Sunday with a six-shot lead over the Englishman. He was still leading by three and had only 100 yards left to the pin. The familiar prospect of waking up on Monday morning to discover who had donned the Green Jacket was a live one.
I don’t remember if Norman’s woeful approach, which spun back off the front of the 9th green, specifically earned me leeway from my father or if his act of kindness was a more general one. Norman’s advantage was two as he and Faldo strode to the 10th tee. There had, of course, been indications of what might happen next – not least throughout Norman’s career – but the lesson in how horrendously cruel sport can be was an invaluable one. Fifteen years later, I was at Augusta National as Rory McIlroy endured the most crushing of implosions on Sunday afternoon. As transpired with Norman, these provide lifelong points of reference. The agony of the “loser” resonates far more than the celebration of the champion.
There was no particular cause to root for Faldo back then. If anything, the rump of support would have been with Norman, the more free-spirited of the duo. Faldo was an outstanding golfer, seeking his sixth major title, but he lacked the panache of a Ballesteros, Couples or Olazábal. Faldo’s cringeworthy winner’s speech at Muirfield in 1992 – as still available in all its ignominy on YouTube – implied he wasn’t really a man of the people. Norman had been the bridesmaid at Augusta in 1986 and 1987. He had multiple runner-up finishes, too, in the US PGA Championship and US Open. If his Open successes of 1986 and 1993 meant the Shark was hardly a pauper in respect of golf’s crown jewels, he was an underdog against Faldo. Scots love underdogs.
Faldo’s splitting of the 10th fairway emphasised the smelling of blood. Norman was bleeding; his pulled approach shot triggered another bogey. The lead, seemingly unassailable at the start of play, had evaporated by the time Norman three-putted from the 11th. His birdie attempt had touched the hole before a woeful 3ft attempt for par, over which he clearly had jitters.
A wide-brimmed hat could barely disguise the shock on Norman’s face. Faldo was the one player he didn’t want to face when treading quicksand. If those of us looking on hoped for a joust over one of the most famous stretches in golf, we were dissuaded of any such notion. “Over the bunker” was the audible instruction issued to Norman from his caddie on the 12th tee. Instead, Norman’s bold play to a Sunday pin with a seven-iron resulted in disaster and the finding of Rae’s Creek. Faldo headed to 13 with a two-stroke lead.
From there, the tale was of Norman’s visible despondency in front of the watching world. More water trouble, this time at the 16th, meant Faldo had four shots to play with over the closing two holes. His eventual margin of victory was five, 12 under par to minus seven. On the final green Faldo embraced Norman, the champion suffering pangs of regret about his role in one of sport’s most notable capitulations. “I genuinely feel bad for Greg,” said Faldo by the time he reached the Butler Cabin. Norman admitted: “I don’t know what happened.” He would be reminded of this Masters for decades to come.