Golf Australia

Blake: Augusta brings us to our knees

Greg Norman
Greg Norman falls to his knees in his face off with Nick Faldo in 1996.

It is the greatest hoodoo in Australian sport, the last bastion.

It is symbolised by the image of Greg Norman, the much-loved Great White Shark, tumbling to the pristine turf on the surrounds of Augusta National Golf Club's 15th green, the anguish etched on his face as his attempt to chip in for eagle missed narrowly in the final round of the 1996 Masters.

Norman was in the midst of what ranks as the most dramatic choke in golfing history; his six-shot lead going into the final day of the Masters was not enough to hold off a relentless Nick Faldo.

Norman finished second in the fabled Masters tournament, for the third time, and watching it on television at home in Australia I cannot recall a more painful sporting experience; I know so many Australians who felt the same. We felt the Shark had earned a green jacket, having come so close so often before. But golf is both a beautiful and brutal game and it opted to punish Norman on that day. And of course Norman himself had a strong hand in it, for his nerves did not hold up.

No Australian has won the Masters since its inception in 1934, despite this country's pre-eminence as a golfing nation. Australians have won all the other majors as well as the four majors on the women's tour, but Augusta continues to elude our professionals. Moreover, it teases them and then spits them out, as it did with Norman that day.

Faldo's 67 that day was peerless; Norman could not have had a tougher opponent in the chasing pack. On the 18th green, the Englishman famously whispered into Norman's ear: "Don't let the bastards get you down.'' And while Norman handled himself with dignity, it devastated him. Faldo tried to soothe his wounds. "It's the most nerve-wracking course in the world, simple as that,'' he told the media afterward.

Norman finished second at Augusta National three times. In 1986, Jack Nicklaus' historic win at 46 years of age, a triumph that made him the oldest-ever Masters champion, camouflaged the fact that the Shark ought to at least have reached a playoff. Needing par at the last to take the tournament further, Norman's 'bad shot', the flared iron under pressure, revealed itself wickedly. Marooned in a near-impossible position behind the bunker that guards the right of Augusta's 18th green, the Shark took bogey and Nicklaus had his most famous victory.

The next year, in 1987, Norman got into a playoff but was cruelled by a holed-out chip from American Larry Mize that goes into the golfing annals, a miracle shot. Safely on the fringe of the par-four 11th hole for two, Norman could only crouch down in disbelief as the unheralded Mize's chip landed short of the putting surface, bolted at the pin so quickly that it looked to be headed into the water behind the green, smashed into the stick and dropped in.

Crouched over his long birdie putt, Norman suddenly had to hole out to stay alive. Clearly shaken, he could not manage it. Mize, an Augusta native who had worked on the scoreboards as a boy, never won another major. In fact, he won just four tournaments on the US tour, but on this day, he broke a few million Australian hearts.

Although the Augusta hoodoo tends to centre upon Norman, it is not all about the Shark. In fact, it can be traced to 1950, the year Sydneysider Jim Ferrier became the first antipodean to finish runner-up. Ferrier had moved to the US and taken citizenship to play the tour, and he contended in three consecutive Masters from 1946 to 1948, when he was among the best players in the world. He won a major, the 1947 PGA Championship, but Ferrier wanted the green jacket badly.

In the 1950 tournament he led by four shots entering the final round. Through 12 holes, and halfway through the famous Amen Corner, he was still three ahead of the American Jimmy Demaret. Then Ferrier imploded. He bogeyed the par-five 13th, then dropped another shot at the 14th and double-bogeyed the par-three 16th. Bogeys at the 17th and 18th completed a dreadful day; Demaret won, and Ferrier would complete his career without a Masters victory.

Nor did Peter Thomson, the five-time British Open Champion, whose best finish was fifth in 1957, and who was no big fan of the course. Many other Australians have contended at Augusta, but fallen short. Craig Parry was at the height of his career when he led into the final round in 1992, but he had local hero Freddie Couples as his playing partner, and Parry limped in with a 78. Parry has said since that the patrons (Augusta does not have a 'crowd') made so much noise he believed they were intentionally putting him off; certainly Couples was so popular that he was not an easy playing partner. Parry finished 13th.

Jack Newton was runner-up to Seve Ballesteros in 1980 on a dramatic final day. Newton was paired with the Spaniard, and they were friends. But Ballesteros was seven shots ahead as the final round began, and nine ahead through the ninth hole. Then the pressure began to tell, and Newton played a back nine that he called "the most amazing I've ever been involved in''.

Newton birdied the par-four 11th, then Ballesteros dunked his tee shot in Rae's Creek at the iconic par-three 12th. When the Australian two-putted for birdie at the par-five 13th hole, and Ballesteros found water again, the margin had been trimmed back to just two shots. "I'm not fluent in Spanish, but I know the swear words, and they were certainly flying thick and fast,'' recalled Newton in his book 'Out of the Rough'.

Ballesteros recovered his nerve, and closed it out, winning by four shots. Newton shot a final-round 68 and tied for second, satisfied that he had fulfilled his intention of ''keeping him honest''. It was not a painful memory for the Australian; his lip-out putt to lose the 1975 British Open Championship to Tom Watson in a playoff left a far deeper scar.

Many more tried but failed. Steve Elkington's best was third in 1993, Bruce Devlin was fourth in 1964 and 1968, when he led into the final day, and Ian Baker-Finch was sixth in 1992. Robert Allenby never played well there, and mostly this was true of Stuart Appleby as well. But Appleby had his chance, in 2007, when he played brilliantly for three days, leading into the final round. Then he blocked his first tee shot of the final round into trouble, took double bogey, and faded to seventh.

It is a familiar tale. In 2011 not one but three Australians bobbed up with a chance on the last day. Geoff Ogilvy's cluster of birdies on the back nine put him into the picture. Jason Day and Adam Scott both had opportunities. Astonishingly, Scott led the tournament when he birdied the 16th, and he parred in, which surely should have been good enough.

But Australians are cursed at the Masters, and South Africa's Charl Schwartzel did something no one had even done before -- rolling in four consecutive birdie putts to finish -- at Augusta. He denied Scott and Day, who tied for second, and Ogilvy who was fourth.

Sadly, we'd heard it all before.

11 April 2016
Golf Australia