Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Shark's Collapse, 20 Years Later

[ed. It's Master's week! So many great memories, but Greg Norman's collapse in 1996 still ranks as one of the most painful sporting events I've ever witnessed in my life (his loss to Larry Mize in 1987 on an unbelievable chip-in was one of the saddest). The extraordinary class he exhibited after that loss is still the thing I remember the most, though.]

I work at Golf Digest, a detail that tends to elicit questions about how I got started in the game. Unlike most of my colleagues, mine was not really a golf family. My dad played when he was younger, but he quit when he developed a debilitating case of the shanks. My older brother played a little. The most avid golfer was my grandfather, and he had the misfortune of being awful. After he died, my mother, as mourners are prone to do, reflected glowingly on her father’s golf.

“Your grandfather was a wonderful golfer,” she said to me.

My dad, who had played the most with Grandpa, remembered differently.

“He was terrible,” he whispered. “He could never get the ball in the air.”

It was only in college that I started to dabble in the game, occasionally stealing off with my roommates with one set of clubs among us. We would drive 20 minutes off campus in New Hampshire to play a dinky nine-hole course named Rockingham, where no hole back then measured more than 300 yards, there were only a handful of trees, and where even in my earliest tear-up-the-turf days as a golfer, it was hard not to break 50. You could get around Rockingham in little more than an hour, so one April afternoon in our senior year, still groggy from whatever damage we had incurred the night before, we agreed we’d sneak in a round before dark. Until then the Masters was on TV, and Greg Norman had a six-shot lead, so we settled into the couches of our grungy apartment, nursed our hangovers, and prepared to watch the man nicknamed the Great White Shark cruise to his first green jacket.

I had no particular attachment to Greg Norman, or really any golfer at that point. But Norman was an inviting figure—chiseled and confident, with an unabashed swagger—and I had paid enough attention to golf to know that the Masters was something that had narrowly eluded him for years. I was looking forward to watching him finally break through—right up until the point it was apparent he wouldn’t. It’s probably strange to admit that the moment that truly sold me on golf was one defined by someone else’s misery. We all have a dark side. But the enjoyment for me was not so much derived from Norman’s collapse. In fact, if at one point we thought we were going to wait until after the CBS telecast to head to the golf course, we eventually deemed his public writhing too painful to witness. When Norman splashed his tee shot in the water on the par-3 16th, all but assuring the Masters title for Nick Faldo, we decided we’d had enough; my roommate Sully clicked the TV off in disgust, and four of us filed out the door and headed to Rockingham. I was disappointed for Norman, but I remained fascinated, my head spinning like it is when you walk out of a movie filled with so many plot twists you need to confirm with others everything that happened.

Until then I was unaware golf could do that. It hadn’t occurred to me that the golf swing was essentially a living organism that could get up and leave you at a time of its choosing, or that someone who had navigated a course so skillfully one moment could flail helplessly the next.

But that, I learned later, was Greg Norman. There were times when he appeared unflappable, looking, as Dan Jenkins wrote in Golf Digest, “like the guy you send out to kill James Bond.” You wouldn’t cast a character like Norman, broad-shouldered and blond, with that Australian accent, to play the victim. And yet on so many occasions even before that Sunday, he was.

To say no golfer lost more than Norman is imprecise, because there are scores of professional golfers who don’t even sniff a chance to win major tournaments. And besides, Norman won plenty—90 times around the world, including two Open Championships. Before Tiger Woods, Norman’s 331 weeks atop the world ranking was a record. We should all be such losers.

Still, if you define losing as standing alluringly close to a prize and failing to capture it, then Norman lost. If losing is when the prevailing emotion afterward is regret, then Norman was in a class of his own.

by Sam Weinman, Golf Digest | Read more:
Image: uncredited