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Norman's collapse paves way for Faldo

Greg Norman, Masters, Augusta National
Jacqueline Duvoisin/SI
Greg Norman shot a final-round 78 at the 1996 Masters.
This story first appeared in the April 22, 1996, issue of Sports Illustrated.

On the drive to the golf course she saw a graveyard, and she secretly held her breath, closed her eyes and made a wish. When your dad is Greg Norman you stop trusting Sundays and you start working all the angles you can, six-shot lead or no six-shot lead.

But by the end of the day Morgan-Leigh Norman, 13, was just another mourner in a green-carpeted funeral procession, a red-eyed witness to the blackest golfing day of her father's life, the day he somehow spent all six of those shots and five more besides, stilled 50,000 people and turned a glorious spring afternoon at the Masters into a 4 1/2-hour cringe. "I been to several state fairs," an old Augusta native said, trudging home in the dying light, "and I ain't never seen nothin' like that."

It happened so quickly, it was hard to say what had been seen. A swing buried in a bunker at the start, three straight bogeys in the middle, a Maxfli in the water at the 12th and another at the 16th. Suddenly Norman's greatest rival, Nick Faldo, was walking past him straight into the green jacket that had been fashioned all week for Norman.

The last 20 minutes were unlike any seen in the previous 59 Masters. Norman became a kind of dead man walking, four shots behind and all his dreams drowning in Augusta National ponds behind him. Spectators actually looked down, hoping not to make eye contact, as Norman passed among them on his way to the 18th tee. At the finish, as Faldo made a meaningless 15-foot birdie putt, the champion was unsure how to handle it. He barely raised his hands above his head, and he didn't yell or dance. He looked like a man in the back of church who had won a clandestine hand of gin. After he finally took the accomplice ball out of the cup, he turned to Norman, hugged him long and hard and said, "I don't know what to say. I just want to give you a hug. I feel horrible about what happened. I'm so sorry." Both men teared up.

Even for Norman, who has a master's in how to lose these things — from ahead to Tom Watson in '81, from behind to Jack Nicklaus in '86, from nowhere to Larry Mize in '87, from everywhere to Ben Crenshaw in '95 — this was gruesome. So the morning papers were right after all. They had predicted a runaway, and they had gotten it. Only the idea had been to hold an 18-hole parade in Norman's honor to make up for all the broken hearts and second-place crystal he had lugged home over the years. It would be his payback for having had to wait longer than any champion for his green jacket (16 years).

The green-jacket ceremony, however, was conducted as though Norman had been taken away by ambulance. "Our sincerest feelings go out to Greg," said Crenshaw, the presenter. "I do feel sorry for Greg," said Faldo, the recipient.

If you had been there the night before, you would not have believed what would transpire in less than 24 hours. In Saturday's third round Norman had stared down Faldo heroically, played him head-to-head and increased his lead from four to six shots. Afterward Norman relaxed in the dark of Augusta's first-floor locker room, the one reserved for nonchampions. He had been the last one off the course, and the attendant had turned out the lights and gone home. Norman didn't know how to turn them back on, so he just sat there in the dark, happily drained. "Your last night in this locker room," a friend had told him.

"Damn, I hope so," Norman had replied, laughing.

Then something eerie happened. A well-meaning British friend accosted Norman, held him by both shoulders, grinned wildly and said, "Greg, old boy, there's no way you can f— this up now!" Norman thanked him with a castor-oil smile and walked out into the Georgia night alone.

This had seemed like a happy ending that even Norman couldn't rewrite. Luck was supposed to have left him long ago and taken the car and the dog with it, but this week luck had been back with him, nuzzling his face. For instance, on Wednesday his back was hurting so badly that he left the course two hours early, unable to make much more than a half swing. "He was just so frustrated," said his wife, Laura. "It hadn't happened to him in forever. He kept saying, 'Why now, of all times?' "

So who calls up out of the blue? Fred Couples. He had heard the Shark was ailing, and he offered to send over his back therapist, Tom Boers, to fix him up. Boers is the miracle-thumbed genius who had fixed Couples up two weeks earlier, allowing him to win the Players Championship. He fixed Norman up too. On Thursday the Shark opened with a course-record-tying 63. Couples shot 78. "Well," said Couples's fiancee, Tawnya Dodds, half kidding, "you picked a helluva time to make Greg Norman feel like a million bucks."

On Friday, Norman had more Couples luck. At the par-3 12th, his eight-iron caught the wind, hit a bank and began rolling back toward Rae's Creek. Only it stopped inches from the water — a la Couples during his '92 win — and Norman saved par.

Through three rounds, Norman's 63-69-71-203 put him at a garish 13 under par, six shots ahead of Faldo, seven beyond Phil Mickelson, miles past everybody else. Faldo hadn't contended in a major in two years. He is in the middle of a $12 million divorce and a tabloid frenzy over his relationship with 21-year-old Brenna Cepelak, a former Arizona golfer. Faldo had tried to make his move on Saturday, but Norman had shut him down. Norman was more relaxed and playing more magnificently than he ever had among the humps and hollows and biosphere domes they call greens at the National. "I'd like to see ol' Norman win," another Augusta native said on Sunday morning. "He's just had this thing slud out from under him one too many times."

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