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For lessons in golf, and life, I watch highlights from the 1996 Masters every year

Photo: John Biever/SI

Greg Norman lost a six-shot lead at the 1996 Masters.

Every year I partake in my own little Masters tradition. It’s an odd and somewhat morbid ritual, but it prepares me like nothing else for the azaleas and dogwoods of Augusta National.

A few nights ago my wife spotted me in the middle of my annual rite of spring. She doesn’t know much about golf, but she knew enough to recognize the golfer in the big hat on my computer screen.

“You’re watching Greg Norman again?” she asked. “How many times have you watched that?”

I’ve watched the 1996 Masters highlight video too many times to count and it always ends the same way: Norman defeated, Nick Faldo victorious, and the gallery at Augusta National stunned.

Why do I watch this video every year? There are happier highlights to watch. Jack in 1986. Tiger in 1997. Phil in 2004 (though not if you’re Theodore Ernest Els).

The 1996 Masters speaks to me more than the others do. It teaches me something. It shows the blessing and the curse of Augusta National, how one man can shoot 67 for the crowning achievement of his career and another can shoot 78 a few feet away and be forever changed.

In the spring of 1996, I was in my own master’s program, finishing my journalism degree at U.C. Berkeley. The university introduced me to the writings of George Plimpton and John McPhee, but it also gave me golf.

I lived in a guesthouse near Grizzly Peak, in the hills high atop Berkeley, about 5 minutes from a golf course called Tilden Park.

My friends and I called it “Tilden National,” our own little ode to Augusta, and we spent many afternoons chasing the sunset.

I hadn’t grown up watching the Masters on television, but that would change in 1996. From what I understood, I would be tuning in to watch the Shark win. He’d been denied the green jacket for so long -- by the magic of others, his own bad mojo or who knows what -- but now this would be his moment.

Before the final round, Dan Patrick, then with ESPN, explained the stakes for Norman. “If he blows this, it will be the biggest collapse in modern golf history,” Patrick said.

When I turned on the television, Norman’s lead was already slipping away.

“Whatever you do, you can’t come up short on 9,” Ben Crenshaw said on the broadcast.

Norman came up short on 9.

He bogeyed 10 and 11 and doubled 12. The clinical Faldo was soon stepping into a third green coat.

A few months later, Tiger Woods overtook the golf world. The Faldo-Norman battle began to fade from my mind. When Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots, there was no going back to 1996.

But I wanted to.

I got my hands on a 1996 Masters highlights VHS and began what has become a routine that started on cassette tape moved to DVD and, finally, arrived on my computer.

The video begins innocently enough, with the par-3 contest. Four players make a hole-in-one. Jay Haas wins. A young Woods plays alongside Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

On Thursday, after the ceremonial tee shot by Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson, Norman becomes the focus.

He opens with six pars and then starts chewing Augusta National to bits, carding three birdies in a row between No. 7 and No. 9 and shooting 30 on the back nine for a 63. He’s dressed in gray and black, with the big hat. This year, this is where my wife walked in. See, hon, he’s the coolest dude on the property, at least right now.

“I came out with a very relaxed frame of mind,” Norman says.

On Friday, Faldo starts climbing the leaderboard and Norman’s relaxed frame of mind will soon be threatened. Because of Norman’s tortured history, Faldo is thrust into the role of the grim reaper.

Norman’s still driving the ball on a string, but Faldo is clinical. He shoots 67 to Norman’s 69, cutting Norman’s lead to four shots. They will be paired together on Saturday.

Norman’s collapse could have started in the third round, but it doesn’t.

On Saturday morning, Norman arrives to the range and a large group of fans.

“Mr. Norman!” a kid shouts, seeking an autograph. “Mr. Norman! Please? Yes!” Norman walks over and signs.

Both he and Faldo drop two shots in the first seven holes, but Norman birdies No. 8 to go back up by five.

He finds water on No. 12 and saves bogey from 10 feet, but Faldo makes a bogey from behind the green.

Norman isn’t as sharp as he was the first two days, but he isn’t losing any ground, either. His 71 to Faldo’s 73 gives him a six-shot lead, the largest since Ray Floyd led Jack Nicklaus by eight shots in 1976.

“What goes through a man’s mind?” the narrator, Chris Schenkel, asks. “Does he think about the past? Does he think about what might have been?”

The video shows Norman at the 1987 Masters, missing a putt on the 72nd hole that would have defeated Larry Mize. Then it shows Mize chipping in from 140 feet on No. 11 to defeat him.

“What goes through a man’s mind?” Schenkel asks again.

On Sunday, Crenshaw is interviewed.

“[Norman] has said many, many times that this is the one he wants more than any,” Crenshaw says. “He’s prepared. His mind looks very strong. And we’ll see today.”

Every year, I try and pick up some new tidbit from the video, and I did this year.

Norman’s par putt on No. 1, from about 7 feet, is about the same distance as Rory McIlroy’s par putt on No. 1 in 2011. Both missed on the high side and went on to bogeys and wrenching losses.

The video continues. Norman’s pre-shot routine is getting longer and longer. He’s fidgety, just as I remember.

Faldo plays like a machine, like he did during my ritual last year. Norman can’t breathe. One man is struggling to keep the ball on the planet. The other is playing the round of his life.

After a double bogey on 12 -- another water ball -- Norman’s lead is gone for good. On No. 13 fairway, Faldo prepares to hit a 5-wood but backs away at the last moment and chooses 2-iron.

I ran into Sir Nick at a CBS Masters party a couple years ago and asked him about that decision.

He said the clubface “kept turning over” when he set it behind the ball because it was on a downhill lie.

He flushed the 2-iron and made birdie.

On the 16th tee Norman’s pre-shot routine is Sergio Garcia-esque. There is nervous coughing in the gallery. Norman, at last, swings.

“Get ‘em, Shark,” someone shouts. The ball doesn’t come close to the green, splashing into the fronting pond.

“This was the shot that ended the duel in the 60th Masters,” Schenkel says.

Norman shoots 78, Faldo 67. I shake my head every time.

I feel for Norman, but I also appreciate the brilliance that was Faldo’s round. As Schenkel notes, Faldo would not let Norman forget him.

The video is almost over. There goes Norman in the press center, vowing to fight on. Faldo arrives next, saying all he wanted to do after the round was give Norman a hug.

Soon the screen goes black. It was a remarkable day of golf.

Greg, Nick, I’ll see you next year.

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