Gruesome ending to 'unbelievable day'

April 15, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The putt rolled into the hole and Nick Faldo raised his hands in triumph as a cheer echoed through the tall pines at Augusta National.

Greg Norman smiled as he walked toward Faldo, hand outstretched in congratulation, putting on the noble loser show again, chin up, jolly good. How many times have we seen it?

Faldo wasn't buying. This loss was different, a loss against which to measure all other losses. Not a defeat for Norman so much as a public humiliation.

Golf, the cruelest game, had outdone itself this time. It had taken Norman, a man who already knew misery, and it had crushed him.

It has taken Norman's six-stroke lead in the last round of the Masters and wadded it into a five-stroke defeat.

The ruin was too much, even for Faldo.

He grabbed Norman in an embrace as they shook hands on the 18th green. They're the best golfers of their generation, often bitter rivals in the past. They wrapped themselves in a tight, emotional bear hug.

"I don't know what to say," Faldo whispered to Norman, "but I just want to give you a hug."

Tears welled in Norman's eyes. Faldo's eyes, too. They walked off the green with their arms around each other.

No one knew what to do, how to act or what to say when it was all over yesterday.

"An unbelievable day," Faldo said.

The fans were horrified. They had wanted Norman to win and quell his infamous demons. They had fallen silent across the back nine when he cratered, putting balls in the water on No. 12 and No. 16.

It was gruesome to watch, a fine athlete unraveling under pressure.

Only the worst cynic could enjoy such a complete disintegration, such a relenting in the clutch.

There were no whoops or shouts as the fans clogged the exits heading for their cars. Never have so many people been so quiet. You could hear their shoes crunching on the gravel in the parking lot.

Faldo was almost ashamed to have won in such a manner. It was too bad. He shot a 67 yesterday, a brilliant round. He did just what he wanted. He put the pressure on Norman with a couple of birdies that cut the lead to three strokes, and Norman collapsed.

Yet there was Faldo almost apologizing in the interview room.

"I honestly and genuinely feel sorry for Greg and what he's going through," Faldo said.

He answered a few more questions and his voice dropped off. He sighed. The accidental winner.

"I hope I'm remembered for shooting a 67 on the last day and storming through and not what happened to Greg," Faldo said, "but it's going to be remembered for what happened to Greg."

No use denying it. Norman sure didn't.

"I let it slip away," he said in the interview room, where he spent 20 minutes answering questions. "Call it what you want, but I put the blame on myself. Nick played great and I played terrible."

Was it the most disappointing round of his career?

"Yeah, it probably would be at the end of it all," he said.

He was not defensive, not angry, but almost buoyant, as if he understood that his fortune could get no worse, that he had bottomed out.

He smiled and even joked. He has had to learn to accept defeat. He does it well.

"I'm philosophical about it," he said. "Sometimes things work out on the golf course and sometimes they don't. Sure, I wish I had won today. I'm disappointed, sad and frustrated. I wish I had what Nick had [six major titles]. But it's not the end of the world, losing this Masters. My life is good.

"These hiccups that I have and that I inflict on myself, I figure they must happen for a reason. There must be something waiting for me down the line that'll be good for me. All of this . . . is just a test."

It helps that he has a happy life with his wife and two children, and that he earns an estimated $30 million a year in endorsement and business interests.

He has made more money off golf than anyone other than Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

He also has won two British Opens and 63 other titles around the world over the years.

"I'm not a loser," he said. "I might have lost this tournament, but I'm not a loser in life. I'm a winner."

It is fortunate he has such resolve, because a debacle such as yesterday's will never go away. It will go into the history books and stare back at Norman forever. The worst collapse in Masters history.

As he came up the 18th green yesterday, he shoulders were slumped and he'd lost the bounce in his step.

After he tapped in for a par, he walked to the fringe of the green to watch Faldo putt out and complete his misery. He tossed his putter on his golf bag, which was lying on the ground. He took his glove off and tossed it on his bag, too.

He put his arms by his side and stood in the slanting early-evening light. Faldo's putt dropped in the hole. Norman began to walk toward him.

He had played this scene so many times before.

But never one quite this tortuous.

Faldo reached for him.

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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