Memories of putts missed, and of 2 aces I miss dearly


The Kickoff

April 04, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN

Opening Day marks the unofficial start of spring.

For some of us, Thursday and the first round of the Masters holds similar appeal.

This year, both events evoke other sentiments about the changing of the seasons.

There was a tribute to the late Elrod Hendricks at Camden Yards yesterday. Two monumental anniversaries at Augusta National Golf Club have me recalling other absent men, one a friend, the other my father.

This is the 10th anniversary of Greg Norman's collapse at the 1996 Masters, golf's greatest train wreck ever. No one before or since has blown a six-stroke lead after three rounds in a major.

Instead of watching on CBS, I observed a sagging Norman and a surging Nick Faldo through binoculars. If the 1996 Masters is the only one I ever cover, at least I got a good one. There has rarely been a news conference opening statement as blunt as Norman's "Well, I played like ----," but comments from earlier that day remain just as vivid.

John Eisenberg had rented a two-bedroom house less than a mile from Magnolia Lane. A few days before we headed south, John said that a fellow Sun staffer would be bunking in the living room.

Whether his affiliation was the News-Post, News American, Evening Sun or Sun, John Steadman always had a credential to the Masters. He was in his late 60s and did not deserve a couch, but was too polite to complain about sleeping arrangements, even to a rookie like me.

Norman and Faldo didn't tee off in the fourth round until nearly 3 p.m., which made for a leisurely Easter Sunday morning. We had completed our morning jogs and were eating breakfast when I asked about the origin of the John F. Steadman Fire Station at the corner of Eutaw and Lombard.

Eisenberg and I got an hour's history lesson on Baltimore and Steadman's father, who had a distinguished and gallant rise up the ranks of the city fire department but succumbed to a heart attack in March 1940, before John reached his teenage years.

It is painful to relive Norman's fold, but at least Augusta National is celebrating a more embraceable 20th anniversary. Has golf ever produced a better day than the final round of the 1986 Masters? It was the last time the brothers McMullen watched that rite of spring with our father and the first time he openly cheered for Jack Nicklaus.

The Colonel - his rank at retirement from the Army - may have been even more stubborn of a traditionalist than Steadman. Both had their hearts broken by the NFL, but while John continued his Super Bowl streak after the Colts left in 1984, it was never the same for my father after the NFL-AFL merger.

Baltimore was one of the three franchises from the NFL of 1969 that moved to the AFC in 1970, trading rivalries with Green Bay and Chicago for ones with Miami and New England. On Jan. 3, 1971, my father stunned our house when he announced that he would not go to that day's AFC title game against Oakland at Memorial Stadium.

He had been a Colts season-ticket holder since the 1940s, when they played in the All-America Football Conference. He was 50, younger than I am now, and never spent another cent on the NFL.

Golf became his sporting passion. My father was in the generation that had picked up the game in the 1950s. He rooted for Arnold Palmer, who had daring and flair, who won the Masters four times in seven tries between 1958 and '64, and who was from Western Pennsylvania to boot.

By 1986, Arnie's Army had little to cheer, and Nicklaus was 11 years removed from his fifth green jacket. He began the Masters with a 74, and was among seven men tied for ninth place after three rounds. On Sunday, as an old Bear charged up the leader board with a 65, my father straightened his recliner and watched from the edge of his seat.

Nicklaus, 46, beat Norman and Tom Kite by a stroke to become the oldest major champion ever. It was the last time he beat the world's best players.

Weakened by cancer, my father played a few times that summer. He died three weeks before the 1987 Masters. Steadman passed away on New Year's Day in 2001, four weeks before the Ravens won their Super Bowl.

Later this week, I'll join friends for the poor man's Myrtle Beach, 36 holes in one day at two of the area's better munis. When I'm as shaky as Greg Norman on a Sunday afternoon at Augusta, I will think of Steady and the Colonel, and smile.

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