Twenty-five years ago this week I was standing on the back of Greg Norman’s ultra-luxury boat anchored in Hilton Head harbour drinking beers two nights after his Masters meltdown. The 1996 Masters was just my second appearance at Augusta National and with a round remaining, what an occasion it promised to be for this Australian-born reporter.
Greg Norman led the 60th hosting of the Masters by six shots and looked set to become the first Australian golfer to win at Augusta National. As Sunday morning dawned, I was not alone in having put a skeleton copy together featuring a long list of record-breaking achievements Norman would create, and in the process thinking to myself all we needed now was to marry-in Norman’s victory quotes.
Of course, it never happened. Norman maintained a four shot lead through seven holes, and then proceeded to lose five shots to par over the next five holes with Nick Faldo managing just one birdie over the same 12 holes. The hurt continued as Norman then proceeded to find the water with his tee shot on 12 in taking a double-bogey and any thoughts of Norman being fitted with an Augusta National members green jacket disappeared to the bottom of the water guarding the green on 16.
Faldo won a third Masters and his sixth Major with a stress-free round of 67 for a five-shot success over Norman who was second with his horror six-over 78. So much for the copy I and indeed many others had prepared!
Next tournament stop was Hilton Head for the then named MCI Classic where both Faldo and Norman were competing. Newspapers around the world were dominated with sports page headlines of Norman’s collapse with Sydney’s Daily Telegraph posting a huge one word headline on their back page: ‘Choke!’
The author of the story itself was the now late Tom Ramsey though in those later years of his career Tom had already lost Norman’s respect, so imagine Norman’s rage in seeing the ‘C-word’ headline.
In arriving at the Sea Pines course, here was the sight late on Tuesday afternoon of Norman working on his bunker shots. My good friends, colleagues and also fellow Australians, Andrew Both, Charles Happle and myself headed off to watch Norman and hoped to get a chat with him on his Masters collapse.
Not for a minute did the three of us genuinely believe we would get access to our crestfallen compatriot. To his enormous credit, Norman looked in our direction and gave us that nod of approval that we could approach him and here is where Andrew was brilliant.
There must have been just four or five us in the bunker by Norman’s side and it was Andrew leading the questions with Norman opening-up on the events post his Masters meltdown such as flying back to Florida in his private jet and just remaining on the plane into the early hours of Monday morning wondering where it all went wrong. He spoke also of taking his children to school later that Monday morning and also how the loss had impacted him.
Norman had again arranged for his ultra-luxury 87-foot fishing boat, proudly named ‘Aussie Rules’ to be again his Hilton Head accommodation and after chatting with him, he invited Andrew, Charlie and myself onto his boat later that evening. The three of us headed back to the Media Centre pretty proud of ourselves that we had been able to speak to Greg when so many other players would have blown us away. I could just imagine if it had been Faldo in reverse circumstances as you would not have got anywhere near him, even if armed with a barge pole.
Also, in those early days post the 1996 Masters it was all about Norman’s worst collapse in his Major’s history and this Aussie journalist trio had a great scoop. We took up Norman’s invitation and made our way to ‘Aussie Rules’ anchored in close-by Hilton Head harbour but the evening wasn’t the party it might’ve been.
If my memory serves me correct, Norman’s close friends Nick Price and Peter Jacobsen were on board, and we spent a couple of hours chatting with Norman’s caddy, Tony Navarro. Norman, for the most part, remained inside the cabin while we stayed at the back of the boat happy enough drinking a few ‘tinnies’. That night was not a night for celebration and, if anything, it was more akin to a wake.