In the middle of the 15th fairway, 198 yards from the flag, Seve Ballesteros was the sole leader at nine under. Up ahead, a 46-year-old named Jack Nicklaus had just eagled 15 and birdied 16 to get to 8 under. Impressive as the Nicklaus charge was, Seve, with 4-iron in hand, knew that a good strike and two putts and he’d have one arm in the sleeve of the green jacket.
Whether it was the heat the Golden Bear was applying, or Ballesteros trying too hard, Seve’s swing was a little quick, a pull-hook into the pond short and left of the green. We all know what happened next – Nicklaus birdied 17 to Verne Lundquist’s legendary “Yes, Sir!” and history was made. Ballesteros played the final three holes in one-over, smiled and waved, and applauded as Bernhard Langer placed a sixth green jacket on Nicklaus’ shoulders, but inside he was already thinking of his ailing father to whom he had promised victory.
Many years later, Seve, ill himself, would confide to a close friend, that there isn’t a day goes by that he doesn’t think of that second shot into 15 during the ‘86 Masters. Seve had promised his dying father he would win that week. The shot on 15 would haunt him for the rest of his career.
Nowhere does ghosts quite like Augusta National. To win there is to achieve golfing immortality, to be accepted into the most exclusive of clubs, and to (quite literally) be separated from the other players. For those who’ve come closest but fallen short, there are constant reminders around every corner. South African’s Ernie Els, Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel can play a practice round together, but afterwards Immelman and Schwartzel will head for the Champions’ locker room where four-time major winner Els is not welcome.
Another who has enjoyed the view from the top of the world rankings but never from inside the Champions’ locker room is, of course, Greg Norman. Arguably the most famous of Augusta’s bridesmaids, Norman was in the final group in ’86 and tied for the lead playing the last before a heart-breaking bogey five to finish, but it will be his final-round collapse in ’96 when leading by six after 54 holes that keeps him up at night. Having missed the cut at the ’98 Masters, Norman was asked to sit in the CBS commentary booth for the final two rounds as he had done occasionally at other tournaments, but Norman wistfully replied that he couldn’t bring himself to talk about somebody else winning the Masters.
As April approaches, and Masters fever ramps up, I picture Norman in the dead of night constantly being visited by the three ghosts of Augusta National. The ghost of Masters past replaying the pushed iron to 18 in ’86, the Larry Mize chip in the ’87 playoff, and the final round collapse in ’96. The ghost of Masters present displaying the Shark, just turned 62, still competing in the year’s first major, still making the cut and for a fleeting moment or two, turning back the clock in his trademark straw hat. The ghost of Masters yet to come finally showing Norman, seated next to Mickelson and Woods at the Champions’ dinner, holding court while regaling tales of the old days, before raising the roof with a hole-in-one at the par 3 contest the following day.
Perhaps the Shark is more at peace with his Masters failures than Seve ever was, but it’s doubtful. After all, two green jackets hang in the Augusta National locker bearing the name of Severiano Ballesteros.
Greg Norman can’t even get in.