Collapsing at the Masters, the pain that never goes away

Jamie Squires/Getty Images (2011)

Collapsing at the Masters, the pain that never goes away

Professional

Collapsing at the Masters, the pain that never goes away

AUGUSTA, Ga.—Heartbreak at the Masters is like a doomed first love affair, the one whose ache never quite dulls. Sure, players can go on to find love in other places — the Opens, a PGA Championship — but the pain of a loss at Augusta National doesn’t ever fully disappear.

Some of that is owed to familiarity. As the Open returns to Carnoustie this summer, Jean Van De Velde will field a flurry of calls to autopsy his 1999 collapse. But at least the Frenchman only has to relive his fiasco every decade or so when the rota returns to the scene of le horreur.

Fail at Augusta National and the ghosts will start whispering every year on the drive down Magnolia Lane.

Curtis Strange still hears them. In 1985, he opened with a round of 80 but battled back to hold a three-stroke lead with six holes to go in the final round. His attempts to reach the two par 5s at Nos. 13 and 15 both found water. He finished tied second, two behind Bernhard Langer. I asked Strange how long the sting lasted?

It still stings 33 years later

“You mean it doesn’t sting anymore?” he replied.

Thirty-three years later, and he’s only partly kidding.

“I think about it because deep down I really should have won. That would have hurt anywhere. You think you’re a good closer and to lose a tournament like that hurts,” he said. “To lose this tournament like that hurts. There’s such history here. With me, it still lingers.”

Strange thinks Rory McIlroy probably feels the same way since losing a four-shot lead in 2011.

“Ain’t that part of the lore here? Like it or not he’s part of the history here that didn’t win,” Strange said. “And he’s a big part of the potential history on what everyone thinks he could do.”

“Winning four majors after that will soften the blow,” he adds with a laugh.

He knows what of he speaks. He went on to win two U.S. Opens in 1988 and 1989, earning a deserved reputation as one of the flintiest competitors in the game.

“If you don’t learn from your near misses you never get better.” Yet he doesn’t chalk up the wins later to the loss of ’85. “How can you ever say?” he wondered. “If I’d won the Masters who’s to say I might have won three or four?”

Tough-luck losers have plenty of company

Strange doesn’t lack for company among the ghosts. Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller combined for seven second-place finishes and no green jackets. Tom Kite can still tell you his most painful miss of many (’84, if you’re asking). Ernie Els had a few brushes but always came up short He’s not even here this year. Four major wins, but Els has no eligibility to play the Masters. They’re not big on sentimental special invitations here. The old guys who actually won provide plenty enough sentiment.

14 Apr 1996: Greg Norman of Australia looks to the ground in dejection after missing another putt during the final round of the 1996 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Mandatory Credit: David Cannon/Allsport

Greg Norman set the mark when it came to late collapses at the Masters, losing a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo during the final round in 1996 (David Cannon/Allsport)

No one was more star-crossed at Augusta National than Greg Norman. Eight top-5 finishes, including three seconds, most memorably coughing up a six-shot lead on Sunday in 1996 to Nick Faldo. I asked the Shark’s old rival, who won three times here, what separates those who close from those who swoon.

“There’s two types of golfers—ones who can play under pressure and ones who can’t. It’s bottle,” Faldo said, deploying British slang for nerve. “Bottle is the 15th club.”

Faldo closed every opportunity he was presented with at the Masters, each time watching with clinical detachment as someone else faltered. Scott Hoch missed a short putt in their 1989 playoff. One year on, same hole, same playoff, Raymond Floyd found the water.

‘You gotta face your scars’

“This place has great memories for people,” he said. “And scars. You gotta face your scars.”

He believes the fine line between success and failure comes down to clarity of thought in the cauldron, making the right decisions based on the right aim.

“Most of that year [1996] with Greg I knew if I could get within three after nine anything can happen,” he said. “Some guys fall over a three-shot lead the last three holes. Three to me was nothing.”

I asked Faldo why he thinks Norman could never close at Augusta National. “Pollen,” he said. “He hated the pollen here.”

Unlike many former winners of the four majors, Norman doesn’t show up at the Masters to hang outside the clubhouse and relive old times. Strange can empathize.

“It does linger and it should linger because you care so much about this place,” he said.

He looks over his shoulder at the clubhouse.

“You could be going to that Champions dinner every Tuesday night.”

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