Heartache Among the Azaleas

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Sometimes they can see the Masters being taken away from them:
 
Tom Weiskopf was on the 16th tee late Sunday afternoon in 1975, staring across the pond at Jack Nicklaus crouched over a 40-foot putt. The ball disappeared, Nicklaus ran to his right and leaped so high that he left bear tracks on the green. Weiskopf became a runner-up for the fourth time and never again contended.
 
Sometimes they can hear the Masters elude them:
 
Ernie Els closed with a 67 in 2004, then retreated to the practice green to prepare for a playoff. First came the warm applause as Phil Mickelson, tied for the lead, ambled up to the 18th green. Els nervously rapped a few putts and munched on an apple, waiting and listening. His dream was shattered by delirium that rocked Augusta National.
 
'I just heard the roar,' Els said. 'I couldn't see that it was Phil, but after hearing the people's applause, I knew it was Phil.'
 
And there are times when there is not much to say:
 
'Don't let the bastards get you down,' Nick Faldo whispered into the ear of Greg Norman after coming from six shots behind to win by five in 1996. Norman's collapse was the greatest in Masters history and one that made him an indelible image of agony at Augusta National.
 
Every major championship seems to hold a hex over some of golf's best players.
 
Sam Snead's record 82 victories does not include a single U.S. Open, the only major keeping him from the career Grand Slam. Phil Mickelson already has tied his record with four second-place finishes at the U.S. Open. Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson never won a PGA Championship, the major keeping them from the career Grand Slam.
 
But the Masters has the longest list of heartache.
 
No other tournament with so much tradition shows so little compassion.
 
'It bothered me,' Johnny Miller said of his three runner-up finishes, but never a green jacket. 'You get some Masters baggage in your brain. The more times you come close and don't get it, the more it builds up in your head.'
 
David Duval came close four straight years, the first time in 1998 when he closed with a 67. He was in Jones Cabin with chairman Jack Stephens as they watched Mark O'Meara measure a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole. Duval figured he was headed for a playoff.
 
'Don't worry, David,' Stephens told him. 'Nobody ever makes that putt.'
 
O'Meara made the putt.
 
'Hey, good tournament,' was all Stephens could say to a shocked Duval. 'We'll look forward to seeing you next year.'
 
There was always next year, right?
 
But it never came for Ken Venturi, who was poised to win the Masters three times in six years, once as an amateur.
 
Not many suffered quite like Weiskopf, a runner-up four times in a seven-year stretch. Even after Nicklaus dropped in that shocking putt in 1975, Weiskopf had an 8-foot birdie to tie, and it somehow stayed out.
 
'One of these days, the putt is going in and I'll win a Masters,' he said that day.
 
He never did.
 
Tom Kite was a three-time runner-up, and that doesn't include the one time he held the 54-hole lead, when he shot 75 in the final round of 1984 and tied for sixth. Duval had it as tough as anyone. He played Augusta National in 31-under par during his four straight years in contention.
 
'I played as well as anyone, including those who won,' Duval said.
 
Of the seven players who have suffered the most at the Masters, Els is the only one who still returns for more punishment. He was runner-up in 2000 when he couldn't get a putt to fall over the final three holes. He was closing in on Tiger Woods in 2002 until taking an 8 on the 13th hole of the final round. And then there was 2004, the most devastating of all.
 
'I'll get over this,' Els said. 'I'll have another shot. I'm sure of that.'
 
That's what Weiskopf said in 1975. That's how Venturi felt in 1960 when Arnold Palmer birdied the last two holes to win by one. Kite for years could not fathom how his 12-foot birdie putt to tie Nicklaus in 1986 stayed out. Asked recently why there was so little evidence of payback at the Masters, Kite bristled at what he called a 'stupid premise' and stormed off.
 
'You just look at the things that happen at that tournament,' Venturi said. 'There's always something.'
 
Els backed away and held up his hands when presented with that question two weeks ago, almost as if it would harm his chances.
 
'No, no. Don't say that,' he said.
 
But there are questions whether he fully recovered from his brush with being a Masters champion, and even now the 38-year-old South African tries to make sure he is not consumed with Augusta National as the tournament nears.
 
'I think in the past, I drove myself so much, especially after 2004, the way it happened,' he said. 'After that, I haven't played too well. This year, for some reason, I feel different. I feel very comfortable. Many years I have felt good there. I know the course. You've just got to play the shots. If you have a bit of doubt at Augusta, you've got to step away.'
 
Duval missed the Masters for the first time last year when his five-year exemption from winning the British Open expired. He is in a mystifying slump, and the Masters no longer means as much to him as when he came so close from 1998 through 2001. Even now, he can point to a shot on the back nine, a break that went against him.
 
Vijay Singh, after getting a fortuitous drop from the pond on the 11th to escape with bogey, hit a tee shot on No. 12 that tumbled out of the jasmine bushes and into a bunker in 2000. A year later, when Woods won his fourth consecutive major, Duval had birdie putts from 12 feet and 5 feet on the last two holes that for whatever reason did not go in.
 
'I would imagine among non-winners, my lack of good fortune stacks up with anyone,' Duval said.
 
There are no answers. And there are no green jackets.
 
If there is a mystique about the Masters, it's not always favorable. Returning to the same course every year since 1934 invariably stirs bad memories that must be overcome.
 
'If you have a few close calls in the U.S. Open, you're always doing it somewhere else,' Geoff Ogilvy said. 'If you have demons at Augusta, which everybody does, guys will remember. You have demons before you even play there.'
 
Els remains hopeful that this year will bring him a coveted title. But history shows that if golf ever decides it owes someone, Augusta National is the last place for payback.
 
'The 1975 Masters, that was the end of me,' Weiskopf told Golf Digest in an interview 20 years later. 'It was just so disheartening.'
 
As for Norman?
 
He last qualified for the Masters in 2001, two decades after his debut at Augusta National, and reality began to take root.
 
'It's hard to sit here and think you'll never get another chance,' Norman said that year. 'This place may finally have done me in. I would have loved to have won here, but it's not the be all and the end all. It's just when you've been involved for a long time in the history of the tournament, you want the good side, too -- the green jacket.
 
'Not for the jacket itself, but for what it means.'
 
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