Norman '96 and Spieth '16 - the two don't compare


Yes, it’s obvious why people compare Jordan Spieth’s rather unfortunate blow-up on Sunday with what Greg Norman did in 1996. There are so many similarities. Both were shocking collapses. Both happened at Augusta National. Both men plunked a ball in the water at No. 12. Both had huge leads and were devastated after losing the Masters.

But having been there for both disasters – and having thought about it a bit – I realize that the two are completely different. One is just something that happens. The other, well, is a Greek tragedy.

Let's face it: Jordan Spieth’s troubles Sunday were only shocking because he’s Jordan Spieth. If his name had been Jugsy McSquirrelbottom, and he had surprised his way to a big lead going into the back nine on Sunday, we might have expected him to hit the ball in the water twice at No. 12. After all: That's a devastating little hole. Even Nicklaus, in his sweeping run to to glory in 1986, bogeyed No. 12.

You will remember Jean van de Velde. He triple-bogeyed the 72nd hole at the 1999 Open Championship when a double bogey would have won him the claret jug. It was one of the most jolting things I've ever witnessed, no question, but in retrospect was it all that surprising? Van de Velde was Rocky Balboa, an affable and middling pro who, for one brief moment, found himself under the hottest spotlight in golf. Sure, that last hole was crazy. But it was crazier that the guy was in position to win the Open in the first place.

Spieth’s brief but potent three-hole blackout is so common in professional golf we hardly even think about it. Look at Hideki Matsuyama, a fantastic player ranked No. 13 in the world. He was in good position to contend on Sunday. He went bogey-bogey-double bogey on holes 4 through 6 to drop out of contention. That sort of meltdown happens to great players at just about every major championship.

So what made Spieth’s quadruple bogey at No. 12 stand out is that he seemed utterly immune from such things. He almost won the Masters his first time out! He led for seven straight rounds! He was in contention to win all four majors last year! We had come to believe that Spieth invulnerable to pressure and anxiety and golf's gravity. Turns out, unsurprisingly, he’s is not.

What happened to Greg Norman in 1996 is completely different.

One of the most fascinating baseball players ever is Nolan Ryan. This may not sound connected but it is. Ryan is utterly fascinating because he decided early in his career what kind of pitcher he would be and he never, ever backed down from it. Ryan tried to strike out every single hitter he ever faced. Each battle with the hitter was personal to him.  It didn’t matter the score, it didn’t matter the pitch count, it didn’t matter the quality of hitter. You and me. Let’s go.

This stubbornness pushed Ryan to strike out more hitters (5,714) than anyone else ever will. He struck out 300 batters at age 42 – nobody else will ever do that. The stubbornness pushed him to throw seven no-hitters – nobody else will ever do that, either.

But with such singular purpose came unintended consequences. Ryan tried for corners and swings-and-misses, and in doing so he walked 2,795 batters, about 1,000 more than any other pitcher in baseball history. Those walks hurt a lot, especially because Ryan did not particularly care about holding on base runners. They ran at will against him. Ryan was also an error-prone fielder. He always seemed surprised when the ball came back. These seemingly minor flaws made the almost-unhittable Ryan surprisingly beatable in his career. His 292 losses are the most for any pitcher since 1900. Pitcher losses are not a particularly revealing stat but, hey, that’s a lot of losses. Ryan was unable or unwilling to adjust his pitching style so it was less spectacular and perhaps more effective. He made his choice to be awesome.

Norman, I think, made a similar choice. Nobody played a more thrilling or daring brand of golf than Norman. He was the Shark. He hunted for eagles. He hunted for birdies. There wasn’t a flagstick out of his reach. There wasn’t a bunker he couldn’t fly over. Year after year, all around the world, Norman would show up and dazzle everyone with the most majestic and awe-inspiring shots in the game. He was the player who left other players gasping.

Take the second round at Turnberry at the 1986 Open Championship. The conditions were pretty brutal; Norman himself had called the course “humiliating” just one day earlier. Put this way: Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, who had played their famous Duel in the Sun here just a few years earlier, both shot over par. Norman shot 63 – he had a putt on the final hole to shoot a major-championship-record 62. He missed a couple of other putts or he might have shot 60. Numerous players, including Watson and Nick Price, would call it the greatest exhibition of golf they had ever seen, at least until Tiger Woods came along more than a decade later.

Norman had that kind of talent, and he flaunted it. He attacked relentlessly. He would talk every now and again of dialing it back, but like the scorpion in the story, going at flags was just in his nature. And it led to a beautiful career. Norman won 85 times around the world. He had two glorious Open Championship victories, the first a runaway, the last a tour de force against a star-studded leaderboard at Royal St. George’s. There he shot a final-round 64, leaving a jaw-dropped Gene Sarazen to say, “I never thought I’d see golf played like that.” Norman became the most famous player in the world, an international superstar, a hugely rich entrepreneur and the one every kid wanted to become.

And the unintended consequences? Right: Norman kept losing in heartbreaking ways at major championships. In 1984, he sank a ridiculously long putt at the U.S. Open to reach a playoff with Fuzzy Zoeller. He lost the playoff by eight shots.

In 1986, it’s easy to forget, he was tied with Nicklaus for the lead, and he hit a perfect drive on 18. He went for the birdie because he’s Greg Norman. He pushed his approach into the gallery and bogeyed the hole to lose. “He wanted to make history,” his caddie Pete Bender would tell Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly. “He wasn’t going to go for the middle of the green.”

He was leading the 1986 U.S. Open by a shot when hecklers called him choker and got under his skin. He walked over to them and challenged them to show up after the round. They did not, but Norman was toast and shot 75 on the last day to fall off the leaderboard.  Two months later, at the PGA Championship, he shot 76 on the last day and lost when Bob Tway made up a four-shot deficit and dropped a bunker shot from what would be known as Tway's Trap.

On and on it goes. At the 1987 Masters, Norman got beat when Larry Mize chipped in from 140 feet away in the playoff. In 1989, Norman was tied for the lead in Augusta and he bogeyed the 18th hole again. Same year, he made it into an Open Championship playoff with Mark Calcavecchia and Wayne Grady and, on the fourth hole, he hit it into a bunker, then another bunker, then out of bounds. He never finished the hole. Calcavecchia won the four-hole playoff with scores of 4-3-3-3. Norman’s score officially is 3-3-4-x.

In 1990 at the Open Championship, Norman shot 12 under the first two days and was tied with Nick Faldo for the lead. On Saturday, he shot a 76.

“Disastrous,” Faldo called it.

In 1993, just a few weeks after his titanic performance at Royal St. George’s, he lost a playoff to Paul Azinger at the PGA Championship, giving Norman the unfortunate distinction of being the only man who has ever lost all four major championships in a playoff. Like Ryan’s walk record, nobody will ever touch that record.

Norman turned 40 in 1995 and was reborn as a player after working with Butch Harmon. That was the year that many people called him the greatest driver of the ball the game had yet seen. But still he could not quite compose himself and win at the majors. At the Masters, he was in position to make a run at Ben Crenshaw when he went for birdie at 17 (of course) and was over aggressive (of course) and spun the ball back off the green, making bogey. At the U.S. Open, he led going into the final day and then shot a 73, allowing Corey Pavin to come from off the pace to take it away from him.

All of this is an important backdrop for the 1996 calamity. With Spieth, we just couldn't imagine him blowing it. With Norman, we could not imagine him winning it. But for the first three days, Norman played almost surreal golf. He tied the Masters record with a 63 on Thursday, making him the only players to shoot 63s at two different major championships. He increased his lead to four shots the second day and to six shots going into Sunday. It was all over as this Cincinnati columnist wrote for that Sunday morning:

“Norman has turned the Masters into a White Shark music video. He leads the one-man, off-Broadway production by six shots and nobody is in second place.”

“You know,” says Nick Faldo, the leading candidate for finishing second, “anything’s possible.”

“People always say that, but you know, not anything is possible. Norman is focused. This tournament is over, history, done.”

Ha ha, what a goofball … oh, wait, that was me. Well, it did seem over, even with Norman’s history. He had done a lot of losing in the big tournaments, but he had never botched a six-shot lead at the Masters. It did not even seem in the realm of possibility. This was going to be the day of justice for Norman’s career. He would finally win the most glamorous tournament, and he would win it Norman style, pulling away, the first Australian to win the Masters, the culmination of a death-defying career of shooting at pins.

And maybe that’s why it didn’t happen. Maybe he wanted it too much. Maybe there was just too much scarring. Whatever, he looked out of sorts from the start, bogeying the first hole. By the time he made the turn, his lead over Faldo was just two shots. Then came the back nine, and Faldo did what Faldo was famous for doing – he went par-par-par on the first three killer holes of the second nine. Norman went bogey, bogey, double bogey, the last of those a water ball on the 12th hole. The groans rumbled. Faldo went to the 13th hole leading by two shots. The last few holes for Norman were agony ... for him and everyone watching.

It’s tempting to say the Norman was never the same after that, but it isn’t quite right. He was 41 years old, remember, so the sun was setting anyway. He had five more top-10 finishes at major championships. He even led the Masters one more time on a Sunday in 1999.

So, it’s not really right to compare Spieth’s struggles on Sunday with Norman in 1996. Spieth is 22, and he has played Augusta about as well as anyone, and he just had one of the greatest years in recent history. He says it will be tough to recover, and I’m sure he will have a few sleepless hours when he thinks about the 12th hole, but every great player has those sorts of regrets. You imagine that he will be fine.

Norman in 1996, meanwhile, was the climax of an operatic golfing life. He tried to birdie the world. It brought him a lot of victories. It brought him a lot of heartache, too.