Australians seek redemption 25 years after Greg Norman’s collapse
April 08, 2021
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
- Greg Norman during the final round of the 1996 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. (David Cannon/Allsport)
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Twenty-five years ago, the small but feisty sporting nation of Australia collectively mourned.
At just 15, Adam Scott shed tears. Marc Leishman cursed more than a 12-year-old should and his dad didn’t care – likely because he was doing it more. Cameron Smith was just 3 but knows his old man Des kicked a few things over after foregoing a day’s pay to stay home and watch.
Golf has never been Australia’s most popular sport but the tradition of getting up early to watch the Masters was a ritual in the majority of households, even those without a golf club in the house.
On April 15, 1996, even more early alarms went off across Australia than usual. With the east coast of the Pacific nation 14 hours ahead of Augusta, the final round always began before dawn. They were rising to finally see the Great White Shark get his dues. Greg Norman, unfairly cut down amongst the azaleas in 1986 and 1987, was going to be the first Australian to win the Green Jacket.
Norman held a six-shot lead over former winner Nick Faldo. Sure Augusta National had danger lurking but Norman was destined to win. He’d opened with a course record 63 and had held firm with rounds of 69 and 71 to be in command at 13 under. Australians were up and ready to celebrate another huge sporting milestone. It was going to be one of those where were you when moments.
The mainland of Australia is roughly the same size of mainland USA but in 1996 there were nearly double the amount of people living in California (32 million) as the 18 million living Down Under.
By 1996, Australians had conquered golf’s other majors in golf but Norman was owed this one. He’d been felled by an aging Jack Nicklaus in 1986 and Larry Mize’s improbable chip-in the following year. Norman had also had other majors taken from his grasp in dramatic circumstances. It just made sense that this was his time.
Norman never got comfortable with such a large lead at the event that had eluded him, shooting 78 in the final round to Nick Faldo’s 67, an 11-shot swing that left Norman five behind the Englishman.
“I remember all of it. It was a heartbreaker,” Scott said this week. “Watching at home it was brutal.”
“We don’t even want to think about that,” Jason Day added. “It just wasn’t fair really.”
The debriefs over the last quarter of a century have been vast. Over the years it became known that Norman was battling his swing throughout the week and he woke Sunday with his body feeling out of alignment. He says his club was stuck and open, eroding his confidence.
A journalist who Norman knew well had joked, “Even you can’t f--- this up,” as Norman left the course Saturday night. The Shark couldn’t laugh it off.
Then he heard his well-meaning wife had organized friends from Florida to fly up and watch the final round and be there for the coronation. It didn’t sit well with Norman, who always lived in the moment. Not the future. Not the past. It was another distraction.
This week Norman returns to Augusta National as part of the PGA TOUR Radio crew. While others look back to what happened, Norman says he’s past it.
“You just move on. I’ve never looked back I just move forward. That’s my DNA. I don’t make a song and dance about anything I just keep moving through life,” he said from an Augusta National balcony overlooking the property.
Hindsight shows that despite the horror of it all, the moment had a serious positive effect on the future of Australian golf and sport in general. As time passed it became a galvanizing moment for an entire generation.
“The reason why Greg is such a big hero to me is the way he carried himself as a professional golfer,” Scott says. “He probably felt like (expletive) that day, but he walked off the green with his head up, he spoke to the media, he did the best he could. He always carried himself, at least from what I could observe as a kid, so well.
“He was such a good role model in that sense in how to be a professional. It was hard for everyone in Australia watching so I can only imagine how he felt out here going through that. He must have been upside down and inside out. But I hope he knows that that moment is a huge part of who I’ve become.”
It would be nearly two decades until Australia earned its first Green Jacket.
Day and Scott had tied for second in 2011 at Augusta National – another close call. While he didn’t see Norman’s collapse live, a 23-year-old Day was driven to be the first Australian to win the Masters. It consumed him. The drawcard of being the first Australian – the curse breaker – was a huge driving factor. Scott had similar sentiments. They weren’t alone.
“What the Shark did for us as golfers growing up was huge for us. It was unfortunate the couple of times that he had here with Faldo and Larry Mize, but it's just going beyond that it was pretty remarkable what he did for Australian golf,” Day says.
“His efforts are why we have so many players on the PGA TOUR now. I read that Matt Jones’ win last month makes it 33 TOUR seasons in a row with at least one Australian win. Greg was firstly the guy actually winning those but also the guy who inspired the rest of us to try to do the same.”
In 2013, Marc Leishman opened with a 66 and took the lead. Scott and Day sat close behind. Day had the lead through two rounds. All three where in striking distance of the lead come Sunday.
Day looked set to be the man when he held a two-shot lead on the 16th tee, but back-to-back bogeys seemed to resurrect the curse until Scott stepped up. A 72nd-hole birdie was followed by a primal “C’mon Aussie” scream – proof that this was not just about one man, but an entire nation.
Scott beat Angel Cabrera in a playoff with another birdie on the 10th green. His legacy as a national hero was cemented. Scott paid tribute to Norman in the aftermath.
“There was one guy that inspired a nation of golfers and that's Greg Norman. He's been incredible to me and all the young golfers in Australia and part of this definitely belongs to him,” Scott opined.
No one was happier that day than Norman.
“I thought it was fantastic and I had a tear in my eye there is no question about it. I knew I carried the Green Jacket burden for Australia for a long time, but it wasn’t about me it was about the country,” Norman said on the eve of this year’s Masters.
“I wanted to do it and see it done for the country because we had so many great players over the history of time and for us not to have won was a crying shame. It was nuts. So it was so great for Australian golf when Scotty won.
“When you play the game of golf you’d rather be a good loser than a bad winner. To hear a quality player and man like Adam say he was inspired by my reactions in 1996, or even if a random person says it, that’s the victory you have right there.
“It tells me I did things right in life. Sometimes I was hung with a label that I had too much ego, but I feel I was the opposite. And these moments help prove that.”
The five Australians in the field this week – Scott, Day, Leishman, Smith and Jones – obviously all want to win the Green Jacket. They want to win it for themselves and their families. But like Norman before them they also want to win it for their country.
“It would be nice for one of us to win it on this anniversary,” said Smith, who was runner-up last year. “If it’s not me I’m definitely hoping it’s one of the other boys. We are a close and tight group, and it would be a good storyline for sure. I’m sure the Shark would get a kick out of it.”