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Masters Moments: Norman collapse too gruesome to watch, 1996

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

The parade became a procession, the dance begat a dirge.

By the time Greg Norman finished the final round of the 1996 Masters, which represented the biggest collapse in major championship history, he had morphed from Masters champ into Medusa.

Fans averted their gaze, hoping not to make eye contact, as he trudged home over the final holes, the disaster already certain. Playing partner Nick Faldo, who would win his third green jacket and sixth major title that day, became an afterthought as the Norman hearse rolled past.

Norman, a two-time major winner whose Hall of Fame career ultimately was pockmarked by bad luck and just plain bad play on the game's biggest stages, was undergoing a 4½-hour autopsy, on national television, before 40,000 stunned fans.

In its tournament postmortem, Sports Illustrated described the scene thusly: "The last 20 minutes were unlike any seen in the previous 59 Masters. Norman became a kind of dead man walking, four shots behind and all his dreams drowning in Augusta National ponds behind him. Spectators actually looked down, hoping not to make eye contact, as Norman passed among them on his way to the 18th tee."

Not that Norman didn't hold his head high and look his inquisitors right in the iris. Proving that he's one of the classiest acts in sports, he trudged into the media center a few moments after Faldo gave him a hug on the final green and uttered the words, "Don't let the bastards get you down."

Of course, it was pointed out that Norman had plenty of practice at fending off the journalism dogs. He had blown the 54-hole lead seven times previously at majors.

"I screwed up," Norman said, forcing a smile somehow. "It's all on me, I know that. But losing this Masters is not the end of the world. I let this one get away, but I still have a pretty good life.

"I'll wake up tomorrow, still breathing, I hope."

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He woke up close to comatose that Sunday morning. Faldo destroyed him by 11 shots as Norman hit a baffling array of wild shots that induced grimaces, cringes and groans from the usually reverential Augusta crowd. The lead evaporated faster than his marriage to Chris Evert.

It was unwatchable. Nick Price, one of Norman's pals, was spotted bolting from the Augusta clubhouse midway through the round. He couldn't stand to watch his friend suffer any longer.

It's not often that a major tournament is recalled more for how it was lost than how it was won. Last year's Masters, with 48-year-old Kenny Perry losing in a playoff, is another rare example. That said, Faldo surely has gotten short shrift.

His closing 5-under 67 was the best round of the weekend. The English star had erased deficits of three, five and six shots in the final round to win at Augusta, an insanely difficult feat. But this time, Norman all but handed it to him, shooting 78. When Faldo birdied the last hole, he raised his hands, unsure of how to react given what had transpired with Norman.

The Shark was No. 1 in the world ranking at the time. He would eventually top other less-desirous lists. ESPN.com's Page 2 staff dubbed Norman the greatest choke artist of all time in a 2007 story.

As he faced the media that day, Norman tried to take the long view. Surely, there had to be a reason for his misery, a greater lesson. He made no excuses.

"All these hiccups, they must be for a reason," he said. "All this is just a test. I just don't know what the test is yet."

We still don't.

In 1997, he would win two tournaments on the PGA Tour, but never again thereafter. A dozen months after the epic Norman collapse, a skinny kid from California played in his first major as a professional and won the Masters by a dozen shots -- and the Shark era was devoured by a Tiger.


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