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Augusta a reminder of green coats that got away for Aussies

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The Curse of the Shark still hangs like a boomerang over Augusta National, just like Rory McIlroy is hovering over the premises this weekend.

The proud golfing nation of Australia has produced Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Bruce Crampton, Bruce Deviin, Stuart Appleby, Robert Allenby, Steve Elkington and a blond Don Quixote named Gregory John Norman.

The Aussies have won tournaments all over the world and in all three other majors. But they have never won at Augusta and they, along with everyone else, are four strokes behind the eerily placid McIlroy, who is 12-under-par after 54 holes.

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Does it make sense? No, but it didn't make sense that Norman, at various points, wore both sleeves of the green jacket and shined up the buttons and still had it ripped away, through cruel and inexorable fate and his own inexplicable falterings.

"We watched that one in 1996, when he lost to Nick Faldo," Adam Scott said. "The whole country was devastated. I remember seeing Charlie Earp, who was his old coach, and he was devastated.

"Greg was bigger than golf in Australia. He was an icon. There were almost tears at home that day. It was very hard to watch."

It might seem cruel to dredge up such nightmares, but there it is. Besides, it just isn't Augusta until we spend at least a few minutes remembering the coats that got away:

 In 1986, Norman hung a 4-iron approach into the crowd at 18, which sealed Jack Nicklaus' sixth Masters.

 In 1987, Norman got into a playoff with Larry Mize and Seve Ballesteros and watched Mize chip in from absolute jail on the 11th hole.

 In 1996, Norman shot 63 in the first round and led by six after three. Then, with his hands fidgeting nervously on the grip, he came apart in sections, and Augusta's fans walked around in an empathetic stupor, as if they were watching a public hanging. Norman shot 78 and lost to Nick Faldo by five.

"The 1987 one was luck," said Neale Smith, the Orange County, Calif.-based psychologist and teacher whose clientele includes 23-year-old Jason Day. "The 1996 one was just very hard to watch."

Then, three years later, Norman pushed Jose Maria Olazabal hard Sunday, finishing third.

Overall Norman had two seconds, two thirds and a sixth at Augusta National. And maybe those mishaps have soured the go-for-it bravado that lives inside the Aussie soul.

Still, a chance remains. Day is 8 under, four behind McIlroy, and actually led after sinking a remarkable 45-foot birdie putt on No. 5. From that moment McIlroy shot 2 under and Day shot 3 over.

"The lead was short-lived," Day said. "I made some mental errors coming in."

Scott, who was once the No.3 player in the world but can't synchronize his good weeks with major championships, shot 67 with his new long putter and is five strokes behind.

Geoff Ogilvy faded to a 74 on Saturday and is at 5 under, seven behind McIlroy.

As Ogilvy said, the Masters should be right in the Australian wheelhouse because the greens are so similar to many courses back home, particularly Royal Melbourne. "The same guy did both sets of greens," Ogilvy said, referencing Alistair MacKenzie, the architect behind Augusta National.

"Jason hadn't played here before but he loved the fast greens, he hits it a long way and he hits a lot of draws," Smith said. "I think he and all the rest of the guys had seen this place so much on television that they were more familiar than they thought."

But Day's round on Saturday was somewhat reminiscent of Norman's in the self-destruction department.

"He made some unforced errors," Smith said. "He turned a four into a six on the 13th and he turned a three into a four on the 16th."

Day said he "roasted" his second shot on 13 behind the green, where he had a devilish chip that fell short of the putting surface. That became a 3–putt bogey. The 16th was another 3-putt, although Day said the second putt hit a spike mark and bounced right.

But then Day knew the round wouldn't be as pristine as his Friday 64.

The first hint came on the third fairway, when the strap on his golf bag broke and someone had to fetch a new one for his caddie, teacher and mentor, Col Swatton.

Day is 23 years old. At 16 he was a world amateur champion. That was four years after his father Alvin died of stomach cancer, and he was sent to the Koolarbyn International School, where he met Swatton.

It was Alvin Day who had fetched an old 3-wood out of the trash barrel one day and gave it to his 6-year-old son, who swung it at everything he saw.

Day played in PGA Tour events as a teen, joined the Nationwide Tour and worked his way through, and last year won the Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas.

"I don't think I have anything to teach him," said Scott, 30. "It's hard to mentor a guy who's beating me. He's passionate about it and he's got a good head on his shoulders. I don't think I have that much to tell him."

"Most of the stuff we've done has just been to focus on the moment," Smith said. "This morning we said, OK, we've had 136 shots [in the first two rounds]. Let's just think about Shot 137. Go to the tee -- what's the wind? What are the conditions? He's been very receptive to that. Whether he wins or whether he doesn't, those are two very good growth situations. He will take a lot out of being here for the first time."

Well, he might not have been all that calm. Day's wife Elle told someone she had to fix him breakfast, or else he wouldn't have eaten.

"It was a lot more serious round than the first two," Day said, laughing.

Then Day talked about all the young players coming up, without apparent irony. McIlroy is 21. At least that's what his passport says. His golf game could have registered to vote several years ago.

"The coaching is so much better, the science is so much better," Day said. "It's almost like the LPGA tour with all these young guys. But I can't control what Rory does. I can sort of control what I do."

The island continent probably isn't sitting on the same pins and needles this weekend, having seen the scores, having barely healed the Shark-induced scars.

But they, of all people, should know that Augusta on Sunday is a place where tectonic plates can overlap and shake things up.

"I stayed home from school to watch it in 1987," Scott said, noting that the Masters ends on Monday morning in Australia. "But I'm not proposing skipping school."

Today Jason Day tries to skip a grade.

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