Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
The Greg Norman era at the Masters is one that truly never provided the kind of happy ending many wanted. When the rollcall of Masters champions is presented, there is no doubt the most puzzling of names missing resonates most with Greg Norman.
The Aussie showcased a physical presence hard to miss. Tall and lean with broad shoulders, athletic chiseled features, blond flowing locks, piercing eyes, a surfer's tan and a clear swagger that worked in tandem with top tier golf talent. A modern-day reincarnation of Arnold Palmer via a Down Under connection. The two missing ingredients when compared to The King was a far lesser total of majors won and no Masters green jacket to wear.
In 1981 Norman played in his first Masters and his presence certainly created a major impression. Greg would outline to the assembled press his involvement with sharks back in Australia and the moniker "The Great White Shark" became his branding symbol he smartly parlayed into his global golf identity.
Greg finished 4th in his Masters debut and he backed up his play with clear strides going forward. The golf era of The Shark was now in motion and those golfers swimming in water near him had to be ever mindful of his lurking presence.
Norman would eventually leave the European Tour and make his mark on the PGA Tour -- culminating with a then record 331 weeks as the top ranked player in the world - a mark since eclipsed by Tiger Woods.
The heaviest anchor weighing down the immense talent Greg demonstrated was ultimate validation in golf's four major championships -- most poignantly at the Masters. Norman showed a resolute quality --- again and again contending in golf's premier events. Closing the deal in securing such titles is a critical consummate skill and for The Shark proved to be the most vexing. In 1986, Norman accomplished something no one had done in professional golf -- lead all of the four majors going into the final round. How many did Greg ultimately win? Just one -- The Open Championship at Turnberry.
The storyline for Norman was becoming clear -- prodigious talent getting to the front of the line for 54 holes but then encountering any number of bewildering situations during the final 18 holes. The underbelly was a bit more negative -- Greg could not play his best when the situations called for it.
For Norman donning the famed green jacket and becoming the first Aussie to do so was a driving force. Given Greg's dexterity in driving the ball off the tee for both distance and accuracy it seemed certain an Augusta triumph was just a matter of time.
Heading into the 1996 Masters - the Norman record at Augusta provided its share of clear highs but unfathomable lows even more puzzling and disheartening. In 1986 -- Greg bogied the 18th when needing par at the final hole would have tied Jack Nicklaus. The next year featured in a three-way playoff -- watching in utter astonishment as Larry Mize chipped in from off the 11th green and cruelly inflicted another layer of scar tissue.
In both 1990 and 1991 Norman would fail to make the 36-hole cut at Augusta in successive years -- a clear bottoming out.
In 1995 Greg would tie for 3rd at Augusta and heading into the 1996 event he won several weeks earlier on the PGA Tour at Doral and looked to be in fine form.
Norman's opening round at the 1996 Masters was nothing short of a tour de force display. Greg had started the round with an uneventful six straight pars before concluding play with birdies on nine of the remaining twelve holes. His round of 63 matched the low-18 total round mark set by close friend and fellow competitor Nick Price from a decade prior.
Watching The Shark in full attack mode during such a round was both mesmerizing and bewildering. The manner by which Greg could so utterly dominate a course clearly summarized his golf prowess but the inability to garner the key titles when called upon left one wondering about his internal fiber.
When the 3rd round concluded Norman had secured a six-shot lead over long-time rival and nemesis Nick Faldo. The Englishman was able to secure a clutch par at the 18th hole in finishing his play on Saturday and the result meant being paired with Greg for Sunday's final round.
The two encountered each other in a number of top tier events -- but the most lingering for Greg was his failure to secure the 1990 Open Championship at The Old Course at St. Andrews. The two stalwarts were atop the leaderboard after two rounds. Greg limped home when 3rd round play concluded with a 76 to Faldo's brilliant 67. Eventually Faldo would secure his 3rd Open championship and doing so twice at St. Andrews.
Norman has spoken out concerning his fateful day for the 1996 final round. His body was tight and the wherewithal to hit the requisite shots he so skillfully produced for the first 54 holes was absent. The drip-by-drip descent became more and more painful for Norman culminating when The Shark rinsed his approach at the dangerous par-3 12th and forever lost his once insurmountable lead and with it the prize he had long sought.
Faldo would embrace Norman as the two left the final green. Given the mental anguish endured during a round of golf that clearly imploded -- the Aussie handled the resulting scrum of media and related bombardment of questions with grace that only added to Greg’s fan base globally.
The Shark would contend one final time at the 1999 Masters and finished 3rd to winner Jose Maria Olazabal.
The 1996 event marked the clear demarcation of the Norman era which started in 1981 and ended that fateful April 14, 1996 day. In 1997 a new era started with Tiger Woods blitzing the Augusta National in a record four-round performance and likely ending with his epic 2019 victory.
One week away from @TheMasters... Very much looking forward to being back at Augusta next week providing live play-by-play coverage on @SiriusXMPGATOUR Radio.— Greg Norman (@SharkGregNorman) April 1, 2021
📷: courtesy of the Masters Tournament pic.twitter.com/SGNpk9tMSh
Assessing Greg Norman's career, a quarter century removed from his demise at the 1996 Masters is a mixed bag -- golf skills of the highest order yet inexplicable mental cracks when the biggest of events were played. The record book lists the Aussie with just two majors won and it's still hard to fathom how his low overall total pales against fellow competitors of his era such as Faldo and Spain's Seve Ballesteros.
The mantra Norman would ascribe to his apparel line was "attack life," and he clearly brought that gusto to his golfing exploits. That fateful final round 25 years ago will forever be remembered. Sadly, for Greg what should have been a fitting ending - a coup de grace curtain call -- remains a bittersweet memory. A man whose golf was a baffling contradiction -- exquisite showmanship and enduring heartache. A presentation of the green jacket draped on his shoulders that should have happened — but never will.