King of pain – analysis of Masters Tournament

It was interesting how the last Masters of the 20th century became a sick- off. If it had been a tour event, they’d be trying to sell it to Advil next year. Here was Chema, as in Jose Maria Olazabal, back after 18 months of therapy and injections, going up against Wide Right, as in Greg Norman, back after seven months of therapy and injections. Last guy standing would get a green coat to go with his blue cross and blue shield.

But we in the press are moved by such things. We like nothing better than comebacks. Give us a comeback in sports and our eyes glisten and we hunker over our laptops as if we’ve been given unsuspected pay raises by dictators we didn’t know were so benevolent.

Yeah, we’re moved at times, I confess, although I don’t know that we’ve ever been quite as moved as some of the CBS announcers. To say they rooted shamelessly for Greg Norman in the 1999 Masters would be like saying there were pines in the Augusta National cathedral.

Busy as I was trying to find out who Steve Pate was, and why he had a right to make a record seven birdies in a row, I still couldn’t help overhearing Jim Nantz, a normally restrained and dignified fellow, speaking of Norman’s opportunity in the last round, and solemnly intoning, “The world will be holding its collective breath.”

Well, I tried, Jim, but there was this egg-salad sandwich and Coke I was juggling with my notebook up in the press lounge.

Can a man hold his breath and type his story at the same time? This piece may provide the answer.

For two whole days, in regard to Norman’s chances, the words “destiny” and “fate” relentlessly oozed out of the collective CBS mouths, and I imagined the words floating around America’s living rooms and dens like Augusta pollen.

Then there was the crusher. There at the end on Sunday when Wide Right needed to make a par-saving putt, it was the usually witty and charming David Feherty who said to America in a grave voice, “You can feel the love.”

Really? I think in that moment I was mostly feeling playoff.

Anyhow, the Masters began routinely enough when four players, including Davis Love III, tied for the lead at 69. Davis would goofy-golf his way-banging off this, ricocheting off that-into the runner-up spot before it was all over, two shots behind Olazabal’s winning 280, but for the next three rounds it became a serious sick-off.

It started Friday when Olazabal one-hopped his ball over the creek onto the 13th green, holed the eagle putt and fired a 66, and Norman sank a few putts for a 68. Who deserved the most sympathy?

Was it Olazabal, whose nickname, Chema, is Spanish for “wait for big white- haired guy to fall on sword”? Chema, he of the bad back and excruciating pain in the foot? Or was it Wide Right, which is short for Greg Norman, or “Norm,” as a green-coated Masters interview helper called him one day, the tortured soul with the mended shoulder who has self-inflicted so much pain?

The interview area turned into “ER” versus “Chicago Hope.” And I could be identified as the word-processing wretch who quietly came away singing a parody of an old standard:

I’m through with golf, I’ll never swing again.

I’ve bid adieu to golf, I’ll never play again . . .

Not that the Masters crowds or CBS gave Chema that much credit for it, but it was the Spaniard who’d suffered pain the most and longest. It either was or wasn’t rheumatoid arthritis, depending on the diagnostician to whom he spoke. Had it been one of us, it would either be or not be rheumatoid arthritis, depending on what kind of health insurance we had. In any case, there were times when Chema was in tears, couldn’t even walk and thought his career was over.

He told the story at Augusta that a German doctor had finally solved the mystery-a nerve in the lower back caused the foot problem-and had fixed him up. Olazabal could golf his ball once more. So here he was at the Masters, a contender again. A guy who’d won the Masters in ’94, a European Ryder Cup hero with a record of 11-2-2 in matches with Seve Ballesteros as a partner, not to mention that in ’84, at the age of 18, he’d become a British Amateur champion, beating a kid named Colin Montgomerie in the final.

Greg Norman’s medical problem hadn’t been as severe or mysterious. All Greg had done was take off from golf to have a troublesome shoulder repaired.

He told us his absence from the game had given him an opportunity to dis- cover there were other things in life as important as golf. He didn’t mention money among them. But he was noble enough to say the Masters, or any other major, didn’t owe him anything.

This was a reference to the fact that his mis-hit shots in the past-often his wide rights in the heat of battle-had made heroes of lurkers like Mark Calcavecchia, Bob Tway, Larry Mize and Paul Azinger, and had contributed to the lore of such men as Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Fuzzy Zoeller.

Personally, I’d argue that Olazabal ultimately won because he’s the best iron player in the world right now, as he demonstrated in the last two rounds at Augusta, and also because at 33 his nerves are more reliable than those of a man of 44, as in “Norm.” Throw in the fact that Olazabal also happens to be the best chipper around and you could make a worse bet for the U.S. Open on Pinehurst’s Augusta-like greens. If Ollie can manage to find a fairway.

Now a word about the latest changes in fashion on the Augusta National. It seems like every year the hallowed ground gets Oscar de la Renta-ed in various ways, some of the so-called improvements more drastic than others.

The changes may not have looked drastic to the average fan watching TV-he still sees it as the place he’d give up his wife, dog and 401(k) to play just once. But to those who know the place well from years of Masters-going, people who can tell you whether the azaleas this time are the color of marinara sauce, Norman’s blood or none of the above, there was far more discussion about the alterations than about the fact that a certain segment of America was at war with total strangers. Behind the Masters gallery ropes, Belgrade might as well have been the latest Tom Fazio course in South Carolina, and Kosovo the newest titanium driver.

For the first time since the 1960s, there was substantial rough. At least we called it rough. The green coats preferred “second cut”-or was it “first cut”? In any case, they got it just right. It was good set decoration, even though on close examination it looked like manicured frog hair. Sam Snead joked that he used to win tournaments on greens as good as that. It did come into play, however, having an effect on the occasional second shot that needed more spin than a flyer lie could give it.

The four holes that were toughened were the second, 11th, 15th and 17th. The second became a longer par 5, with a reshaped bunker on the upper right and an elegant thick rock wall enhancing the teeing ground. Amen Corner’s 11th green was raised two feet and the water brought in closer and around, creating an evil new back left pin position. Grown-up pine trees were planted along the right side of the par-5 15th, and mounds that often gave tee shots extra roll were reduced. Instead of being the easiest hole on the course, 15 actually played over par for a change. The short par-4 17th was lengthened, which brought Ike’s Tree back into play, and those same pines bordering the 15th also bordered the right side of the 17th and caused problems for any gentleman on the tee with a tendency to fade the ball.

While the changes did have something to do with the higher scoring, they were far from the most severe cosmetics that had occurred over the years. The switch to bent-grass greens in 1981 has had a telling influence on deciding winners and losers. And certainly the totally different 16th hole that Robert Trent Jones sculpted in 1948 made a huge difference. The original 16th was a casual little flip over a creek. Now it’s a middle-iron to a water-protected green with several devious pin placements. Not that Chema didn’t bring the hole to its knees on Sunday when he put that 6-iron only four feet behind the flag to give himself a two-stroke lead.

I also think it ought to be regarded as a big deal when they decided to move the gallery from the back right side of the 15th green, this being the hole where Gene Sarazen’s double eagle in ’35 had given the Masters a bigger boost than all of the peach cobbler in Georgia. Before the fans were moved, more than one Masters had been partly settled by the crowd stopping an overclubbed second shot on the back fringe when the ball most likely would have raced down the slope and into the water. Guys happily flew it at the green in two without worry in those days. With my own eyes, as they say, I saw a Gary Player approach in the early ’60s bounce back off a spectator for a two-putt birdie.

Old Wide Right himself, of course, would certainly have played the 15th differently this time if he’d had a backstop behind the green. But it would be recorded that he drove wide right, refused to gamble and laid up, then hit a 98- yard sand wedge wide right into the bunker, then creased out the 15-foot par putt, staggering to the bogey that sealed his doom yet again, the putt where so much “love” hovering around couldn’t make the ball go in. “Just wasn’t meant to make 5 there,” Norman summed up.

He wasn’t meant to make a 4 at the par-3 12th on Saturday, either, after air- mailing his tee shot and losing his ball in the azaleas behind the green. After a long waltz back to the tee, Norman found the green and made a 25-footer for what Ken Venturi called the best bogey you’d ever see there.

I beg to differ, and I’m sure Sam Snead would as well. Sam was on his way to winning by four shots in the final round in 1952 when he almost went from hiccup to Heimlich at the 12th. After finding the creek with his tee shot, Sam took his drop, only to see the ball roll into a depression. His third landed in the mud and grass short of the green, and all he did from there was hole out for a 4. What was that Norman said about a piece of mud being on his ball for his wedge shot into 15 on Sunday?

No green coat would admit that the changes were made to “de-Tiger” the course, and as it happened, it was one of the old reliable holes that took Woods out of contention-the par-5 eighth, where he snap-hooked his way to a triple the first day. That, plus a putter that kept talking back to him in smart-alecky ways. He’s been a lousy putter, it looks like, ever since he never missed anything on the Masters greens in ’97.

Tiger chaperoned Sergio Garcia the first two rounds this year, and El Nino (Spanish for “wait for big white-haired guy to fall on sword in future”) made it an all-Espana weekend by being the low amateur.

The course changes did take a toll on the other pre-tournament favorite, David Duval, tight cap, shades, snuff, daddy, Ayn Rand, redneck followers and all. Take away a triple at the 15th on Friday and a double at the 11th on Sunday and Duval also shoots 280-but it’s not a 70-hole tournament.

When Friday’s back nine included a series of poor shots by Duval-his first of the year, as a matter of fact-he looked stunned. If he didn’t look like a deer caught in the headlights, not to coin a phrase, he definitely looked like a guy saying to himself, “Hey, this can’t be happening to me-or can it?”

Talk all you want about five guys being tied for the lead as the back nine got under way on Sunday, the fact is that Jose Maria Olazabal hit such beautiful iron shots on Saturday and Sunday-he never had the wrong club in his hand, by the way-he would have won this Masters by six shots if he’d made any putts at all in the third round. Birdie after birdie refused to drop, but he never lost his composure. And on Sunday, he did shoot three under on the back nine, crisping his irons on each hole while all others were taking gas. Remember, his bogey-bogey-bogey spree starting at the third hole on Sunday left him three over par for the round, but he finished with a 71 on a day when no one broke 70 at the Masters for the first time since the final round in 1972. A guy named Nicklaus won that year but this April missed his first Masters in 41 years, because of a bum hip. Too bad-Jack would have fit right in with the walking wounded.

Maybe the real difference between Chema and Wide Right was revealed in what was going on in their minds on Sunday’s crucial hole, the 13th, where Olazabal covered Norman’s 25-foot eagle putt with a 21-foot birdie.

After Greg’s putt dropped, he said he remembered hearing a roar, then another roar from somewhere else, then another roar, then another roar, then another roar. Boy, he thought, there must be other contenders making other great things happen out there.

That wasn’t what Olazabal thought (Olazabal, now with three majors to his credit-you count the British Amateur).

Chema was aware of what was going on as he studied the birdie putt.

“At that point I was thinking, ‘You know what, those roars are because they’re putting on the leader boards the results of Greg Norman.’ “

And he was right. That’s what it was. While Greg was getting caught up in the moment-the familiar deer-in-the-headlights routine-Olazabal just won the tournament.

But in the end you had to say the good news for Wide Right is that it wasn’t all that bitter a loss. Not like so many others. This time it was only a second- degree burn.

The 1999 Masters

Augusta (Ga.) National G.C.

April 8-11, 6,985 yards, par 72

Top 16 and ties qualify for 2000 Masters

J.M. Olazabal 70-66-73-71-280 $720,000

Davis Love III 69-72-70-71-282 432,000

Greg Norman 71-68-71-73-283 272,000

Bob Estes 71-72-69-72-284 176,000

Steve Pate 71-75-65-73-284 176,000

David Duval 71-74-70-70-285 125,200

Carlos Franco 72-72-68-73-285 125,200

Phil Mickelson 74-69-71-71-285 125,200

Nick Price 69-72-72-72-285 125,200

Lee Westwood 75-71-68-71-285 125,200

Steve Elkington72-70-71-74-287 92,000

Bern. Langer 76-66-72-73-287 92,000

C.Montgomerie70-72-71-74-287 92,000

Jim Furyk 72-73-70-73-288 70,000

Lee Janzen 70-69-73-76-288 70,000

Brandt Jobe 72-71-74-71-288 70,000

Ian Woosnam 71-74-71-72-288 70,000

COPYRIGHT 1999 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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