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SPORTS EXTRA / FOCUS ON GOLF: The Masters | FALLING
HARD

Who Says You Can't Be a Great Loser?

April 08, 1999|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a flip side to winning beautifully--it's losing ugly. Of course, in order to lose a tournament, you have to be in the position to lose, so you have to do something right to do something wrong.

That makes sense. But how do you make sense of the biggest collapse in the history of major golf championships? It happened to Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters.

What befell Norman is still difficult to believe, so let's take it chronologically.

Round 1, Thursday: Norman ties the Augusta National course record with a 63. He leads Phil Mickelson by two shots.

Round 2, Friday: Norman's 69 puts him at 12 under. Nick Faldo is four shots back, Mickelson and David Frost are six back.

Round 3, Saturday: Norman shoots a 71 for a 13-under par 203 and increases his lead to six shots over Faldo.

Round 4, Sunday: Norman shoots a 78, Faldo shoots a 67 and Faldo wins by five shots.

No one has ever been so far ahead and lost by such a margin in a major. And Norman has never been the same.

Just as no one has ever birdied the last hole to win the U.S. Open, there are enough negative happenings in majors to fill Rae's Creek to overflowing.

* Arnold Palmer blew a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play at the 1966 U.S. Open.

* Palmer made a double bogey on the last hole at the 1961 Masters and lost to Gary Player by one shot.

* Doug Sanders missed a virtual kick-in putt on the last hole in 1970 at St. Andrews and lost the British Open to Jack Nicklaus in a playoff.

* Scott Hoch missed a two-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole of the 1989 Masters and lost to Faldo.

And so on.

A great loss is often a compelling story, just as a great victory. But Norman's collapse was painful to watch because of its timing (it took the entire day) and its severity (a total and complete devastation).

News reports of the 1996 Masters were more about how Norman lost than how Faldo won, which was not exactly fair because Faldo closed with a 67. But how the story was told was perfectly understandable, Hale Irwin said.

"Charging from behind to win, that makes great copy," Irwin said. "So does losing.

"I think you'll find that most major championships are lost instead of won."

The key to avoid a major collapse is to believe in yourself and to be patient, Irwin said.

"You keep knocking on the door and sometime, sooner or later, it'll open. You can't plan it, you can't imagine it, you can't buy it at a store, you can't eat it and no one can give it to you," he said.

"You find it."

Or you don't.

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