At the Masters, more than any other tournament, the emotional lives of the players, in good times and especially in bad, are in plain view. There’s Tiger and his father in that embrace 20 years ago. And then there’s Greg Norman a year earlier, receiving a condolence hug from the winner, Nick Faldo. The contenders wear their hearts on their sleeves, playing. As do we, rooting.
The Masters is just different. The course is alive, leads are never safe, and if you win, you get gifts that cannot be bought. You’re in that upstairs locker room, with Nicklaus and Player, for life. You’re at the champions dinner on Tuesday night, with Phil and Tiger and Fred, for life. Spoils with no expiration date.
Which is why the vanquished at Augusta are so dear to us, and the path to defeat so indelible. What-could-have-been dies hard there, and we feel their pain. We can close our eyes and still see the blood draining from Rory McIlroy’s face in 2011, during his Sunday back-nine 43 in the last twosome. We can imagine the flight home for Ken Venturi in 1956, chin on his chest, after the hotshot amateur from San Francisco and 54-hole leader closed with an 80. Venturi’s pining is the ultimate example of unrequited love, Augusta-style.
McIlroy, at 27, is still in the wooing stage of his Masters romance. I can’t pinpoint why, but I am worried about the Rory-Augusta dance, maybe because I know how much the place means to him. Consider this dead-of-winter missive from him: “The happiest I’ve been on a golf course not playing in a tournament would have to be the first time I played Augusta with my father. It was March 2015, and we did a father-son trip for two days with two members and their sons. Thirty-six holes each day, and I remember the sun was going down on the first evening, and we were walking up to the 18th green. My dad and I both were exhausted but probably would have gone for another 18 if we could have.” A green jacket would fit Rory well. Someday, maybe, it will.
The coat would have hung perfectly on Norman. I had always thought that the Norman-Augusta relationship was another prime example of unrequited love, alongside Venturi’s. But Norman told me the other day I had that wrong. “To this day, if a member invites me and I go play, I love it, everything about it,” Norman said. He’s 62 on his driver’s license but about half that on the beach. “It’s the course. It’s the way the club does things. It’s how the people there make you feel.” He says his Augusta memories are all good, even the bad ones. That’s some trick.
But I believe him because his life changed at Augusta, for the better. When Norman came back for the 1997 Masters, nothing was the same. “The way they treated me in the locker room, in the clubhouse, the way the fans responded to me, it was all different,” he said. Norman’s swagger was diminished, replaced by something resembling . . . warmth. The loss in ’96, and his return a year later, “helped me understand the meaning of the game,” he said. That is, in golf, how you handle yourself is more important than what you shoot. But on Sunday night in ’96, he understood the winner in a new way, too.
“Faldo could be a tough son of a bitch to play golf with,” Norman said. “He was oblivious. That whole last day he didn’t say boo. But then he came in for that hug, and I could see for the first time deep down inside what was there.” He saw Faldo’s humanity.
Faldo won his third and final green jacket that day. Maybe he knew that Norman was never going to get what he had, the Butler Cabin interview, the second-floor locker, the invitation to the champions dinner, all that status. Norman accepted that a long time ago.
“There are certain moments in life that change you,” he said. “You can fight them or you can embrace them. But you’d be an idiot not to embrace them.” Norman embraced the course, the tournament, the club and its members and workers, the outcome, Faldo. He embraced us. We embraced him. Life, ever so slightly different, went on.