My answers to the questions posed as the subject, with corresponding numbers:
1. Can't know for sure because we're talking about inner state of mind and motives, but it appeared to me, based on his history and personality, that it definitely was something other than anything like fear-based "choking" or "gagging."
2. Seems to me that "choking" or "gagging" lose their meaning as they're applied to a larger and larger list of just about anything that causes performance to decline under pressure for a given player. I just don't think there's any doubt that those terms connote fear or some feeling of being too small for the occasion, "not ready," something in that area. For many, it's even an indication of some kind of character flaw, some level of cowardice or inability to shake off fear.
3. IMHO the distinction is self-evidently more than semantic, starting with the fact that the solution for one is not going to be the solution for another, and that matters to a competitive player.
4. Maybe listing all of these potential factors is too ambitious, because there are so many specifics for every individual player. But even limiting it to what I think was affecting Norman on that Masters Sunday leaves us with some observations that might be relevant for people trying to compete now.
In Norman's case -- again, given his history and personality, and also acknowledging the impossibility of saying with absolute certainty what was going through his mind -- I don't think it had anything to do with fear or feeling like the stage was too big or anything like that.
By "history," this is what I'm talking about: He'd already won a couple of majors and had spent an extended time as #1 in the world with some of the best golf ever seen. His final round in the '93 (British) Open was one of the best rounds in the history of major championship golf, with Faldo right there on his heels, when Faldo was still #1 in the world. Norman was actually a shot back starting that final round, tied with Langer, only a couple of shots ahead of Price (who was PGA Tour player of the year that year, leading money winner in both '93 and '94, and about to go on a tear as the #1 player in the world himself, including back-to-back major wins at the Open and the PGA in '94). Another shot back were Els and Couples. And in that environment, with those people, he had one of the best final rounds in the history of major championships. Ever. By '95 he was ranked #1 again (people familiar with the system will understand the lag time), where he stayed for three straight years, after having been #1 in the world in '86 and '87 too.
So it's hard for me to see how anybody makes the argument that he "came apart" or "gagged" as a more mature player with that kind of recent history. The technical problem that had plagued him in the mid-'80s and led to big misses on the final holes of majors (mostly a matter of the right foot sliding and a big push as a result) wasn't there anymore. Even then I don't think it was a matter of fear, but certainly it wasn't by '96.
I was a fan then and still am, but I do think he has weaknesses like any player does, even those higher on the list of all-time greats. To me, the possibilities include at least the following two, but way more likely the first:
-- Aggression and confidence to a fault
. Specifically, when confronted with being not as sharp on that day as he had been on the first three days (he shot 63 to open the tournament), his response was, as so often, not to pick bigger targets and think about good places to miss. It just wasn't his habit to factor in human error. Possibly this was partially due to the incredibly high level of play he'd sustained from '93 through '94 and part of '95, to the point where he got wrapped up in "perfect shot every time" (which can produce winning golf if you're hitting near-perfect shots a lot), but he had always had a tendency to do that. It's a legitimate question how a guy like Nicklaus can be working on two tracks at the same time, trying to make the best swing he can with as positive and aggressive an action as he can, while having planned the shot to allow for whatever margin of error seems appropriate on that particular day. But Norman seemed to lack that gear, as if thinking about potential error was bad mojo or bad psychology, like it was a negative and he didn't want to have anything but "I absolutely can and will do this" thoughts in his head.
Anybody on this list familiar with the field of social psychology will be aware of the counterintuitive research indicating that in contradiction to the typical "everybody should have higher self-esteem" pop-psychology mantra, in fact people tend to hold overly positive views of themselves with regard to multiple characteristics, everything from looks to intelligence to other matters (although I'd like to see how that research has been updated in the age of social media, especially for teenagers, but whatever). But the kicker is that this overly positive view seems to have multiple benefits in terms of psychological health and adaptation. In short, people tend to think too highly of themselves in ways that are actually good for them, that make them always tend to try to make up the deficit between what they are and how they see themselves, etc. That is, it seems to provide a positive impetus for improvement in various ways.
I bring this up because I remember Norman talking about his conviction that he could tell the difference in a yard or two at middle-iron distances, both from the feel off the clubface and what it looked like in the air. Of course this is completely indefensible as fact, since to start with there are environmental factors that would have more than a yard's worth of impact on a shot of that length. It is possible that this attitude leads to a level of self-belief that, on the whole, helps you win tournaments. But it's also true that there are situations in some tournaments where being a little bit wrong in the wrong situation can cause disaster when you don't factor in a reasonable margin of error, if you disregard where a good miss would be, etc.
Maybe a simpler way to put it is that he mostly had one gear, and when that gear was working and was suited to the situation, he could run off with things. When it wasn't, he didn't. As any competitive player knows, every day is like a series of questions that have to be answered. You either have an answer to what's happening that day or you don't. Can you hit this shot, and then this one? Can you keep getting it up and down? If you're missing fairways, do you have something else you can do to solve that? If you're missing greens, what are you going to do to stop missing them? If you're hitting it great and you have low-round potential that day, can you make putts and keep making them? And so forth. But for Norman, on that Masters Sunday, he just seemed not even to understand the questions at times. At #1, just hit it anywhere on the green and two-putt. Just don't start off by losing a shot. At #4, the long par 3, there's no point whatsoever in trying to fit the ball in over the bunker with the pin on the right when you have a big lead, and yet he did. At #8, if you're going to hit it hard up the hill, you've got to make sure your stance is stable on that uphill lie and you don't miss left. All kinds of room to the right where you can still make birdie even after a miss, but really tough if you go left. At #9, you've got to get a yardage several paces past the hole so even if you hit it a shade fat or hit it with so much spin it backs up a lot, you're not going to end up 30 yards back down the hill with the possibility of double bogey. If you're in perfect shape in the fairway on #10 and the pin is left, with at least 30-40 feet of green to the right, you miss anywhere but left. If you're on #11 having bogeyed the last two holes, and you manage to pipe it down the middle and finally hit a good shot to the safer side of the green with a mid-length two-putt to stop the bleeding, you find some way not to three-putt. And if none of that happens, you absolutely positively make sure that your miss on #12 is on the back fringe. You don't fudge your tee shot to a right pin, trying to get it kinda sorta close while shading left a little. People do that all the time, but you can't do it in that situation. You hit it well left and with no chance of water. It's only an 8-iron. It's not that hard to pick a line 30-40 feet left of the hole, over the left side of the bunker, to give yourself a little push margin. It took all of that and more to make this disaster, and even after all that he's still in the tournament if he can just get it together and stop the hemorrhage. Even after 15 he's still only two back with three to go, still possible.
If you go back and watch it, there really weren't any fearful swings or any shrinking from the occasion. Just a persistent inability or disinclination to read the situation and react appropriately, to absolutely refuse to hand the tournament over. Thursday felt better, and that was the goal, to play like that. But when it's not going to be 63, can it still be at least a winning 71, even if it's plodding and unimpressive to people?
I said in the side discussion on the other thread that Norman -- who I really like and think is underappreciated -- was a lot like a sports car that is exhilarating to drive when everything is running perfectly, but when it's not in top-performance mode, if it's just a little out of tune or has a bad cylinder or whatever, it can't even keep up with the Fords around town. On days when your game is a Ford, if you insist it's a Ferrari and you keep trying to drive it that way, you're just not figuring out how to make the most of what you have that day, and if the course is good at punishing that kind of thing, you're in trouble.
But you know, maybe he just enjoyed playing that way. It carried him to huge heights at times. I'd say the same in a different way about Phil Mickelson, whom I also like and admire. He plays the way he wants to play. To him, it's a blast. I think you could make a case that either of these guys would've won more tournaments and more majors with just a little more of the Nicklaus or Hogan or Jones mentality about how to keep the wheels from coming off, but it's not like Norman has had a bad life or a bad career. Had a great career, in fact, and anybody should be so lucky to have his life. He's not on the shortest short list of best-evers, but he's in the next group, and he's had a great time doing it. So I'm not trying to shred the guy here. I'm just saying that what happened to him and how he reacted to it are not best characterized by calling it "choking" or "gagging." It's more like the old adage of how if you're a hammer, every problem is a nail. One approach, and if it works it works. It just didn't that day, and he had no answer for what was going on. I think he thought he was going to go into the final round flying like he'd been flying all along, and he was going to win it going away. He just never thought error was going to be a factor, and he had a single idea of what he was trying to do. At least that's what it seems like to me, looking at the whole picture.
Another minor possibility is...
-- Getting caught between what he was doing with Harmon and what he was doing with Leadbetter.
Certainly wouldn't be the first time this happened with a pro. But I don't think Norman really had any big swing problems on that Sunday anyway. He had a few critical misses, and it's possible that getting caught in uncertainty was part of what caused them. I don't know how you'd ever know whether this was likely to be true or not, though. Seems more likely to me that the collapse was mostly a matter of what I said above.
(If anybody's wondering, some of this is material I'm working on for a book project, so that's another reason why the details were on my mind to begin with, when I ran across photos on the other thread.)
Edited by emncaity, 10 January 2019 - 02:18 AM.