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Was the Norman collapse in the '96 Masters actually "choking"?


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#1 emncaity

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 01:50 AM

The subject of this thread and a couple of subissues are as follows:

   1.  Whether Norman's collapse in the final round of the '96 Masters was a matter of "choking" (or as at least one participant said, "gagging"), or whether it is more accurately seen as something else.

   2.  Whether the term "choking" or "gagging" should be restricted to occasions where a player's performance is notably worse under pressure because of fear or feeling too small for the occasion, or some closely related version of that, or whether it should be expanded to include anything that affects performance negatively.

   3.  If the answer to #2 is "yes," then whether that distinction is more than semantic.

   4.  If the answer to #2 is "yes," then what other kinds of things negatively affect performance under pressure, and whether those further break down into useful categories.


This subject emerged as a side discussion on the separate "Favorite Tour Picture" thread (here on WRX).


The significance, to me, runs mainly along three lines:  

   --  It was a big moment in the history of major-championship golf.  Norman never really came back in majors after that, although he did win a couple of events afterward.  This is after playing some of the greatest golf in history during his extended stretch at #1.  Also, it further cemented Faldo's reputation as a truly great player.  (Going back to look at the shots in that final round again reminded me of just how great that round was for Faldo, actually, who was probably my favorite close-to-prime player at the time.)

   --  It gets at what I believe is an unfair perception of Norman as a "choker" in general.

   --  If there is a distinction between "choking/gagging" and other forms of interference with good performance under pressure, that matters to competitive players now, even those reading and responding to this thread.  For instance, you might have had trouble closing out a stroke-play tournament yourself, but you didn't feel any particular fear while in the process, at that point it's a matter of looking at specifically what your thought process is, how you assess the situation as it develops, whether you're picking targets appropriate to how you're hitting it that day (or whether you're aware enough of how you're hitting it that day in the first place), etc.


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#2 emncaity

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 02:17 AM

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.


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#3 oz dee cee

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 06:13 AM

Lots of info there and Iím not even sure if Iím answering correctly.
Caveat first, I actually like Norman and he was my favorite player for 20 years. I watched that round and cried through it. (I was young and he was my hero)

But he choked. Nothing more, nothing less. Choke.

Luck with the thread...

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#4 Hawkeye77

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 08:11 AM

By any normal definition of the word in sports, of course choked.

For one of the better articles about it:   https://www.golfdige...-20-years-later

Golf is hard.

Edited by Hawkeye77, 10 January 2019 - 08:19 AM.


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#5 Hawkeye77

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 08:14 AM

Now back to the pics.

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#6 Hawkeye77

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 08:17 AM

Great guys.

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#7 Hawkeye77

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 08:18 AM

"I choked on a dust bunny yesterday!"

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#8 dpb5031

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 08:22 AM

Some days you just dont have "it." Whether it's
biorythms or whatever, sometimes we're just "off." We've all had those days...

Unfortunately for Norman he was "off" in that final round. Nerves become elevated when you know you're off and it becomes even more difficult to perform up to your own standards. Add the fact that we're talking about one of the biggest stages in all of sport plus Norman's own desires and expectations, and it's a real pressure cooker.

I guess you can call it a choke, or whatever you want, but I think it's more complex than that.


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#9 23under

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 08:32 AM

They both have something in common.

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#10 Hawkeye77

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 08:44 AM

Lots of gagging in the movie for which Cage won best actor in '96.

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Edited by Hawkeye77, 10 January 2019 - 11:34 AM.


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#11 golfandfishing

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 11:22 AM

100% choke. Nothing else.



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#12 Pulledabill

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 11:33 AM

Big time choke


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#13 ZAP

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 11:43 AM

I will admit I have gone to the course the day after playing well and just plain sucked.  Without pressure.  I have also completely collapsed under self imposed pressure.

I will say only Greg knows for sure.

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#14 jholz

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 11:45 AM

With the lead Norman had entering Sunday, and the way he lost it, I'm not sure you can characterize it any other way.
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#15 tiderider

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 11:46 AM

been a few under after 12 or so and chasing my personal best and flat out choked ... get to thinking about a bad swing or the next hole or something ... same thing ...


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#16 DRRicks

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 11:55 AM

He almost missed the pond (left) on 16. Címon.
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#17 Body_Visions

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 11:57 AM

Whatever it was, it completely overshadowed one of the best final rounds in major championship history.  A 66, that I believe could have been a couple lower had Faldo needed it.

Personally, I define choking as a blow up hole, 3-putt, or a missed short one, while in the heat.  

Did he melt under the pressure Faldo was applying?  Possibly, but that was more of an all-day deal, that wasnít defined by any particular shot.

And letís not forget that Norman would have needed a 72, just to tie.  Not exactly the easiest thing to do on Sunday.

Edited by Body_Visions, 10 January 2019 - 11:59 AM.


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#18 Obee

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 12:08 PM

I love that you take this subject so seriously. I truly do. I get the same way about things I care about.

Norman choked on the biggest stage like many have done before him and many Has done after him and many more will continue to do.

I am an expert on choking. My choking comes at the scratch amateur level but I am a true expert. LOL.

Your body and mind get out of sync. Nothing matches up. You think faster. Your vision even changes. Nothing you do can calm down your mind or body.

The biggest problem from the Golf perspective, is that your big muscles and small muscles get completely out of sync. You just cannot match them up and simple shots that you've hit a million times become seemingly impossible.

That was Norman that day, unfortunately.

Edited by Obee, 10 January 2019 - 12:18 PM.

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#19 Hawkeye77

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 12:08 PM

This thread is about tour pics, right?  This guy didn't choke in '96! Favorite pic of mine, again sorry my image quality was compromised resizing, the original is quite stunning. ;-)

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Edited by Hawkeye77, 10 January 2019 - 12:09 PM.


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#20 rawdog

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 12:15 PM

View PostHawkeye77, on 10 January 2019 - 08:44 AM, said:

Lots of gagging in the movie for which Cage won best actor in '96.

(Not so) fun fact: The writer of that novel grew up about a mile from where I live. The book/movie mirrored his life as an alcoholic, and he committed suicide in his mid-30s.

Powerful movie for anyone suffering from addiction.

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#21 Matt J

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 12:15 PM

 Obee, on 10 January 2019 - 12:08 PM, said:

I love that you take this subject so seriously. I truly do. I get the same way about things I care about.

Norman choked on the biggest stage like many have done before him and many Has done after him and many more will continue to do.

I am an expert on choking. My choking comes at the scratch amateur level but I am a true expert. LOL.

Your body and mind get out of sync. Nothing matches up. Do you think faster. Your vision even changes. Nothing you do can calm down your mind or body.

The biggest problem from the Golf perspective, is that your big muscles and small muscles get completely out of sync. You just cannot match them up and simple shots that you fit 1 million times become seemingly impossible.

That was Norman that day, unfortunately.

I 100% agree.

I even choke in casual rounds.  Did it yesterday, even.

I always liked Greg Norman for the excellence he displayed on the golf course.  Even many tales of what a jerk he can be off the course has not swayed me from admiring the performances I witnessed as a child.  I truly admire his ability to put himself in a position where he could compete for prestigious titles even if he did not always win them.  That's the extent of my feelings on your topic.  Feel the same way about Jordan Spieth's shots that landed in the water on 12 in the 2016 Masters.  Just amazed at how composed a kid could be and perform so well in such an important golf tournament.  The exceptional performance is noteworthy to me, the poor performance would just be normal performance, not exceptional bad, just what I would expect out of most people when faced with that level of difficulty for 5 hours a day 4 days in a row.

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#22 fairways4life

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 12:21 PM

Norman's playoff record in PGA Tour and European Tour events was 5-14.

For a guy that won 34 times on those tours combined (and another 50+ times on the "lesser" tours), he only got 2 majors.

He had 30 Top-10 finishes in majors and 20 top-5 finishes, but only turned two of those into wins.

He had some bad breaks along the way --- like Larry Mize's chip-in --- but it's not like Norman displayed a menacing ability to close out tournaments. Some guys are just better closers than others.

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#23 King_Slender

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 12:25 PM

He shot 78 - total choke.

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#24 vman

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 12:42 PM

 King_Slender, on 10 January 2019 - 12:25 PM, said:

He shot 78 - total choke.
Similar to the '86 USPGA where he shot 76. Everyone goes on about Tway's holed bunker shot but Norman had 3 sub 70 rounds prior to his closing 76.
TAYLORMADE M4 9.5*
TAYLORMADE M2 TOUR 3HL
SRIXON Z565 4-9
CLEVELAND RTX 4 TOUR RAW  46* 52*
TAYLORMADE HIGH TOE 58*  64*
PING UG-LE

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#25 helper_monkey

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 01:43 PM

The 1996 Masters is one of my great memories in golf.  My dad was going to do yard work most of the day and told me to come get him when they got on 16 so he could watch the last couple of holes and see Norman win the green jacket.  I (wisely) decided I better go get him well before that! We watched the last 10 or so holes together in almost silence, just couldn't believe what we were seeing.  After it was over, we still had to get all the yard work done that was supposed to have been done while we were watching golf.  We were out there working in moonlight for a bit, but it was worth it.


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#26 Body_Visions

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 01:57 PM

 Obee, on 10 January 2019 - 12:08 PM, said:



Your body and mind get out of sync. Nothing matches up. You think faster. Your vision even changes. Nothing you do can calm down your mind or body.

The biggest problem from the Golf perspective, is that your big muscles and small muscles get completely out of sync. You just cannot match them up and simple shots that you've hit a million times become seemingly impossible.

That was Norman that day, unfortunately.

I define what you mention as pressure, feeling the heat.  Everyone feels that to some degree, sometimes even in a casual round.  

I believe choking is a singular incident that produced ultimate failure.  Missing a short putt, badly chunking a pitch, etc..

Norman might have had a few of those that day, but he was feeling the pressure you described all day.  

I think they are totally different matters, and must be dealt with differently if one is to succed.



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#27 Rangeballz

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 02:09 PM

I'm sorry, what was the question again?

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#28 Kookaburra1966

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 02:11 PM

I'll throw someone else in the blender if I may.

Ever since the mid 70s, one of the most commonly mentioned "facts" was that "no Australian has ever won the Masters".  Norman grew up with that, as did we all.  It's not like there hadn't been a multitude of others with a good shot at it, just never happened.

Ever since his first professional win in 1976, he was "the next best chance to finally win at Augusta".  By the mid-80s that expectation had only intensified, Norman was the best, no, the only chance "we" had of breaking that curse.  He wasn't carrying just his own expectations, but the whole nation - a nation with not much to show other than perpetual overachievement on the sporting field.  After 86 (led going up the 72nd), 87, .... that pressure and expectation only grew.  96 was finally going to be finally "the year" and, having just crested the big 4-0 and physically starting to break down, the weren't going to be too many more chances.

Bottom line - he just wanted it too much.  We all did.

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#29 Matt J

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 03:58 PM

Extraneous comment, I don't know why I don't watch old footage more often....

I just broke down my second office setup a few weeks ago and today threw together a second screen at my desk and put this coverage from YouTube on the second screen, WOW!

The commentators actually say pretty reasonable and intelligent things and the swings are beautiful, the course might look as good or better than it does today, get to see a young Mickelson, young Nobilo, good stuff.

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#30 Darth Putter

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Posted 10 January 2019 - 04:13 PM

For those that want to see the historical record for themselves.


swing is irrelevant, score is everything

just say NO.... to practice swings

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