A Shark Tale

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A Shark Tale

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

As of today, the first and arguably most prestigious of the four men's major golf tournaments is under way in Augusta, Georgia. If the Masters isn't the most prestigious, it certainly exudes the most mystique. The azaleas, the grand old oak trees, the famous green jacket. On one hand, Augusta National is everything that's wrong about golf. The most exclusive club in the country. Just ask Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, who has been battling men in madras pants with names like Hootie Johnson for years to open the club to women members. Battling unsuccessfully, by the way, so Ms. Burk this year has gone another route and mounted a resolution accusing Exxon Mobile of discrimination against women for sponsoring the Masters. The resolution has been filed and will now go to a vote by shareholders in the oil company.

Back in the early '90's, when Atlanta became a finalist, along with Athens, to be considered host of the 1996 Olympic Games, representatives for both Atlanta and Athens were doing some serious wining and dining of International Olympic Committee members. Athens took them on swank yachts, sailing around the Greek isles. In Georgia, the most impressive outing possible was to escort the IOC members through a round of golf at the elite, private Augusta National club.

There are magnificent, dramatic, stunning golf courses all over the United States. Pebble Beach in California, Shinnecock in New York, Pinehurst in North Carolina. But the site of the Masters, Augusta National, both because of and despite its exclusivity, is without question the jewel of them all.

It's also the place associated with one of golf's most poignant heartbreaks. It happened in 1996, to be ranked up there with that baseball rolling between Bill Buckner's legs. A defeat so devastating that you worry the athlete will never get over it. He'll be haunted with the memory all his days.

From the day Greg Norman started out on the men's golf tour, he was extremely popular. Like most Aussies, he was outgoing, a crowd favorite, endearingly nicknamed &quotThe; Shark." There is no more sports-rabid country than Australia. They idolize their rugby players, their Olympic swimmers, their tennis champs--and Greg Norman could well be the country's greatest-ever sports hero. In his young days, a rookie on tour, his teacher said to him, &quotGreg;, on every shot you hit, you will hit it with an Australian flag over the top of you."

That Australian flag waved boldly in the winds at Augusta National back in the '80's and into the '90's when Norman, in his prime, was many times in the hunt for the fabled green jacket. Six times he played the bridesmaid, finishing second or third. But it was 1996 when the pressure of winning the first Masters for his homeland choked The Shark's grip. He shot a course record 63 the first round. He was still in command after 36 holes. Still in the lead after 54. The time change to Australia meant nothing as Norman teed off that final Sunday. Virtually the entire population of the Land Down Under watched throughout the night. Norman started the day with a huge, six-shot lead, and slowly, painfully, it all slipped through his hands. It got to the point that he couldn't even watch his putts track toward the hole. He'd tap the ball with the putter and hang his head, that iconic Aussie wide-brimmed hat bowed to the ground. And you could hear the groans, not only greenside, but all the way from Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane. As Norman crashed, Nick Faldo surged. The Shark once again finished second, but this time, 1996, was deeply painful.

Norman is 51 now, affable as ever. He's got 88 tour victories to his name. He's skipping this year's Masters due to knee surgery but he'll be watching -- and remembering.

The Masters. A place of azaleas, old oak trees, the green jacket, and Australian heartbreak.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad