I continued my attempt to find a niche in the golf writing business but with little result. They loved all my "Letters to the Editor" (I won several packs of golf balls) but my articles rarely made it up the ladder.
So forgive me if I include a couple of pieces that I felt were pretty reasonable again as a record of my post-radio work and just in case somebody finds them of interest sometime in the future.
The Shark and the Demons, by Frank Avis, 2006
This is the 10th anniversary of the famous "Augusta melt-down" by Australia's Greg Norman. The Shark who turned 51 in February, may tackle the occasional British Open and the odd event on the Seniors and/or Regular Tour but that's probably pretty much it. Even his most devoted fans now realise it's over - it just wasn't meant to be. I'm going to argue in this article that when they come to write the history of this golfing era Greg Norman will emerge as one of the legends, not just because of how he dominated the game for so long, winning two British Opens on the way, but for how he came to lose half a dozen other golfing majors. What fate did to Norman is already part of sporting folklore. I suspect it will become even more fascinating to golf fans 50 to 100 years from now. Detractors will continue to argue that The Shark just didn't have "the right stuff" on Sunday afternoon and to an extent that's obviously true. But honestly, when you take this journey with me and look at those astonishing defeats I believe you'll wonder, as I do, why fate couldn't have been just a little kinder.
The 1984 US OPen, Winged Foot
This is the Championship where Fuzzy Zoeller waved the white flag of surrender believing Norman had nailed a 40-foot birdie at the 72nd. Actually it was a par and pushed the two into a play-off 24 hours later. Norman returned the compliment, waving his white flag as Zoeller gave him a good old fashioned working over, 67 to 75.
The "white flag" routine remains one of the most endearing memories of the 80's.
The Shark's play-off round was obviously way below Norman's expectations but remember Zoeller chose this moment to play a superb 67. How many players do you think have won a US Open play-off with a 67? I'm prompted to ask, "Why Fuzzy? Why did you have to do it against Greg?"
This is a question which will return to haunt us in the following pages.
The 1986 Masters, Augusta
Norman was leading the final round with the greatest of them all Jack Nicklaus, at the end of his illustrious major dominance, back in 9th place. Nicklaus was 46 years old and no one, not even his most ardent fans, entertained the thought that there was the remotest possibility of one last famous charge by the "Golden Bear". Jack made the turn in 35, managing a birdie at the 9th, and then proceeded to take Augusta apart with a finishing 30. That included eagle, birdie, birdie, birdie. It remains one of the most devastating finishes in golf. By the time Norman got to the final hole he needed a birdie to win and a par to tie. He pushed his 4-iron wide and couldn't get up and down. But let's remember Greg still fired a final round 70, normally more than enough to win the Green jacket (What wouldn't he have done for a 70 in 1996?). But it didn't happen this afternoon not with the Bear launching one of the greatest back-9 assaults in Masters history. That most respected of commentators Peter Allis in his book "The Open" says, "In my opinion... Jack Nicklaus is by far the best last-round player ever born." No argument at this end, Peter. Not that we begrudge Jack his '86 title. Such a genius is entitled to make one last charge but funny isn't it that he chose to do it this particular day, this year against Greg Norman.
The 1986 PGA, Inverness
Norman should have had this one all sewn-up well before the amazing drama of the 18th. He led by 4 at the start of the day and was still 4-up at the turn. But the Shark had another episode of those infamous "major wobbles" and found himself all square with Bob Tway by the 14th. The two were still locked in combat four holes later. Tway hit his approach into the bunker while Norman made it on to the fringe of the green. Anybody with a spare $100 would have put it on the Australian. After all this was Bob Tway in the bunker, not Seve Ballesteros. But the young American up-and-comer proceeded to hit out of the pot sending the ball 25 feet straight into the cup.
Michael Williams in his book Grand Slam calls it "one of the most savage acts of fate the game has known".
I don't want you to think I'm turning paranoid here but do you detect a pattern developing?
The 1987 US Masters, Augusta
You thought '86 was a bummer at Inverness? Wait till you got to '87 at Augusta. This time the Shark came home with a 72 to find himself all tied up with Seve Ballesteros and young American, Larry Mize.
Seve had to trudge back to the clubhouse after the 10th leaving Norman and Mize to fight it out on Augusta's most difficult hole, the 11th. Everybody knows now how Mize hit his 3rd from well off the green, sending it 46 yards bang, smack into the cup.
We see it over and over again on TV. It's one of the most replayed moments in sport. It also happens to be one of the most extraordinary shots in the history of golf. Fate is at it again.
1989 British Open, Royal Troon
Norman came home with a wonderful 64 to force a play-off against fellow Australian Wayne Grady and America's Mark Calcavecchia. It was all settled on the final hole of their 4-hole playoff when Norman went for the driver and smacked it 325 yards into a fairway bunker.
Critics still berate Norman for not playing conservatively but Wayne Grady says it was one of the greatest drives hes ever seen. No one had made it to that bunker all Championship - no one thought anybody could. Rarely has a ball been hit so well... Too well. Norman, typically, chose to attack only to see the famous claret jug handed over to Calcavecchia, when the Shark couldn't find the green from the sand. And we can't let this occasion pass without mentioning that Calcavecchia missed the fairway, crashing through the crowd into the rough. The American then proceeded to pull his Ping Eye-2 5-iron out of the bag and hit his recovery to within 6 feet. (No wonder they're banning square-grooves!) I don't need to quote a golf writer, I'll just quote the man himself, "It's the best shot I ever hit." (Mark Calcavecchia, 1989). There are dark forces at work here, folks.
1993 US PGA, Inverness
Norman closed with a 69 to go into a play-off against Paul Azinger. The Autralian, fresh from his victory in the British Open, had a chance to win on the first play-off hole and a chance to stay level with Azinger on the second. He lost the title courtesy of two dreaded "lip outs". Jaime Diaz ,writing in the New York Times, says, "Norman watched two putts in sudden death roll hard against the left edge of the hole only to spin out."
If you ever get the chance to watch a replay (and believe me you will) you'll see how he hits his putt on the first play-off hole just about perfectly. He's 20 feet away and a couple of feet out the ball starts turning beautifully towards the hole. Surely it's in, it can't miss can it? But right at the end, it hits the edge and does a big power "lip out".
Keep watching as the two go to the 2nd play off hole. Norman is 4 to 5 feet away, needing this putt to stay alive. It's looking good, really good, but it's déjà vue time. Again, it hits the edge and does a repeat "lip out". Surely, after 1986 Norman is entitled to a bit of fortune at Inverness, but no, the demons are at it again.
1995 US Open, Shinnecock Hills
35-year old Corey Pavin was four shots adrift of Norman at the start of the final round and still 2 shots away at the turn. But Pavin's 3 birdies at the 9th, 12th and 15th pushed him into the lead. He delivered the coup de grace on the 18th, electing to hit his 4 wood in order to carry the bunkers guarding the green. Has anyone hit a better 4-wood? I mean it's the final hole of the US Open after all, but Corey flushes it, the ball sailing on to the verge between the bunkers to hop on to the green, 5 feet from the hole. He misses the birdie but par is enough to upstage the Shark in yet another Major.
It's not Pavin's "shot of the day". Not his "shot of the tournament". Nor indeed is it his "shot of the year". It's the "Greatest shot of his life" and, yes, you guessed it, he played it against Greg Norman.
1996 US Masters, Augusta
By the time he gets to August in '96 the demons are playing beach volleyball inside Norman's head. But he launches one last attempt to get hold of that green jacket, including a marvelous first round 63, putting Greg 6 shots clear of the field going into the final round. The only thing is he's drawn to play the last 18 with his nemesis, the ice-cold Nick Faldo. This is the last person Norman wants to see on the first tee. Somebody made Nick just to win majors. On a Sunday afternoon he is relentless. Faldo won just 7 events on the US PGA Tour, 3 of them were the Masters. Try that for a conversion rate.
Actually, the Shark hangs on pretty well for 8 holes. All he needs is a break, a sign that Faldo is human. But the British genius is in the middle of one of his greatest ever final rounds. A tough, uncompromising 68. Finally, the pressure valve stops working and Norman self destructs with bogey, bogey, double-bogey. It's his last chance at the Masters and the critics are right: he blew it big time.
I can't help but add a PS here, more than a decade later.
2008 British Open, Royal Birkdale
I wonder did you happen to notice the final round in this Open championship, when a 53 year old Greg Norman led by 2 shots? Now the Shark fell away with a 77, to finish third behind Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter.
Did you also notice how two "lip outs" in a row derailed Norman on the back 9.
Oh, and just for the record the winner, Harrington, also hit one of the greatest shots in Open history to wrap it up on the 17th. Faced with a 249 yard second shot on the par-5 he pulled out his 5-wood. Did he fade it slightly into a bunker, pull it into the cabbage on the left, to give Norman one last chance? Come on, you know the answer to that? You've read the script. Whack. Straight on to the green, finishing 3 feet from the pin. Eagle. All over Irish Rover.
Let me summarise this amazing tale. Norman was overrun by one of the greatest final rounds in Masters history, engineered by a man in his mid-40's. He then suffered two shattering defeats due to extraordinary chip-ins. Now if this had happened in a 10-year period on tour or indeed in the whole of the player's career we'd just shrug and accept it as "the rub of the green". But it didn't... It happened in just 12 months.
Zoeller, Nicklaus and Faldo all won their last majors against Norman. Tway, Mize, Calcavecchia, Azinger and Pavin all won their only majors against Norman. The Shark is one of only two players to have lost all four majors in play-offs.
I suppose there are dozen to 15 truly memorable incidents in the history of the Majors including the great Nicklaus charge at Augusta in '86. The Gene Sarazen albatross at the Masters in '35. The Larry Mize pitch-and-run at Augusta in '87. The Tom Watson chip-in at the US Open in '82. The Bob Tway bunker shot at the PGA in '86. Ben Hogan's 2-iron at the '51 US Open. The Corey Pavin fairway wood at the '95 US Open and of course the pitch by Seve Ballesteros from a "car park" at the British Open in '79.
As I say about 15-or-so truly memorable moments burnt into the history of Major Golf.
Did you know, 4 or them were executed against one man - Greg Norman. I rest my case!
In recent months we've had a couple of amazing stories relating to golfers' off-course activities.
There is the stunning Tiger Woods' saga which has seen the superstar retreat into a far corner of the house, pull all the curtains shut and threaten to stay there for the foreseeable future. As I write this the 2010 season is underway, Tiger is still incommunicado and PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem is probably thinking of retreating to the far corner of his office and pulling his curtains shut.
I know the other players hate losing to Tiger all the time but boy, do they want him back. Like desperately. I share Retief Goosen's view and express surprise that Tiger has taken so long to go public. The longer he locks himself away the harder it's going to be. He should get out there as quickly as possible, face the flack and win a couple of tournaments. Then it'll all be history. At the risk of being grotesquely politically incorrect, let us all remember, "Men are engineered to be overwhelming attracted to women, women are engineered to like men being overwhelmingly attracted to them. That's how it works. Get over it." (By way of an aside I was talking to a few mates prior to hitting off at Wallacia during the middle of this drama and we were talking about a weekend newspaper which ran pictures of all 14 of Tiger's alleged mistresses. One of the blokes looked at the whole page of photos and remarked, "Hey, look at that... They're all white." Woooo, where were the black lovers?)
Prior to the Tiger's demise we had the absolutely awful Greg Norman-Chris Evert affair.
The two came down with an over the top attack of mid-life hormones. Norman walked out. Chris walked out and they spent over a year publicly swooning over each other. But as anyone who's done Year 1 genetics will tell you the sex-attraction hormones last only 18 to 24 months. After that you're on your own. And after 18 months or so it suddenly stopped for Greg and Chrissy. I have to say that Norman's behavior after that was a pretty good lesson for Tiger. Greg actually had to Captain the President's Cup team shortly afterwards and he bravely walked out into the spotlight and took it on the chin. This was a totally class act from one of the golfing good guys. A pity the same class hadn't emerged when he so publicly dumped his loyal wife Laura. To be honest, I can't believe how Greg and Chris behaved. They were everywhere in public. When they decided to get married it was like the filming of Elizabeth Taylor's "Cleopatra". They took over a whole island resort, closed down the local airspace and turned on the most opulent ceremony since the last most opulent ceremony (whenever that was). What was even more stunning was that Greg had his daughter in the bridal party and his son as best man. It's difficult to know just what impact this had on his ex-wife,who had to sit and watch all of this happening with her two children by her father's side.
I can't think of any act more crass in recent years. And I still can't believe Greg allowed this to happen. Clearly Chris wasn't bothered by all the hoop-dee-doo and we have to assume that Greg was so infatuated that his normal good judgment just went out the window. But where were his friends with some honest advice? Surely there was a gatekeeper somewhere in the inner circle who could have intervened. We know they were madly in love and wanted everyone to know it but this was a time for public dignity, something low key and personal. Someone needed to point out to Greg and Chris the old adage "less is more". Where in heavens name where his parents? What were they thinking to allow their son to publicly humiliate his former wife? The bottom line is that the whole affair did significant damage to the public image of two great sports icons. Fortunately both are normally such class acts that they will quickly regain their public standing but for that brief time, to those of us watching from the sidelines, it all seemed so wrong. (The Palm Beach Post, in Florida not Sydney, has just reported that Greg and Chris have completed a quickie divorce.)
Look this is all getting much too long and complex, so it's time I think to wrap up this particular chapter and prepare for the next.
Just a late note, as we go to press Mike Carlton has retired from the business to tend his family and the "hot goss" in Sydney this week is that radio legend John Laws will actually come out of retirement in 2010 to join the 2SM Super Radio network run by Bill Caralis.
Radio is sort of like the universe – volatile. We'll keep you posted on these and other moves in the months ahead.