Masters Meltdowns: How even Major winners wilt under Augusta’s intense spotlight
The likes of Norman, McIlroy and Spieth experienced the perils of a unique challenge
Rory McIlroy leans on his golf bag on the 13th hole during the final round of the 2011 Masters as things unravelled for him in Augusta, Ga. Photograph: /Matt Slocum/AP
1979 - Ed Sneed
At 6ft 2in, Ed Sneed certainly looked the part. And starting the final round of the 1979 Masters tournament with a five-stroke lead, the American looked set for the biggest win of his career. Except, when it mattered most, it all came down to a matter of inches as his putting deserted him!
Sneed – who that same year would travel to play in the Irish Open at Portmarnock, where he finished runner-up to Mark James – was a seasoned campaigner who every so often would pop up and claim a win. His first PGA Tour win came in the Kaiser International in 1973 in California and he also claimed the 1974 Greater Milwaukee Open and the 1977 Tallahassee Open, a year when he also played in the Ryder Cup.
His deeds at Augusta National in 1979, however, were set to propel him into the really big time; and, for much of the final round, Sneed looked set to lay claim to the famous green jacket.
Sneed’s lead had been reduced to three by the time he stood on the 16th tee, but he still had the title in his own destiny until the enormity of it all hit home. He three-putted for bogey on the 16th, missed a short putt on 17 for another bogey, and then left a par putt on the 18th teetering on the edge.
Sneed’s putting woes left him signing for a closing 76 that put him into a playoff with Tom Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller, who had also finished on eight-under-par 280. Zoeller beat Sneed and Watson with a birdie on the second play-off hole. Sneed quit the tour five years later to move into investment business and later went on to enjoy a successful broadcasting career, but that shot at Masters glory proved too much.
“I’ve often said, in my reaction, nobody died. I had a chance to win a big golf tournament, and I didn’t. It did have an impact, but at the same time, I never felt like it destroyed me in any way,” Sneed recalled.
1985 - Curtis Strange
Nobody gave Curtis Strange a snowball’s chance in hell of winning after an opening round of 80 that included six three-putts and which left him 12 strokes adrift of first round leader Gary Hallberg. Other more notable names, among them Payne Stewart and Tom Watson who both shot 69, were also prominent on the leaderboard. Strange might as well have been a million miles away from Augusta National.
However, a stunning second round 65 ensured he made the cut and that was followed by a third round 68 that saw Strange leapfrog up the leaderboard. On the Sunday, he was in the final pairing – alongside Raymond Floyd, just a shot adrift – and he continued his upward charge to the point where Strange held a four-stroke lead at the turn.
Even a blip on the 10th – his first bogey in 26 holes – seemed nothing more than a speed bump on his journey to victory, and this seemed even more likely after a birdie on the 12th gave him a three-shot lead over his nearest challenger, Bernhard Langer, and with two Par 5s ahead of him.
But those Par 5s would prove to be Strange’s waterloo; on the 13th, with 208 yards to the green, he was in two minds whether to go for the green in two or to lay up.
“It’s not in my blood to lay up like that,” he would later admit.
Strange put his approach into Rae’s Creek, and then donned his waterproofs to play his next. The recovery hit the bank, and rolled back. He rescued a bogey from his predicament, his lead reduced to one.
Then, on the Par 5 15th, Strange hit a 4-iron approach with his second shot. Immediately, he knew he’d undercooked it; and the ripples on the water in front of the green confirmed his worse fears and the American signed for a bogey six. When the numbers were added up at the end, Strange would curse his play of those two Par 5s: he finished up two shots shy of Langer, who’d birdied four of his last seven holes.
1996 - Greg Norman
When you get to the back nine of Augusta National, it is time to either sink or swim. The moniker of the “Great White Shark” is one which Greg Norman carried with aplomb through his golfing career and onward into becoming an astute businessman . . . but the fate which befell him in the final round of the 1996 Masters would haunt him for years.
Norman was a sure-fire favourite to lay claim to a green jacket, shooting into the lead with an opening round 63 and holding a six-stroke lead over Nick Faldo when the pair set off in the final round.
If virtually everyone thought the two men’s journey through the azaleas and dogwoods would be nothing other than a coronation walk for the Australian, the pressure of the task proved too much for Norman. Indeed, from the off, Norman looked out of sorts and a missed two-footer for par on the opening hole hardly inspired any confidence.
Still, Norman held a three stroke lead as he stood on the ninth tee. However, the four hole stretch from the ninth to the 12th proved to be the winning and the losing of the tournament as Norman went from three stokes up to two behind.
Norman’s woes started on the ninth, where his approach spun back off the green, and a bogey there was followed by further dropped shots on the 10th and 11th, where he missed a par putt of 30 inches.
Then, on the 12th, Norman’s tee-shot came up short in the water. He ran up a double-bogey five. His torturous final round of 78 saw Norman slip slide from a position of dominance to the point where he was completely outplayed by Nick Faldo, whose closing 67 ultimately gave him a five stroke winning margin.
“I screwed up, I really screwed up,” Norman would lament when it was all over.
2011 - Rory McIlroy
Nine years ago? Doesn’t time fly? McIlroy would bounce back from his final round meltdown by winning the US Open two months later – his first of four career Majors so far – but, to this day, the green jacket remains all that is missing from a Grand Slam.
That Sunday in Augusta National seemed his for the taking, the day he would tick that box; young and carefree, spending the evenings tossing an American football in the back garden of the rented home with friends that included Harry Diamond, the Northern Irishman was thrown into a free-fall in the final round. His dream turned into a nightmare.
McIlroy held a four-stroke lead when he strolled onto the first tee to the acclaim befitting a young man destined for the crown. By the time he reached the 10th tee, that four-stroke lead had gone but he was still in a share of the lead.
Then, a wild pulled hook – his ball ricocheting off a tree branch into uncharted territory close to cabins – took McIlroy completely off course and he would run up a triple-bogey seven.
Clearly rattled by what had gone before, McIlroy’s dreams evaporated on the Par 3 12th where he four-putted for a double-bogey. And it went from bad to worse when his drive on the Par 5 13th clung to a tight line down the left and finished up in Rae’s Creek.
McIlroy – who’d started with rounds of 65-69-70 to hold a four-stroke lead over the chasing group of Angel Cabrera, KJ Choi, Jason Day and Charl Schwartzel – finished his 2011 Masters with a closing 80 that left him down in tied-15th.
“I just sort of lost my speed on the greens, lost my line, lost everything,” said McIlroy of that run of holes from the 10th, before expanding: “It’s a Sunday at a Major, what it can do [to you]. This is my first experience at it, and hopefully the next time I’m in this position I’ll be able to handle it a little bit better . . . it was a character-building day, put it that way. I’ll come out stronger for it.”
2016 - Jordan Spieth
Somewhere back in time, Julius Caesar is credited with these words: “No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected”.
Jordan Spieth, the defending champion having won wire-to-wire in 2015, was en route to replicating the feat when he held a five-stroke lead with nine holes to play of his final round. His frailty was hinted at with bogeys on the 10th and 11th holes, but the Texan – then 22 years of age – still seemed sure-footed in his quest to retain his title as he walked onto the 12th tee.
The Par 3 is one of picture postcard beauty, the green fronted by water and with a backdrop of colour from the bushes behind. Spieth didn’t take sufficient time to soak it all in. A quickly-taken tee-shot was more akin to a society hacker than a player aspiring to win back-to-back Masters. The ball plonked into the water. Then, he took what seemed an eternity deliberating with caddie Michael Greller deciding on where to take the penalty drop. When it came time to play the shot, Spieth again chunked it into the water. His fifth shot overshot the green to finish in a bunker, and he got up-and-down to rescue a quadruple bogey seven.
In the space of three holes, but especially because of his shenanigans on the 12th, Spieth saw a five-shot lead transformed into a three-stroke deficit, eventually finishing in a tie for runners-up with Lee Westwood. Danny Willett won by three.
“I knew those bogeys [on 10 and 11] weren’t going to hurt me. But I didn’t take that extra deep breath and really focus on my line on 12. Instead, I went up and I just put a quick swing on it,” Spieth would recall of becoming another victim of the short hole of angelic design but devilish intent.