It was a Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club that began like so many other final-round Sundays that seemed destined to go down in sports history. The date was April 14, 1996 — a postcard-pretty afternoon that was supposed to bring the oft-delayed coronation of Greg Norman as Masters champion. But it ended with another collapse by Norman that was epic, even for him.
Norman claimed at the time to be “totally in control” when he arrived at the first tee. But the truth was, the 41-year-old Australian was beset by doubts even before the sun rose over Magnolia Lane. He had led the entire tournament and was ahead of Nick Faldo, his closest challenger, by six strokes. Yet Norman was privately tormented by thoughts he would confess to only years later, long after he’d unspooled what is often called one of the greatest chokes in sports history.
“I’m probably the only guy in the world who thinks, ‘I don’t know if I can hold it,’ ” Norman told sports psychologist Rick Jensen when asked how his Saturday night went. “I didn’t sleep a wink.”
The science of choking has become more finely tuned in the 20 years since Norman shot his final-round 78 and crashed to a five-stroke loss to Faldo. The mind-blowing, 11-stroke turnaround left even Faldo stammering, “I don’t know what to say.”
When neuroscientists, sports physiologists and sports psychologists examine the things Norman did and said around that fateful day, they note there are telltale warning signs that floated up, ominous habits that Norman evinced — even remedies that might’ve helped Norman avoid the free fall in which he found himself.
The details suggest Norman’s last round was always a potential disaster waiting to happen. While that didn’t guarantee Norman would fold, it shouldn’t have been any surprise when he did.
Experts say the chain of events when someone “chokes” typically goes something like this: When people get anxious about performing, they begin scrutinizing actions that are best performed automatically. This heightened self-consciousness under pressure can contribute to a domino-like chain of psychological and physiological reactions that might cause them to underperform, even when their talent or finely honed skills suggest the outcome should be otherwise.
“An important thing to understand is choking is mental, emotional and physical — it’s all of that,” says Lindsay Hyman, a sports physiologist who works with athletes at the U.S. Olympic training center. “The tipping point is different for each individual.”
Sports psychologists and sports physiologists have come up with various constructs to explain what mentally happens to chokers. Distraction theories, for example, and studies like this one suggest that choking sets in when a performer’s attention strays beyond the job at hand to “task-irrelevant” thoughts, such as controlling the potential outcome or fearing consequences. (Oh no, I’m going to blow the Masters!) Self-focus theories hold that when pressure causes individuals to focus too keenly on execution, it can sabotage their ability to perform even routine tasks. Instead of striping a tee shot down the middle of the fairway as he’d done thousands of times before, Norman hooked his first shot that Sunday into the woods, leading to a bogey.
Pia Nilsson, who along with Lynn Marriott has coached former world No. 1 golfers Annika Sorenstam and Yani Tseng, and has made a career of studying athletes’ “performance” states, says, “All of the people we’ve ever been around change under pressure. But the players who do well under pressure, they’ve figured out how they change. Some know if they get too much adrenaline, they need to take breaths to lower their heart rate, or swing at a lower tempo.”
Physically, the brain releases cortisol or adrenaline under pressure, two things that can contribute to athletes losing fine motor skills, coordination and even the ability to think clearly. Vision can literally narrow under stress, too, giving golfers difficulty reading putts. Their feel, touch, rhythm, accuracy and distance control commonly desert them — all problems that Norman experienced.
Hyman says sports physiologists can measure heart variability rates and other data to make personalized plans for athletes, and teach them breathing exercises or other relaxation skills to help make sure the movements they’ve trained so hard to make automatic stay automatic.
Scientists using electrode-fitted caps on golfers and other athletes also have been able to show which parts of the brain light up during certain situations and suggest strategies based on that, too. Athletes who get highly anxious under pressure — a sign their amygdala, or fear center, is kicking in — might benefit from “mindfulness” training that emphasizes staying in the moment, trusting their training and focusing only on the next task ahead. Athletes whose analytical mind (or prefrontal cortex) seems to butt in too much? They might be told to sing to themselves during competition or recite a poem to distract their conscious mind. Tseng is among the many athletes who do this.
But avoiding choking isn’t as simple as the old sports standby: “Don’t think.”
Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago sports psychologist who wrote a book called “Choke” and has studied golfers extensively, has pointed out that “misdirected” thinking can be as bad for an athlete as overthinking.
Norman was prone to that, too. He credited an 11th-hour visit with Fred Couples‘ physical therapist with helping him overcome back trouble well enough to shoot an opening-round 63, which tied the Masters’ course record. He actually expanded his lead from four to six shots during his head-to-head Saturday pairing with Faldo, too. Yet when Norman woke up Sunday and his back was barking a bit again, he gloomily told coach Butch Harmon, “This isn’t going to be easy.” He also later acknowledged that Faldo’s stature as a two-time Masters champ versus his own record as a two-time runner-up weighed on him because, “Masters champions are there for a reason … they understand all those little crazy quirks of what Augusta National can deliver.”
Norman’s inference? Rivals like Faldo just got something about winning majors that he didn’t. Being asked why he hadn’t won more majors had long worn on Norman. He addressed it in an Australian TV documentary: “Well, there’s a lot of reasons why, because if you’ve got garbage in your head … that people don’t know about, you know, sometimes you can’t be that … central focus on the mission you want to achieve.”
Experts say there’s a name for that kind of choking, too: identity threat.
“We haven’t found anyone that we can’t screw up by suggesting that some group they’re a member of is bad at something,” Beilock told Wired magazine.
Norman’s six-shot lead over Faldo was down to two after his third bogey of the final round on the ninth hole. Observers could tell he was unraveling, and not just from the leaderboard.
“I could feel the nervousness emanating from Greg,” Faldo said. “He gripped and regripped the club, as though he could not steel himself to hit the ball.”
Fran Pirozzolo, a neuroscientist and sports psychologist who has worked with Bernhard Langer and Mark O’Meara, and consulted with Norman earlier in Norman’s career, was walking the course that day. Pirozzolo recalls, “I could see the end was coming for Greg on No. 9 when he tried to be macho and hit wedge. It was short and the ball rolled 30 yards back toward him in the fairway instead. It was a like watching a train wreck — then watching my friend bleed.”
Norman still had reason to hope at the turn. He’d played Augusta’s famous back nine at 11-under on the first three days of the tournament.
But Norman’s vexing career-long inability to close out majors other than the two British Opens he won was always at odds with his track record at other tournaments. He finished his pro career with a phenomenal 90 titles worldwide. Beginning in 1986, he held the world No. 1 ranking for a remarkable 331 weeks. Fans loved him. He was a brilliant shot-maker who liked to play an attacking game, and he cut a distinctive physical presence, too, with his athletic build and shock of whitish-blonde hair that contributed to his nickname, “The Great White Shark.”
As legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins put it, “Greg Norman looks like someone you send to kill James Bond, not Jack Nicklaus.”
Mentally, Norman was another story. By his ’96 Augusta fold, he had started eight previous majors with the Sunday lead — only to win the title once, at the ’86 British Open. And even that breakthrough came with a thudding footnote: Norman actually led heading into the final round at all four majors in ’86, giving him a chance to become the first golfer since the great Bobby Jones to win a calendar-year Grand Slam. What he accomplished instead, leading all four majors through Saturday, is called the Norman Slam. Nicklaus, then 46, famously toppled him with a late charge at Augusta that stood up when Norman missed a par putt at 18; Raymond Floyd overtook Norman for the U.S. Open title; Bob Tway‘s miracle bunker shot undid him at the PGA Championship.
A year later, Norman lost at the Masters again when Larry Mize holed out from 140 feet away to win during a sudden-death playoff.
“That’s why it’s very important to remember when talking about Greg, we’re mixing two different things,” Pirozzolo says. “On one hand, we’re talking about this incredible, almost laboratory example of learned helplessness. I mean, if you were going to develop conditions in which a person felt like he couldn’t change things, then they would be with these sort of miracle shots. … But that also shouldn’t be misunderstood for what Greg himself brought to it, too.”
Back then, Norman didn’t like to publicly admit that he worked with any sports psychologists. “He saw it as a sign of weakness,” says a source. By the ’96 Masters, Pirozzolo was working for the New York Yankees. But he says he did give his friend Norman aids years earlier, including a 15-page manual to help him navigate tournament situations. Once on the course, Pirozzolo says, Norman tended to default back to old habits of thought.
“You had a prewired mentality in Greg’s case for what’s often called a ‘fixed mindset,’ ” Pizorrello says. “A fixed mindset person believes, ‘I’m either good at this or not.’ They say, ‘If I fail, it’s because there’s something missing from my total package here.’ But the trouble is, it’s not a growth mindset. Having that fixed attitude limits your ability to cope with the things that are happening to you.”
So patterns tend to repeat — which was certainly true for Norman.
After his wedge shot at No. 9 backfired, Norman bogeyed 10 when he flew a simple chip shot by the flag and missed his 8-foot comeback putt. He lipped out a 10-foot par putt at No. 11 and missed a 3-footer to bogey again. At the perilous par-3 12th hole, he watched Faldo — who by now had pulled even — hit his approach safely onto the green. Then Norman’s own tee shot rolled into Rae’s Creek. Double-bogey.
In four holes, Norman had lost five shots to Faldo. All Faldo had to do was par each of those holes.
Norman’s last gasp came when he barely missed a chip for eagle at 15 and fell to the ground in anguish.
After Faldo rolled in a final birdie at 18, he hugged Norman. He told Norman he was sorry and then, knowing what was ahead, added: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
Norman did indeed continue to do great things in golf and in beyond.
But he never won a major again.