Coming into the 1996 Masters, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman had endured contrasting recent fortunes. The Englishman’s much-publicised split from his wife Gill early in the year became a tabloid soap opera when news broke of his relationship with 20-year-old Arizona golf student, Brenna Cepelak. There was also the back and neck spasms that had plagued his form. He hadn’t threatened in a Major since tieing for fourth place at the 1994 USPGA and had missed the cut at the Players Championship just weeks before. Norman, meanwhile, had proven his long-standing credentials the previous season with three victories on the PGA Tour on his way to topping the US Money List. Come April ’96, the ‘Shark’ was sitting proudly at the top of the World Rankings.
After firing opening rounds of 63 and 69 – the first of which equalled the course record of his close friend Nick Price – Norman held a four-shot lead over Faldo going into Saturday. Faldo had suffered an uncomfortable Thursday and Friday walking the fairways of Augusta with John Daly, who had out-driven the Englishman by anything up to 100 yards. Despite this, a Friday 67 was enough to set up a third round duel with Norman, who in response posted a steady 71 to extend his lead to six shots through 54 holes. With Phil Mickelson a further shot adrift, there was little to suggest anything more than a gentle push would be on the cards.
Worryingly for the meticulous Faldo, he would turn up at Augusta half an hour late for his final round. Norman, by then, was firmly into his pre-match routine, and claimed to be “totally in control” when the two players stood on Augusta’s opening par 4, ‘Tea Olive’. But a snap hook resulted in a bogey, while Faldo was impassively efficient, making par, birdie, par, par over the opening four holes.
It wasn’t long before uncomfortable mutterings turned to genuine fear. Norman bogeyed the par-3 4th and Faldo the 5th. But the Englishman fought back with a birdie at the 6th before drilling in a 20-footer on the 8th. Heading to the 9th, Norman’s lead had gone from six to three, and became only two when he three-putted after leaving his 9-iron approach well short. According to Faldo’s coach David Leadbetter, the Australian was “fidgeting intensely and taking an age over routine approaches”. Then, from the 10th to the 12th, matters would deteriorate to the extent where a four-shot swing would see Faldo take control.