BOSTON — If a public referendum were used to pair golfers this coming Sunday in Augusta, Ga., there's no doubt what the vox populi would demand: that Greg Norman and Tiger Woods wrap up the Masters with a climactic 18-hole duel.
Such a finish would make riveting theater, an epic of Nicklaus-Palmer proportions. It would be Woods, the young phenom who thrives on pressure, against Norman, the veteran superstar whose record of near-misses in the major tournaments is legendary.
Last year he squandered a six-shot lead over the final round, allowing Nick Faldo to secure a shocking five-shot victory and collect his third green blazer, the winner's traditional mantle. And long before that, Georgia native Larry Mize plunged a dagger into Norman's dreams by holing a 140-foot chip shot to beat him on the second playoff hole of the 1987 tournament.
The media hordes who descend on the Augusta National Golf Club certainly will recount both these episodes and others from Norman's marvelous yet frustrating career. Hundreds of sympathizers, from George Bush to adolescents, have sent him missives expressing condolences over his downfall.
So the "Shark" will come to the Masters loaded for bear, while Woods will be hunting for birdies. Woods had twice as many bogeys (12) as birdies last year, when he missed the cut that sorts out the low scorers (who continue on) from the high scorers (who don't) at mid-tournament. In his 1995 Masters debut, Woods was the low amateur, but a distant 19 strokes behind winner Ben Crenshaw.
Norman has played Augusta 16 times and finish fifth or better an impressive eight times. Yet he, too, has had his flameouts, missing the cut twice and finishing well back other times. Golf is just a very unpredictable sport, which is one of the reasons that the top-ranked Australian on the 1997 PGA Tour (as of April 6) is one Stuart Appleby, not the high-profile Norman.
The tour leader, meanwhile, has been Steve Elkington, a former All-American at the University of Houston, who joins Mark O'Meara (a back-to-back winner) as the only double victors in 1997.
Souchak's 72-Hole Score Still Unequalled
PERHAPS because of inherent variations in courses and equipment, golf is not as record-conscious as some sports, such as baseball. It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that Mike Souchak still holds the record for the lowest 72-hole score for a tournament either cosponsored or approved by the men's PGA Tour.
His 257-shot assault on the 1955 Texas Open is the first mark listed in the tour's record book. It's not about to be broken at this week's Masters tournament, where course handlers have a certain reputation to uphold, and where the Georgia layout has never yielded anything lower than the 271 Jack Nicklaus shot in 1965 and Ray Floyd equalled in 1976.
Souchak expects his record, set on a public course, to fall "next week or the week after" (Steve Jones very nearly tied it at this year's Phoenix Open, carding a 258). During a recent teleconference for the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, a seniors tournament, Souchak took time to reflect on his historic effort. "Given all the great players over the years and the improvement in the equipment and agronomy, I would have thought the record would have gone some time ago," he says. A long hitter, Souchak says the advances in ball technology have made the biggest impact on today's game. "I hit the ball farther today than I did 42 years ago."
ON THE TRAIL OF THE TIGER
A casual observer might understandably conclude that Tiger Woods is a one-man golf tour, winning everything in sight. Not so, but he gets attention for his stellar play and the fact he's done so well so quickly: He won twice in his brief 1996 rookie season and began 1997 with a victory in the Mercedes Championship.
Other newcomers are capable of having big tournaments, including some lesser-knowns. Mark Lye, commentator on the Golf Channel, assessed several American "up-and-comers."
Steve Stricker (Edgerton, Wis.)
- Joined PGA Tour 1994; two-time All-American at the University of Illinois.
- Results: three career victories; no top-25 finishes yet in '97.
- Lye's comments: "He's long [off the tee] and has a lot of mental strength and discipline, plus he's very solid mechanically."
Tommy Tolles (Fort Myers, Fla.)
- Joined PGA Tour 1994; two-time All-American at the University of Georgia.
- Results: no career victories; three top-25 finishes in '97.
- Lye's comments: "He's got the strength and the fire, but he's very streaky. You're talking about a guy who might challenge Tiger one week [out of the year]."
Stewart Cink (Huntsville, Ala.)
- Joined PGA Tour 1997; three-time All-American at Georgia Tech, where he was the 1995 College Player of the Year; parents are single-digit handicappers.
- Results: no career victories; two top-25 finishes in '97.
- Lye's comments: "His strength is his mental ability to shrug off distractions. He's consistent; you can't shake him."
David Duval (Jacksonville, Fla.)
- Joined PGA Tour 1995; four-time All-American at Georgia Tech, where he was the 1993 College Player of the Year; son of a golf pro.
- Results: no career victories; five top-25 finishes in '97; tour's birdies-per-round leader.
- Lye's comments: "His last round average is very weak. He's got to step up and deliver in the last round."
Justin Leonard (Dallas)
- Joined PGA Tour 1994; played at the University of Texas, where he was the 1994 college champion.
- Results: one career victory; one top-25 finish in '97.
- Lye's comments: "He has a remarkable amount of talent. Because he doesn't hit the ball that far, he has to play well to be on the same plane [with the big hitters]."