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Greg Norman reacts to a missed birdie during final round of the 1987 Masters golf tournament (Anonymous/AP)
Greg Norman reacts to a missed birdie during final round of the 1987 Masters golf tournament (Anonymous/AP)

Rubenstein: In sports, you never know Add to ...

From what I’ve seen, read, and heard, people who rarely follow hockey watched the Toronto Maple Leafs/Boston Bruins seventh game last night, and many were feeling despondent over the Leafs’ epic collapse. It appears that a kind of identification took place by which observers got so caught up in the game and the result that they felt for the Leafs, who had played so well to take the series to a seventh game and then had a three-goal lead with 10 minutes to play in regulation time. Then, suddenly, it all fell apart. The big hurt ensued, and it was deep. I’m feeling wrung out this morning after watching. Maybe you are, too.

This has me thinking about times I’ve felt a similar identification in golf, and times when the identification was widespread, as it was last night and probably remains today. Here are some events that come to mind, in calendar order. I’ll start with the 1984 Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. Vancouver’s Jim Nelford was in the clubhouse with a one-shot lead. Only Hale Irwin could catch him.

Irwin drove left of the 18th fairway, down towards Carmel Bay. His ball hit a rock thirty feet below the fairway and ricocheted back up, one of the greatest breaks ever in the game. He birdied the par-five to tie Nelford and won their playoff. Friends had been calling me to celebrate what appeared would surely be a win for Nelford. It wasn’t to be. He lost, and my phone went silent.

Next in this line, at least for me, was the 1987 Canadian Open, when Richard Zokol was tied for the lead with one round to play at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont. Zokol, also from Vancouver, was on the cusp of becoming the first Canadian to win the national championship since Pat Fletcher in 1954. Zokol, then 28, had been playing solid golf, and was tied with Curtis Strange and Mike McCullough.

I followed Zokol as he went out at the Abbey. He bogied the first hole, and, as I recall, the second and third as well. He was done, and shot 75 while Strange, with whom he was playing, methodically shot three-under 69. McCullough shot 74. Zokol finished six shots behind Strange. He couldn’t calm down during the round. He told me this morning that he was edgy and uncomfortable in the situation, trying to win the Canadian Open. I could feel the energy seep out of the big crowd following Zokol.

Earlier that year, at the Masters, I had walked down the 10th hole at the Augusta National Golf Club to follow the playoff between Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, and Larry Mize. Ballesteros dropped out of the playoff when he bogied the 10th, the first hole in the playoff. I can still see him declining a ride back up the hill to the clubhouse, and electing to walk. I watched as he trudged up the hill, a beaten man. Mize soon holed a 110-foot pitch and run from the right of the 11th green, another knockout punch over Norman. The spectators felt for Ballesteros and Norman. You could feel it. I sure felt it.

Nine years later I walked with David Leadbetter as we followed Norman and Nick Faldo in the last round of the 1996 Masters. Norman held a six-shot lead over Faldo starting the round. His anxiety was palpable. He took varying amounts of time over the ball, and never did find a consistent routine. Faldo played clinical golf, the sort that Zokol has called “cold-blooded golf,” the kind he wasn’t able to play in that final round of the 1987 Canadian Open. Norman was all over the place. He shot 76 against Faldo’s 67. Norman never did win a green jacket.

Canadians across the country will remember, with a sting, even after all these years, the 2004 Canadian Open. Mike Weir, having sent the country into a frenzy of happiness after winning the 2003 Masters, held a two-shot lead over Vijay Singh with three holes to play in the final round at Glen Abbey. I was walking with Sandra Post, the gifted Oakville, Ont. golfer and the first Canadian to win a professional major (she won the 1968 LPGA Championship).

Spectators massed down the 17th fairway sang O Canada as Weir played the hole. But he held only a one-shot lead then, having three-putted the 16th to drop a shot to Singh. The fans were celebrating prematurely, as, I’m sure, many Torontonians in Leaf Nation were last night. Singh caught Weir and then beat him on the third hole of their sudden-death playoff. Every Canadian interested in golf, and many not at all interested week to week, but who were aware of what had transpired, felt deflated.

Finally, who can forget the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry? Tom Watson, 59-year-old Tom Watson, had only to par the last hole to win his sixth Open and become the oldest golfer ever to win a major. But his approach to the final green went through. He couldn’t save par. You felt it was over right then and there, just as you did when the Bruins tied the Leafs in the last minute of regulation play. Watson had nothing in the mandated four-hole playoff against Stewart Cink. Cink was two-under in the playoff, Watson four-over.

The golf media, the news media, people in the street who don’t know a hook from a slice, and, well, just about everybody I ran into over the next week, felt for Watson. They felt his loss personally, too, I’d say. They were hurting, maybe more than Watson, who said immediately after his loss when he was so close to winning that this wasn’t a funeral. It was a golf tournament, a championship, yes, the Open Championship, yes, but nothing more or less than a sporting event.

Sports are unlike much of life in this way. People often don’t deserve the horrible things that happen to them. Terrible things just happen. In sports, though, the circumstances are clear. Watson didn’t do what he needed to do to win. Neither did Zokol, Nelford, Weir, and Norman. The Leafs didn’t do what they needed to do to win.

The thing about sports is that when somebody loses, as in golf, or when a team loses, as in hockey, they always cause or contribute to their own downfall, while somebody else or the other team plays better. It’s clean. There’s nothing equivocal about it. And maybe that’s what’s great about sports.

We fall hard for players and teams at certain times. But then it’s over, and there’s another season, another game and, maybe, another chance to identify, another chance to feel, and to feel deeply.

Maybe next year, then, for the Leafs, and for Leafs Nation. And maybe this July, for a Canadian at the Canadian Open, which returns to the Abbey. In sports, you never know. And then you do.

RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein

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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at lornerubenstein@me.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

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