After it happened, we were led to believe Nick Faldo would take the secret to his grave instead of his publisher. But at least now we all know. Recall that indelible moment from the 1996 Masters, when Faldo roared from six shots back Sunday to beat Greg Norman by five. As the stunning reversal concluded on the 18th green, before Faldo celebrated his thrill of victory, he acknowledged Norman's agony of defeat. These two longtime rivals, who for four hours had barely made eye contact let alone exchanged pleasantries, hugged like brothers. While the rest of the world sniffled, Faldo whispered something in Norman's ear. It was poignant. It was stirring. It was majestic. It was male bonding.
Also, it was none of our business.
"What I said will remain between us," Faldo announced.
"It's private and will stay private," echoed Norman.
Naturally, we in the media reacted the way we usually react when we run into a stonewall. We went nuts. Some of us took these fierce combatants at their word. Faldo, so often portrayed as a bloodless party crasher, obviously had touched a nerve by uttering something profound. Norman, the emotional opposite, perpetuated the notion when he gushed that Faldo's remark had betrayed his kinder, gentler side. So some of us left well enough alone. Some of us. Others of us rolled up our sleeves and let our dirty elbows run amok with our cynical genes. Curiosity killed the cat, but the cat didn't have deadlines. Theories about Faldo's message abounded. Sick minds imagined what was said:
a) "Greg, let me at least take care of the caddies."
b) "Does this mean I get to play the Shark Shootout?"
c) "I hope you win one of these soon, because there's a woman, Martha Burk, who wants to close this place down."
d) "Did you hear the one about the priest and the rabbi stranded on the desert island?"
For more than eight years, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't get a straight answer. Faldo's life changed, Norman's life changed, but neither budged on unraveling the mystery of what transpired that April Sunday in 1996.
Until now. Faldo has a book out, Life Swings, wherein he reveals the thoughtful, sensitive, inspirational, delicate bon mot he delivered to Norman's lobe:
"DON'T LET THE BASTARDS GET YOU DOWN OVER THIS."
That was it. Norman recently confirmed as much to Golf Digest, adding with a laugh that Faldo didn't even have to point to the press building to explain what he meant. Faldo sparred throughout his career with writers back in the United Kingdom. Recall his speech after a British Open triumph when he thanked experts "from the heart of my bottom." Norman, too, has had bouts with the media. So, as Faldo continues in his autobiography, "After holing out for a birdie 3 and my preordained 67 - the number on my player's badge - my first thoughts were for Greg. I felt genuinely sorry for him. I have no doubt that Greg was scarred for life by the events which unfolded at Augusta that afternoon. To have the green jacket snatched away just as you are visualizing slipping your arms into the sleeves must be soul-destroying."
In fact, Norman's resilience was startling and duly noted. Tiger Woods, who missed the cut, remembers watching the final round in his Stanford dorm. "It was awful," Woods says. "I felt so bad for him. Lots of guys couldn't have handled that, but Greg dusted himself off and kept on firing." Norman's next stop was the MCI Classic at Hilton Head, S.C., where he practiced alone the following Tuesday. "I made a point of walking up the ninth hole to talk to him," says Davis Love III. "He put his arm around me and said, 'Hey, Bud, don't worry about me. I'm fine.' I think he appreciated what I did, but it's not like he was looking for someone to pour his guts out to. He was over it. Impressive."
Nowhere, however, did Norman show his stuff better than in the rubber room. His upstanding post-trauma interviews struck a chord with a global audience, resulting in boxes of mail. He says he remembers the letters more than his scorecard. Above all, Norman won over a lot of critics. His 78 was difficult to watch, unpleasant enough to cause even the crustiest writer a stomach knot that had nothing to do with the pimento-cheese sandwiches served at the media complex. Faldo, very glib, has become a commentator on ABC, an excellent forum for his underappreciated humor. But on that Sunday in 1996, his wit and wisdom were designed to protect Norman from us vultures, the pimentoed press.
"I was sure you folks would have a pretty good go at him after that," Faldo was saying last week. "As it turned out, only a few beat him up. Which is good. And now, look at me. I've written my life story, I'm a broadcaster. There I was, warning Greg about the media. And now, what am I? I am media."
Bob Verdi is a senior writer for Golf World magazine