At Augusta National Golf Club, no such thing as 'can't miss'

The image is difficult to dismiss, Greg Norman falling to the ground in disbelief, rolling back on his knees -- the straw hat firmly atop his head -- while holding a wedge in his hand, a last-gasp effort having come agonizingly close on the 15th hole at Augusta National.

On that Sunday 20 years ago, the Great White Shark's Masters dream was shattered, epitomized by that missed eagle chance, another insult during a round full of them.

There was the ball that spun back off the green at the ninth, and the tee shot in the water at the 12th, and a final dagger with another errant tee shot into the water on the 16th, all to be followed by a somber walk up the 18th fairway to sounds of sympathetic, cheering fans who felt Norman's pain far more than Nick Faldo's joy.

Norman, then 41, had seen a 6-shot final-round advantage evaporate as he got to Amen Corner, while a surging Faldo put on a last-day clinic with a 67 to post a 5-shot victory. In winning his third green jacket, the Englishman denied Norman, who shot 78, thwarting a seemingly slam-dunk quest again, never to be attained.

All these years later, Norman's pursuit of the Masters remains the ultimate cautionary tale as Rory McIlroy attempts to complete the career Grand Slam and other can't-miss Masters champions, such as Jason Day, also seek to capture the year's first major championship.

Nothing is certain at Augusta National -- even when it seemingly is.

Davis Love III and Ernie Els, both in this year's field after numerous Masters appearances, also never won the major that many expected.

"It seemed like one of the tournaments that I would win easily,'' said Love, 51, who qualified by becoming the third-oldest player to win on the PGA Tour when he captured the Wyndham Championship last year. "Not Hilton Head [where he has won five times.] Just golf-course wise. My college coach always made me mad when he said par was 68 for me on a lot of golf courses. I know that's the way Jack Nicklaus thought about Augusta National. 'Par is a couple under for me on this course, so I've got an advantage.' You always think that way when you're 25 years old. And I did.

"I came close, had a lot of good Masters. When [Ben] Crenshaw won his second time [in 1995], I shot a score [275 and lost by 1] that would have won all but a couple of Masters. I know I can do it, but I just didn't do it at the right time. Expectations were high and it was disappointing not to have won.''

For Love, who has six top-10s in 19 appearances, the 1995 Masters was particularly difficult because he was playing well. He had won the previous week in New Orleans to get into the tournament and had played with Crenshaw who "was really bad,'' Love recalled. Crenshaw's mentor and instructor, Harvey Penick, was ailing and would pass away early during Masters week.

Along with Kite, Crenshaw left Augusta National to return to his home in Austin, Texas.

"They were trying to rush through practice to get back for the funeral,'' Love said. "They had a private plane lined up, which back then, was a much bigger deal. I said, 'I'm going to go with you guys.' And they said, no you're staying here. You're playing great. You stay here.

"And then Ben wins. He called me from the club that night after I got home and said, 'I just want to tell you, I got so lucky and made so many putts. You're going to win this tournament.' It was nice of him. That's Ben Crenshaw. It's neat to be part that story, but when I look at the silver plate [for finishing second], it's not so great. That and '99 were bittersweet, but big wins for both those guys.''

In 1999, Love was in the mix on the back nine on Sunday -- along with Norman -- only to finish runner-up to Jose Maria Olazabal.

The next year Els finished second to Vijay Singh and in 2004, the South African was the hard-luck runner-up to Phil Mickelson, who birdied the final hole to win by a stroke. In 21 appearances, Els has three top-5 and six top-10 finishes. But since losing to Mickelson, Els has not contended, missing four cuts and never cracking the top-10.

He, too, was considered can't miss at Augusta National.

"I never thought about it that way, but I liked my chances,'' said Els, 46, who is exempt into this year's Masters based on his 2012 Open victory. "Especially finishing eighth in my very first one [in 1994] and kind of being in contention. It seemed perfect.

"But the whole of my 20s, I was so intense. You saw my emotions back then. I was just too emotional. Now in my 40s, I'm a little better. But that 2004 one was quite a defeat. I didn't do anything after that. It took a lot out of me. Maybe it was a mental thing, but it's almost like guys trying to win their first major. That's the emotional strain I put on myself without even knowing it. I only knew it when I got out there. 'Man, I can't loosen up.' I was so tight."

Both Love and Els understand why players such as McIlroy are looked upon as future Masters champions.

"It's a perfect set-up for him,'' Love said. "With the length of the golf course ... you have to be a really good driver, which is him. The challenge then becomes like it was for me: expectations. You want to win. You feel like you should win it.

"I always felt like it was an easy tournament for me to finish in the top 10 as I was always hanging around; maybe you get lucky and you win one. Norman had his chances and Ernie. Look at Freddie [Couples, who won in 1992.] He always plays well no matter what age. Rory has to be patient with it and let it happen.''

Said Els: "The attention isn't going to go away. He should just kind of roll with it. He should go with it, know it's going to come, find a way to deal with it. What Jordan [Spieth did winning in 2015] is incredible. He got it done early, early out of the way.''

Truth be told, McIlroy figured the Masters would be the first major he'd win -- not the last. He did have the 54-hole lead at Augusta five years ago before a disastrous final-round 80 sent him plummeting to a tie for 15th.

"I would have said the PGA and the Masters were in my wheelhouse, certainly before the U.S. Open,'' McIlroy said. "The PGA is big golf courses and the Masters is like that, too.''

He won the U.S. Open that summer of 2011, the PGA Championship the next year, then back-to-back at The Open and PGA in 2014. McIlroy has four major titles, with only the Masters left for the career Grand Slam.

Day finished second in his first Masters appearance (like Spieth did in his first) in 2011. After withdrawing from the 2012 Masters in the second round with an injured left ankle, the Aussie finished third in 2013. That certainly heightened expectations for him, ones he does not play down.

"It's the one tournament I've always wanted to win," Day said.

Perhaps he'd be better off not checking his countryman's Masters plight -- if he hasn't already.

Few would have bet against Norman winning at the Georgia course in his early days, such was his golf dominance and particular liking for the layout designed over an old nursery. Three times he finished second, three more times third and he had a total of eight top-5s. He matched the course record of 63 in 1996, a score that has not been shot since. But he never won.

And he's far from alone. Tom Weiskopf has the most runner-up finishes in Masters history (four) without a victory. Johnny Miller, Curtis Strange, Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins -- they are just a few of the World Golf Hall of Famers to never win the green jacket.

Norman was a virtual unknown, certainly in the United States, when he made his Masters debut in 1981 and tied for fourth, 3 strokes behind winner Tom Watson.

But it wasn't until 1986 when the heartbreak began. Norman bogeyed the final hole to miss a playoff with Jack Nicklaus. The following year was the playoff with Larry Mize, who chipped in from 140 feet in a playoff to stun him. Norman had chances in each of the next two years as well.

He made one final run in 1999, holding a share of the lead on the back nine, outdone by Olazabal, settling for third.

But nothing matches the shock of 20 years ago, when Norman tied the course record, built a 6-shot lead and, as it turns out, needed just a final-round even-par 72 to win.

That was the lock of all locks -- and it wasn't, which serves as another reminder that no tournament victory is guaranteed. For anyone.