Moving Dirt With Greg Norman
How The Great White Shark Has Carved A Course Design Niche
CABO SAN LUCAS, MEXICO | It cannot be easy for a golfer who was so good for so long to find happiness in another profession once his playing days are done. But Greg Norman has managed to do just that as a course designer.
“Actually, that is the only part of my company I am truly in love with,” says the now 65-year-old Aussie, who has lost some of this famous white-blond hair but seemingly little of his tan or muscle tone. “I have more than a dozen businesses, and I care deeply about them all. But course design is my passion, and it is probably the only one I will still have when I go to my grave.”
That passion, he explains, has a lot to do with the creative process and working with land to fashion the best possible routings and the most interesting golf holes. “But I also like how course design allows me to promote the game and introduce it to countries and people that had not been touched by golf before,” he says.
Norman amassed close to 90 tournament titles worldwide, his last coming in 1998. As an architect he has been equally prolific – and prosperous. He created Greg Norman Course Design in 1987 and has produced 106 designs in 35 countries. The newest is a striking, seaside track on the southernmost tip of Baja California called Rancho San Lucas. There, the Shark has deftly routed holes through scrubby cactus forests, between towering sand dunes, gaping arroyos and along swaths of beaches buffeted by winds off the Pacific Ocean. It joins a portfolio of work that includes such layouts as the Medalist in Hobe Sound, Fla., which counts Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler among its members; Doonbeg, a lovely Irish links now owned by Donald Trump; the ultra-private and highly ranked Ellerston in New South Wales, Australia; and a pair of places that host annual events on the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions, respectively: El Camaleón at the Mayakoba Resort south of Cancún, Mexico, and TPC Sugarloaf near Atlanta.
Much to Norman’s delight, that collection continues to grow, thanks to new undertakings in places as far flung as Vietnam, where he has signed a deal to build several courses, and Saudi Arabia.
Norman is a hands-on architect who strives to be deeply involved in each project. He says he got his first taste of course design in the mid-1980s, a period when he had near- constant possession of the No. 1 ranking in the world. “I served as a consultant on a couple of jobs,” he recalls. “One was Koele on the Hawaiian island of Lana’i and the other Royal Melbourne outside Chicago. I really enjoyed the experience and felt I had a pretty good eye for it. So, I started doing more.”
His architectural influences included Alister MacKenzie, the British designer who had such a substantial influence on golf in Australia after traveling Down Under in the fall of 1926 and designing the fabled West Course at the original Royal Melbourne, among other notable tracks. The great A.W. Tillinghast, too, and also Pete Dye, with whom Norman collaborated on the Medalist. He read what he could about the great Golden Age architects and picked the brains of modern masters like Dye as well as fellow tour professionals Tom Weiskopf, Ben Crenshaw, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, all of whom had opened design businesses of their own. “Getting advice from people with knowledge and experience is priceless, no matter what business you are in,” says Norman, whose formal education ended in high school. “And thinking you know everything is stupid. I was never afraid to reach out to peers of mine in golf, and golf course design.”
As for the tracks that caught Norman’s fancy and impacted his artistry, they ranged from the Old Course at St. Andrews and Royal Dornoch in Scotland to Shinnecock Hills and Harbour Town in the States. And he made notes, both mental and on paper, of what he liked about each one when he played them, so he could use them when the occasion called.
Ask the Aussie about his design philosophy, and he describes it as minimalist. “I want to work with the land and make the course fit that terrain and look as natural as possible,” says Norman, who decries what he saw as the excesses of architecture at the start of his design career and a tendency to make things too hard and too expensive. “I want whatever I do to blend in and look like it has been there forever.”
He has become even more devoted to that approach, and to the concept of sustainability, since the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. “We try hard to create things that do not cost so much to build or to maintain,” he explains. “Rancho San Lucas cost less than $8 million to construct. The grasses are all paspalum, which is saltwater tolerant and does very well in warm weather, and bunkering minimal, which is just over 40 for the entire course.”
Playability is key as well. That is why Rancho San Lucas features five sets of tees, with the back markers measuring at 7,210 yards, the forward ones at 5,135 and those in the middle at just a tick less than 6,300 yards. “We also understood that there will be days with the winds off the ocean that are too much for all but the better players,” Norman says. “So, we built something of a course within a course in the form of a 12-hole loop routed in an area that is not so exposed to the ocean.”
Talk like that from an architect who occasionally had been accused early in his career for designing tough tracks seems to indicate something of a change in philosophy. But Norman insists he always has been about the sort of minimalism and playability that people like MacKenzie championed.
“We only build courses that we are asked to build,” he says. “And for a lot of years, most people wanted hard courses. But these days, clients are not asking us to do that as much anymore.”
While Norman the player was known best for being an exceptional driver of the golf ball, he also possessed a very creative streak. That is what helped him capture a pair of Open Championships. It also turns out to be a trait of his architecture. “You can only unlock the potential of a piece of land by walking it, and walking it a lot,” he explains. “By doing that, you find things the topo maps don’t show you.”
His attention to detail is keen as well, and one way that he demonstrates that is by visiting his project sites at all times of the year so he knows what conditions are like through the seasons. That sort of analysis at Rancho San Lucas, for example, is what led him to establish the 12-hole loop there. “We saw during site visits how the wind could get up to 30 knots and higher at times, and we knew we had to ensure the course was playable when that happened,” Norman says. “If you don’t do your due diligence, you have failed as a designer.”
Norman did not have many failings as a golfer, and by most measures, he has been just as successful with course design.
No wonder he likes it so much.