A Shark’s Tale
After the Bear but before Tiger, there was the Shark. Not just any shark. The Great White Shark. So-called because of his flowing blond locks, aggressive style of play and his Australian roots, Greg Norman was arguably golf’s most dominant figure for the best part of two decades, topping the Official World Golf Ranking for a total of 331 weeks - a record bettered only by Tiger Woods. Now 62, he’s still one of the game’s most influential and instantly-recognisable individuals. In this exclusive, wide-ranging interview, Norman reflects on the highs and lows of his extraordinary career, explains the secrets of his huge success as a businessman, and shares his thoughts on Tiger, course design, technology and more.
As a child growing up in Queensland, Norman played rugby and cricket. He was a keen surfer, too, but harboured ambitions of becoming a fighter pilot. Golf didn’t appear on his radar until his mid-teens when his mother, a single-figure handicapper, taught him how to play. She also allowed him to caddy for her at the Virginia Golf Club in Brisbane and, within 18 months, he went from a 27 handicap to scratch.
At the age of 20, he served as an assistant professional at Beverley Park Golf Club in Sydney before moving on to become a trainee of Charlie Earp at Royal Queensland, earning $38 a week. In 1976, just six years after he took up golf, he turned pro as a tournament player, earning his first victory the same year in the West Lakes Classic in Adelaide.
The following year, he joined the European Tour, finishing in a tie for 52nd on his debut at the Penfold PGA Championship in May. His very next event yielded his first victory - the Martini International at Blairgowrie Golf Club in Perthshire. With Bernard Gallacher for company, he closed with a magnificent 66, the lowest round of the week, to beat Simon Hobday by three shots.
Writing in The Herald, the late Raymond Jacobs proclaimed Norman to be “a new - and rare - golfing talent.”
“If ever a player looks the part,” wrote Jacobs, “both physically and technically, he is Norman. A head of hair as strikingly blond as Nicklaus’s perches above a piratical-looking broken nose and a burly, broad-shouldered frame.”
Noting the Aussie’s “aggressive” shot-making, Jacobs added that he was “tailor made for American weather and courses.” Jacobs, a shrewd judge of a golfer, couldn’t have predicted it better.
Absolutely. Being completely honest, I don’t recall all 18 holes on the course but I remember the week vividly. It was an important win and I’ll always remember it fondly because it made a statement, to myself as much as anyone else. It told me that I was good enough to compete and win at the highest level. It gave me a huge amount of con dence. I’d already won a few titles in Australia and Japan by that point and so the next logical step was to try to win in Europe. I came over with the simple goal of trying to learn different courses, different ways of playing and to improve my ball-striking. The turf on links courses in Scotland is totally di erent to the turf on some of the more lush parkland courses I’d largely been playing up until that point, and the best way to improve is to learn. That was my aim, to learn as much as I could - about double greens, summer greens, winter greens, narrow fairways, wide fairways, thick rough, wispy rough, you name it - with the ultimate goal of getting to the US. I knew that was where I needed to end up in order to really fulfill my potential but I didn’t want to take any shortcuts to get there. I wanted to learn the game as best I could to give myself the best chance of succeeding when I did eventually get to America.
Nobody, really. I mean, it was a great time for the European Tour with the emergence of guys like Sam Torrance, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Stewart Ginn and John O’Leary, guys like that. They were - and are - all great guys who I really enjoyed being around. But, like I said, my goal was to get to America. That was my focus. I knew that if I could get there and I could beat the best American golfers, in their own backyard, that I’d be in good stead to have a long and successful career.
Actually, no. My earliest ambition was to become a fighter pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force. I grew up in North East Australia, close to an air force base, and I used to watch the fighter jets taking off all the time. I figured that would be a pretty cool thing to do but somewhere along the way golf just took over. I’ve seen it written that I wanted to become a professional surfer but that’s not true. Surfing was a big part of my childhood. It was something I was good at and I loved doing it but it was never something I was going to do for a living. It’s interesting, though, and this is something I’ve spoken with [five-time World Surf League champion] Kelly Slater about, surfing is very good for your golf. When you’re on a board, you feel everything that is under your feet. The proprioception of your body in the golf swing is similar to that when you’re surfing. Even though they’re opposites in so many ways, the two sports are similar. Looking back now, I really believe my surfing prowess had a big inflence on my golf.
In the decade that followed his breakthrough win at Blairgowrie, Norman cemented his place as one of golf’s most dominant players, winning multiple times on the European Tour, PGA Tour of Australia and elsewhere. His first PGA Tour victory arrived in the 1984 Kemper Open at Congressional, where he defeated Mark O’Meara by five shots. The only thing now missing from his CV was a major championship. He’d come close, finishing fourth on his Masters debut in 1981 and, a fortnight after his Kemper victory, he lost an 18-hole play-off for the US Open to Fuzzy Zoeller. It was in 1986, however, that Norman truly made his mark. After leading both the Masters and the US Open after 54 holes, without converting either lead into a victory, he went to the Open at Turnberry as one of the pre-tournament favourites. Sure enough, he again found himself in the lead with 18 holes to go, completing the third leg of what became known as his ‘Saturday Slam’ [Incidentally, he would go on to lead the PGA Championship after three rounds the following month to complete this streak]. Unlike the previous two majors, there was to be no final round disappointment for Norman this time around. With the words of Jack Nicklaus still fresh in his mind from dinner the previous evening - “Nobody in the world wants you to win more than I do,” Nicklaus told him - he converted a one-shot lead over Tommy Nakajima into an emphatic five-shot victory from his nearest challenger, Gordon J Brand. The following day ‘Norman conquest’ headlines were splashed on the sports pages of newspapers around the world.
I think that win was all the more signi cant because of the attention I had been getting that year as a result of the ‘Saturday Slam’ talk. Look, obviously, it was fantastic to win and when I reflect on it now, I’d go so far as to say that the 63 I shot in that second round is one of my top three or four rounds of all time. What a lot of people won’t remember, but I do, is that I three-putted 17 and 18 for that 63. It could very realistically have been a 61 or better, and in tough conditions, too. I remember feeling very confident about my chances that week. When I saw the weather forecast and I saw the course, I immediately knew what my game-plan was going to be. The fairways were tight. The rough was high, so high that you wondered if you might injure yourself trying to get the ball back in play if you found it. And, on the eve of the championship, the wind picked up considerably. It was cold, grey and windy. So, my plan was simple: grab the driver and try to take the left side of the course out of play as much as possible. I had a lot of confidence in my driving. It was always one of my strengths. I knew that if I aimed down the left of the fairway, and got that power-fade going, I’d have more of the fairway to hit to. So, that’s what I did. I stuck to my task, even in the worst of the conditions, and just tried to swing nice and easy, making solid contact. I had a good, positive frame of mind the whole week, and by the end of it, I was lucky enough to be standing there holding the Claret Jug.
Wonderful. Simply wonderful. I remember it occurring to me how meteoric my rise had been to that point. I had only been playing golf for about ten years, starting off with a 27 handicap, and now here I was holding the Claret Jug. It was a powerful statement. It was proof that if you dare to chase your dreams, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish. You know, I’ve never played to please other people. I’ve always played for me. You’ve got to. You can’t spend your entire life - certainly, your professional life - trying to please and impress other people. You’ve got to do it for yourself. If you do, and you do it well, then everyone else benefits, from those closest to you, to those watching you play. So, it was fantastic to get that first win but it wasn’t long before I started to think, ‘Okay, now what?’ That’s the thing about dreams: you’ve always got to have them.
In 2010, Tom Watson offered this magazine his take on many of his contemporaries at the height of his career. Lee Trevino? “The best ball-striker I ever saw.” Gary Player? “The original Mr Fitness.” Seve Ballesteros? “Magical. Just magical.”
But Greg Norman? “Greg was what we refer to over here in the States as ‘snakebit’,” said Watson. “In other words, he lost more tournaments than he really ought to have.”
It seems a remarkable, perhaps even slightly unkind, thing to say of a man who has won 91 times around the world - but it’s not unjustified.
Norman finished runner-up in eight different majors: the Masters three times (1986, 1987 and 1996); the US Open twice (1984 and 1995); the Open once (1989); and the PGA twice (1986 and 1993). Save for not even a handful of shots here and there over the course of his career, he could quite reasonably now be sitting alongside Sarazen, Hogan, Player, Nicklaus and Woods as the only golfers to have completed the career grand slam. Instead, he has as many major wins as the likes of John Daly, Fuzzy Zoeller and Curtis Strange. All great golfers but not even close to being in Norman’s league.
His Masters near-misses were particularly painful. Jack Nicklaus staged one of the great Sunday charges to overtake Norman in 1986. The following year, Larry Mize holed an improbable chip to defeat him on the second extra hole. But nothing compares to 1996. Leading by six with 18 holes to play, Norman shot a 78, ultimately finishing five behind playing partner Nick Faldo.
“I played liked shit,” he acknowledged afterwards. Others were less kind. Thomas Bonk, in the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “Empires collapse. So do card tables, tents and souflés. And so does Greg Norman.”
Yeah, regrets in some instances, not so much in others. Larry Mize, for example. I never, ever thought I’d lose the Masters on the 11th hole. Larry did what he did, which was incredible, and there was nothing I could do about it. Likewise, I had no control over Jack Nicklaus shooting 30 on the back nine at Augusta in 1986. When you birdie four straight holes coming in, like I did from the 14th to the 17th, and you don’t win, you have to accept that the golfing Gods have just decided not to smile on you that day. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.
Different story altogether. What can I say? It was hugely disappointing. I remember waking up on the Sunday morning, leading by six, and noticing straight away that my back was sore. Not bad enough to keep me in bed but bad enough to be a niggly problem. Anyway, I got up, got ready and went out to warm up. I remember speaking to my coach, Butch Harmon, and being concerned that I was getting the club stuck behind me, almost to compensate for my back. I told him I thought it wouldn’t be easy that day, and so it proved. Augusta National is one of those places where, if you’re a half-yard out, you pay for it big time.
There’s nothing I can do about that. I understand the interest. I just hope they remember the other stuff I’ve done, too. I’ve been a loyal supporter of the game on a global front since my earliest days as a professional. I’ve played and won in Australia, Europe, Asia and America. I never stopped going home to support golf there. I was the first guy to do an exhibition in China. I was one of the first to support the golf in Dubai. I’ve always done my best to grow the game around the world.
Absolutely. I feel for Tiger. I really do. He’ll never get back to where he was. Time is against him. Younger, fitter players are against him. And most significantly of all, his confidence is against him. I said it earlier about surfing, but proprioception is massive. The body is programmed to protect its weakest link as a priority, whether subconsciously or otherwise, and when that happens, that weakest link can become your undoing. That’s what we’ve seen with Tiger. Whether he knows it or not, it looks like he has been trying to play to accommodate whatever back problems he’s got, and it’s almost impossible to play at your best when you’re doing that. It’s sad to see and, of course, I can relate given my own back problems. When you look back at the big ‘power’ players of the last 50 or so years, we’ve all had some lingering issues because of the way we attacked the ball. Jack [Nicklaus], Seve [Ballesteros], me and now Tiger.
Absolutely. Everything points that way, doesn’t it? The body is the body. Anatomically, we’re all the same. Sure, we can all change our physiques by building up muscle and so on - but you can’t build up your bones or your spine. The more you try to put power and flexibility around what Mother Nature gave you, the higher the chance of something happening. We’ve seen it already with some of the top guys today. Jason Day, for example, has already had some issues. They’re all aware of the stress that they’re putting on their bodies but, to maintain their quality, they’re still attacking the ball as aggressively as ever. I can’t judge them for that. I used to do it, too. But stress is stress. Even bending over putting for hours and hours on end on the putting green isn’t good for you. I wish I’d known that sooner. I perhaps wouldn’t have spent so much time practising.
The 1999 Super Bowl saw the Denver Broncos take on the Atlanta Falcons at the Pro Player Stadium in Miami, Florida. Legendary Broncos quarterback John Elway, playing what would prove to be his final match before retiring, provided the excitement with a match-winning performance. Greg Norman? He supplied the pitch. Turf is just one of the Aussie’s many business interests. Others include golf course design, apparel, eyewear, real estate and wine. He even has his own branded line of premium steaks. The Greg Norman Company - until last year known as Great White Shark Enterprises - is a diverse empire that reports hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year, making the $14.4m he made from playing on the PGA Tour look like mere pocket change.
I was very alert early on in my career to the fact that I was building my own business as a professional golfer and that I therefore had a responsibility to run my affairs and handle my affairs like a business. I also figured out quite quickly that my management company - any management company - wasn’t interested in building equity on my brand. The average career for a professional athlete at the very top level is, what, ten to 15 years at best? That’s all my management were interested in - that period of time. Fair enough. That’s how they run. The athletes they represent are all pass-through entities. They roll in, make money, and roll out, replaced by younger, fresh, new talent. It’s a conveyor belt. But that didn’t sit well with me. Ten to 15 years at the top would take me pretty close to 40, but where did I want to be when I was 60? My management weren’t concerned with that. By then, they’d be onto the next guy, or the guy after him. So I realised I had a responsibility to take care of myself. I was quite forward-thinking and observed what was going on rather than just let it all happen around about me.
Well, this was the late 1980s. I was sponsored by Reebok and its owner, Paul Fireman, approached me about launching a ‘Great White Shark’ range of clothing. He said that they’d create the logo and license it back from me. It seemed like a brilliant idea. Suddenly, I had an outlet for products through Reebok and my own distinct brand and logo, which I would wear in place of the Reebok logo. Perfect, right? Around the same time, my contract with Reebok was coming up for renewal. I remember sitting in the meetings and my management company laying out a plan for a three to five-year extension. Three to five years! I said, ‘Guys, this is crazy. Reebok are planning to invest all of this time and money in my new brand and we’re wanting to enter into that short of a deal?’ In that instant, the penny dropped. From my management’s point of view, these talks were all about them getting their percentage of my deals year on year. It was all about the immediate and near future. There was no concern for my long-term potential. So, I proposed to Paul that we instead enter into a lifetime contract, as there would be nothing to stop me from walking away from Reebok when my deal was up. And, yes, I split with my management firm and went it alone.
[Laughs] My team would probably tell you I’m too hands-on. They’ll say to me, ‘Greg, it’s fine, we’ve got this. You don’t need to be this granular about it’. But then again, that’s just me. That’s the type of guy I am. I like to know everything that’s going on and what needs done. I guess it’s the golfer in me, always thinking through every outcome. ‘Okay, if I hit the ball there, this will be the outcome, whereas if I hit it there, it’ll be this.’
I enjoy it all but if I had to pick my biggest passion I’d probably say golf course design. We’ve designed more than 100 courses in over 30 countries around the globe. We’ve actually just announced our first project in Colombia, which is very exciting. It’s very gratifying to be involved in taking golf to new territories and new audiences. It’s funny, our design company is also a good economic indicator. We know when a recession is about to hit. Some people read tea leaves; our guys can see it coming when payments start to be delayed. Back in 2007 or 2008, when the global financial crisis hit, I remember the first signs we got were some months earlier when we started to find some of our payments being deferred. I said to the guys, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to be pretty. We need to make some shifts, diversify what we’re doing and spread our net further around the globe to find markets that won’t be affected’. That wasn’t easy to do but we came through it relatively unscathed and that was largely down to understanding what was happening and reacting to it before it happened.
It nearly happened. I actually did a redesign of the Ailsa Course at Turnberry before the Trump Organisation bought it. I was asked by the former owners to draw up some plans, which I did, but that’s as far as it went. It’s funny to look at it now and see some of your own ideas. I had big plans for the tenth, eleventh and twelfth holes, in particular. The 12th was going to be more a right-to-left shape, with a tee positioned high up above the 11th green, which I had planned to move more towards the rocks, as has happened. It would have been great to get the chance to realise the plans but, like I say, it didn’t happen. That’s just the way it goes. I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t want to design a course in Scotland. The opportunity to input everything I’ve learned about the game in the country where it all began would be so special. It would be the final arrow in my quiver.
It’s all relative, of course, but it’s remarkable that a man who dominated golf as recently as Norman can be ranked outside the top 100 on the PGA Tour’s career money list. John Huston, Scott Piercy, Steve Lowery, Mark Wilson - all have earned more from playing golf than he did. Much has, of course, changed in the 20 years since Norman secured the most recent of his 20 PGA Tour titles. Aside from the money that the game’s top pros now play for, the courses they play on have been altered to reflect the distance gains made achievable by huge advances in golf club - and golf ball - technology.
It’s no big deal. You know, I think back to when I was the first to make a million in career earnings, and the first to make a million in a season. All the other guys were excited, saying ‘Go Greg, go’ and stuff like that, because it was helping to create more wealth and spread the money round. No matter what era you’re in, there will be some guys who want to be as successful as they can be and there will be others who are happy in their comfort zone. They’ll pull the blanket up around their necks and be quite content. Some people like the responsibility that goes with being a professional golfer and others don’t. But money is all relative to the time and era. There have been incremental gains from the Nicklaus and Palmer era, to, say, my era, and the same again from my era to the Woods era, and again from the Woods era to the Rory era. Go 25 years forward from now and I’m confident you’ll see the same pattern of growth.
I have always thought that pros should play under a different set of rules from the masses. The best players in the world will always be the best players in the world. If you told them to play Augusta National with hickory clubs and a gutta percha ball, they’d do it and they’d still be fantastic. Instead, they’ve got this incredible technology which is only creating a bigger gulf between them and the guys at the grassroots. In turn, that has made countless top courses obsolete for tournament play. The average club golfer can still play them and enjoy them but they’re no longer suitable for professional events. I don’t think that’s right. The main benefactors of technology have been the people making the technology and the top players. But what about the average player? They’re the ones who need the technology. The more you give them, the more likely they are to enjoy the game. Give them more, but restrict us.
Oh boy, it’s crazy. When we sit down with developers to discuss plans, more often than not one of the first things they say is that they want a championship-standard course. Straight off the bat, a championship course. But for what? One week a year? We’ve walked away from opportunities simply because we don’t see how we can make them work for the developer based on their expectations.
TPC San Antonio is one. You ask a developer if they want a course capable of hosting a PGA Tour event and a high majority will say yes. But let’s break down the economics of that. For one week a year, at best, they need to have a course that is long enough for the smallest percentage of golfers because of the influence of technology. Beyond that, you need to factor in additional costs for a suitable clubhouse, TV towers, cabling, spectators and all of the other associated infrastructural costs of staging a tournament. Now, take those extra costs and multiply them out over 20 years or so – where’s the return on your investment? You show that to people and yet they’ll still largely say, ‘Thanks for that and, yes, I still want all of it’. The only way of getting any kind of non-diminished return is to build real estate around the property but even then there are no guarantees. I don’t really understand it. From a purely ‘course’ point of view, why would you want to build a course that is 7,500 yards long if you’re only going to have people playing it at its full length once or twice a year? It’s just another cost you don’t need. It’s 700 or 800 extra yards that you won’t use but you still need to water, fertilise, maintain, year on year. Take those costs and multiply them out over a 20-year period. Do you really need that? I’m not sure you do.
The Open returns to Royal Birkdale this summer. The last time it was there, in 2008, Norman rolled back the years to, once again, head the field after three rounds. At the age of 53, he became the oldest player to hold at least a share of the Open lead after 54 holes. [Tom Watson eclipsed that record the following year at Turnberry aged 59].Had he won, Norman would have set a new record as the oldest major champion in the game’s history.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Playing partner Padraig Harrington - who almost had to withdraw prior to the championship because of a wrist injury - reined him in to successfully defend the title he had won a year earlier at Carnoustie. Even so, Norman’s gallant effort won’t soon be forgotten.
It was a fun week. I went in feeling con dent, healthy and hitting the ball well and, for the first 63 holes, everything was going great. Then, on the Sunday, I remember walking off the ninth tee to go to the tenth, feeling fantastic, when suddenly there were people everywhere. I looked up and realised that there were two groups on the tee. It was pretty obvious we were in for a bit of a delay. The thing is, there’s nowhere to go. You’re in a gold fish bowl with cameras trained directly on you. You’re wanting to look relaxed and not show the nerves underneath or the frustration that you’re having your momentum disrupted by the hold-up in front of you. You’re focusing hard on maintaining your cool and your intensity all at once, which is very hard to do. Finally, after about 15 minutes or so, we’re on the tee and I hit a horrible pull-hook. That’s something I just don’t do. My body had just stiffened up from standing around waiting. I made a good par at 11 but then failed to get up and down at 12 and the championship just kind of got away from me after that. It was disappointing but we gave it a good go and it was a lot of fun being in the mix again.
Absolutely. I don’t think it’ll happen on one of these monster courses but I can see it happening somewhere like St Andrews. You know, Birkdale in ’08 was an example of how, in the right weather conditions, experience can be so much more valuable than any yardage book. I was chipping 5-irons from 150 yards and getting it close more often than not. That’s something that only comes from years and years of playing the game and having the guts to try it. Somewhere down the line, somebody is going to have the same opportunity and I’m quite sure they’ll see it through.
It came about one time when I was signing autographs on my plane. That’s when I catch up on correspondence and things like that. Anyway, I’m going through a box of pictures and I’m putting the usual stuff on it. “Keep swinging”, “Play hard”, “Enjoy your golf”. All of the typical stuff. Then, out of nowhere, I started writing “Attack life” and it kind of resonated with me. I just thought, ‘You know, there’s something in that’. That’s how I approach every day now. Go out there and give it some.
It really depends what I’m doing. If I’m working on a particular project, for example, it could vary from one day to the next. One thing I’m very big on, though, is making sure I have my weekends free to spend at home. That’s family time. I’ve spent so much of my life working at weekends that I really value having the luxury of having them free these days. I recognise that’s something that’s important for my staff, too. They’ve mostly got families of their own. Work during the week; family at the weekend. That’s the way I like it. But a typical day? I’ll get up early, take my stepdaughters to school and aim to be in my office for just before 8am. I’ll work there until 2pm, 2.30pm and then I’ll go to the gym and work out between 4pm and 6pm. After that, it’s back home to wind down, have dinner with the family, and then watch some TV. Preferably sport. Most of what is on TV is garbage, though.
Travel with a masseuse and a full-time trainer. No doubt about it. You look back and take stock of everything you’ve put your body through and you just think of how much a benefit that would have been. It would have been a wonderful asset. But, hey, I’ve got no complaints.