Business Jet Traveler: Face-To-Face Encounter Reveals Another Side Of The Golf Legend
The legendary golfer, businessman, and private aviation fan is not quite the person you’ve read about in magazines or seen on TV.
Greg Norman’s public persona conjures up a swashbuckling extrovert. But when I meet the golf great turned enormously successful CEO at his Palm Beach, Florida headquarters, he turns out to be soft-spoken and thoughtful—self-confident but certainly not flamboyant.
The dichotomy doesn’t come as a complete surprise, because I’ve read Norman’s 2006 autobiography, The Way of the Shark: Lessons on Golf, Business, and Life. The book reveals a selfdescribed introvert who enjoys spending time alone contemplating his next triumph. It’s simply written, but the messages are profound, and Norman does not shy away from detailing some of the early career disappointments, failures, and betrayals that shaped the entrepreneur he is today.
Something of a child prodigy, the Australia-born Norman took to golf quickly and without formal training and went on to spend 331 weeks as No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings and win 20 PGA Tour tournaments and two majors. He was known for doing things his own way on and off the course. But despite often making things look easy, Norman takes great pride in his work ethic, telling me he always “puts in the time to become the best.” Today he is a dedicated family man who adores his children and grandchildren. He continues to lead the multinational Greg Norman Company, whose portfolio includes businesses focused on apparel, interior design, real estate, private equity, wine, and golf course design.
Your interest in aviation started early.
I lived next to a Royal Australian Air Force base where F-111s were taking off. I was probably 13 or 14, and I was infatuated by them. In high school, I was doing the preliminary training to join the air force and become a pilot. I was about to join the air force and decided not to for some reason—even though I didn’t even know I was going to become a professional golfer.
How did you start playing golf?
I watched my mother play. She was five-foot-four and 100 pounds wringing wet. But she could play, and I was so impressed—not that a woman could play, but that a small-statured person like her could play that well. And I thought, if my mom can play, I can play.
Nobody taught me how to put a club in my hand; I just picked it up. My fingers are kind of funky, because my little finger is short. An overlapping grip, which is what most players play with, felt terrible to me. So I came up with my own grip. I put the time in and got better and better. All of a sudden, I’m shooting in the low 70s; then I am in the 60s, then the low 60s. Before you know it, I’m turning pro. It’s crazy—from the time I first picked up a golf club to the time I won my first tournament was only five years.
You’ve used business aviation all through your career in golf, as well as for business, I understand.
I had a relationship with Bell Helicopter for a long time. I also bought a Jetstar around 1988. I paid a million dollars for it. I flew it around the world thinking I was the king of the hill. And then I went into a GIII and I got a relationship with Gulfstream, very similar to the one with Bell Helicopter. I would acquire the aircraft, but they would lease back time at a retail rate. I would [arrive at a tournament] on a Tuesday and wouldn’t leave until Sunday, so my plane would sit idle in the Middle East or Asia or Japan for five or six days, and Gulfstream would use it as a demonstrator.
You’ve had a couple of hard landings and close calls. Has that ever spooked you?
No. It’s part of flying—or of driving a car or swimming in the ocean— it’s part of life. If your number comes up, your number comes up.
In your book, you talk about how you focus on one goal at a time. Can you elaborate?
I might have 13 things [going on], but I focus on one and get it done. It’s no different if I go to the gym, if I’m scuba diving, if I am sitting with the President of the United States. You’ve got to focus on that moment in time, move on, and then it’s done.
You also talk in your book about your relationship with your father.
My dad taught me a lot of the values of life: never tell a lie and be true to yourself and stuff like that. He was tough because his dad was really tough on him. I didn’t want to be that way. I wanted to break the chain, because you don’t want to keep handing that generational [nonsense] down. So I made a decision when I was 14 or 15 to seize life for myself.
Are you a consciously different kind of father?
Totally different and absolutely it was a conscious decision. I’m very honest with my kids. I started talking to them at a very young age about certain values and other things. Kids are way smarter than what we give them credit for. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your child because the more you ignore it, the more they are going to rebel and go away from you. The more you embrace [kids’ intelligence], the more they are going to hang around.
Do you think it’s challenging for your children to try to fill your shoes?
Well, my two kids are very different. My daughter, Morgan, is intrinsically involved in my wine business. She took the helm on that because she was a chef and she loved to pair foods and wine. She’s very passionate about the brand and she’s done a fantastic job. Greg’s passion was water sports. He was a kite boarder and a surfer. I was [also] a very good surfer growing up. Surfing in my day was a non-moneymaking deal, but today it’s pretty good. I took him very early on to all my favorite surfing spots in Australia, just dad and son. Then he got into kite boarding and I took him to Hawaii to learn how to kite board and he became a professional kite boarder. So just like Morgan following her passion, he followed his.
What is your relationship to fame?
I’ve always been a reluctant celebrity. I had to accept that if I became better and better at golf I would be in front of the public more. Am I antisocial? No. But do I like my quiet time, walking on the beach. For a long time, I was in the public eye, playing golf in front of 20,000 or 30,000 people four days a week and I was under a microscope. So you look for tranquility—a place to go to get away.
I would imagine the gossip part of it is tough.
I don’t mind people having an opinion, but don’t be vicious and totally lie. Or if you want to write a story, call up and ask for the facts and hear both sides of it. Don’t just go off one version you’ve heard in the bar or somebody else telling you! That’s what I hate about media and journalism. Trump [coined the term] “fake news,” but I’ve seen so much fake news about myself for 40 years.
Would you have been as successful as you have been in business if you’d never picked up a golf club?
Absolutely not. I would have been an air force pilot, then maybe a private pilot, and then probably a commercial pilot. Sitting out there on a 747 or a 777 or 787—and bored!
What probably helped me with my business was seeing how other people managed me. I hated it, and I thought [a lot of them] were parasites. Because you are treated like a pass-through entity, and they are going to milk you as much as they can and do other stuff around you [for money]. Once they secured you to play in a golf tournament, they would bolt on other top players, then sell sponsorships, sell television, get the gate money. But [as players] we had no piece of that.
I realized I had to protect myself, because I didn’t get any residual value. I knew quite a few actors and singers in those days, and they always got residuals, but every time Wonderful World of Golf played on TV, I didn’t get a residual. So I fought pretty hard, and I was the lone wolf out there saying I want my residuals. I was the first guy to challenge [the PGA Tour branding rules].
Your philanthropic efforts, especially towards children, are notable. How did that get started?
At the end of the day, when you are happy, healthy, and successful, if you don’t pay attention to people who aren’t as fortunate, you fall into this trap of ignoring the rest of the world. Playing golf, I had visibility to a lot of walks of lives. Kids who would come out and watch you in wheelchairs. A kid in Houston who had an allergy to the sun came to see me play in a space suit [covering his whole body]. A few stories like that [happened], and I said, what can I do?
[The interest in helping cure childhood cancers] really started with my ex brother-in-law Dr. Richard Andrassy. He’s a pediatric surgeon [now head of surgery at UT Health]. I watched him operate on a premature baby who could fit in the palm of his hand. He designed a special catheter to go into this baby, and the baby survived. He changed someone’s life—how cool is that? He still is one of my dear friends. I asked him questions about childhood cancer and that’s how it morphed into my focus on the National Child Cancer Foundation [now called CureSearch]. Back when we started, the percentage of kids with cancer that were dying was much higher than it is now.
How do you decide what brands to endorse?
I’ll give you an example: when I was [represented by] a management company, they’d ask me to endorse a toilet seat. What is endorsing a toilet seat out of Japan going to do for my future except to put money in my bank account? Doesn’t make sense to me. [Conversely], in the eighties I would pick up the phone to General Motors and say, “Hey, I drive your Suburban that just came out and I love it. Do you think we should do an endorsement deal?” I’d fly to Detroit, meet with the CMO, and we’d sign a deal. If you validate a product, you have to be consistent with your brand standard. So I would never endorse a toilet seat. My brand has got a certain value.
Many of your employees have been with you for decades. What’s your management style?
I don’t ask anybody to do more than what I do. I lead by example, and I’m a listener, not a talker, so I’ll listen to people and I’ll take their valued opinion whether it’s from PR, marketing, the CFO, COO, my son, my daughter, whatever. I’m very open to constructive criticism—I’ve got a pretty thick skin.
How do you handle it when someone makes a big mistake?
I always said to my kids: if you tell me a lie, you’re going to be in serious trouble. No matter how bad the situation is, if you try to cover it up and then I have to find out about it and fix the problem then I’m really out of sorts. If you tell me the truth, then I will help you. We all make mistakes. I’ll take things head-on, no matter how good or bad they are. If something is great, how do we keep it great? If it’s bad, what happened, how did it happen, and let’s not let it happen again.
Look, I’ve had times in my business where presidents have made wrong decisions. Is that because I wasn’t paying 100 percent attention and I relied on them to make decisions instead of really knowing [what was going on]? You’ve empowered [executives] to do certain things and you can’t micromanage them. But when you get stung it hurts, especially in a small business. You’ve got to sit that person down [and see if he or she is willing to be] 100 percent accountable. I’m definitely an accountability guy. You better be accountable for your failures just as much as your successes.
What qualities do you look for when hiring a senior executive?
My team will probably find 20 or 30 people and boil [the list of candidates] down to three to five. Then I’ll interview them and ask myself, “Can I sit with this person on my plane for a 20-hour trip?”