• Open Slather

    Greg Norman on taming Royal St. George's, snaring two Open Championships (and almost a third), cloning claret jugs and what playing alongside Nick Faldo was really like.

    • Australian Golf Digest. July 2021
    This article appears in the July 2021 edition of Australian Golf Digest. Click the image above to view.

    Greg Norman does not own a long and rich history with the Open Championship prior to his playing days. His first Open as a participant came in 1977 at Turnberry but his first memory of The Open is from a mere two years earlier when countryman Jack Newton parried away the charges of Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller before falling to Tom Watson in an 18-hole playoff.

    Norman played in 27 Open Championships between 1977 and 2009, winning twice, losing in a playoff another time and enjoying a spirited third-place finish at age 53 in his penultimate appearance. Among Australian golfers, his Open resume is surpassed by only five-time Open champion Peter Thomson and the pair are part of an elite, four-member club - along with Kel Nagle and Ian Baker-Finch - as Aussie golfers to have claimed the claret jug.

    Remarkably in the age of YouTube and instant digital access to the sporting past, Norman has never re-watched either of his Open triumphs. "I don't go back over the past," he says. "I'm the guy who's: 'What's done is done and move on.'

    "It's incredible how athletes can recall certain feelings, certain shots, certain moments in time. That's our training mechanism, that's what makes us who we are. We have that ability to recall, but I don't need to be refreshed."

    Yet the Great White Shark still has plenty to say about The Open, the rota of courses, his recollections and rivals, plus golf and life in general. Join us on this ride down Open Championship Lane. - Steve Keipe

    On His First Open Experience

    The 1975 Open at Carnoustie was a focal point in Australia at the time - the Open with Tom Watson, Jack Newton, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller. It's the one that came to the forefront because the Australian media were covering it because of Jack Newton. I probably followed more the Masters than The Open at that time, because it seemed like the Masters got most of the attention, being the first Major of the year.

    Then, two years later, I made my debut at Turnberry, where Jack Nicklaus and Tom had their Duel in the Sun. It was very unusual for Scottish weather to be delivering that type of temperature and playability. The golf course was wispy and fiery. In the end, two of the best players in the world collided at the right time. It was a matchplay situation, but to see the best of the best playing their best - I don't care whether it's on a pitch-n-putt course - that's pretty impressive to see. From a player's perspective, there's nothing better than seeing the best bowler going against the best batsman, the best centre half forward going against the best centre halfback. There's nothing better than seeing the best sportsmen and women at each other at their peak.

    I do remember that Open but I don't remember how I played [Norman missed the third-round cut after scores of 78, 72 and 74. The R&A did away with third round cuts after 1985]. It was more of the learning curve for me to step up to the plate. A lot of the golf I'd been playing leading up to that Open in '77 was more parkland golf: practising at Royal Queensland, playing in Australia. Most of the golf courses I'd played in those days weren't really linksy-type golf courses. When I got to Japan, the same thing. They're more parkland-style golf courses. Then, I get to Europe and they're all parkland golf courses. So I really didn't get to feel what Scottish golf courses and links golf was all about. There was a transition period. But I came out of '77 knowing I had to make some adjustments to my game when I went back to play The Open.

    On Dismantling Turnberry in '86

    I knew, when I got there for my practice rounds, that I was going to do well around Turnberry because it was the narrowest fairways we'd ever experienced at an Open Championship or any Major.

    The rough was the most severe. There were a lot of complaints coming from the players saying they were going to break their wrists, hurt themselves and stuff like: "Get in there and cut it, cut it, cut it.  It was always wet because it was raining a lot of that heavy moisture, Scottish moisture. The rough was even harder, heavier and thicker.

    I knew during Tuesday's practice round with my caddie Pete Bender that I was going to do well because I was driving the ball so well. I was hitting these really long power fades. I'd aim down the left side of the fairway and just hit it. It was just beautiful control I had over my driver all week. It wasn't like that just on the Friday or the Sunday, it was all week.

    So, I knew my driver was going to be the ace up my sleeve. As it turned out, it was, because the rough intimidated other people. I wasn't intimidated. I can't remember what percentage of fairways I hit, but I bet it was high for the circumstances. There were fairways 19, 22 yards wide and that's at the landing areas. It was extremely demanding.

    I walked away from that disappointed too, because when I shot 63 in the second round under these very adverse conditions, I finished three-putt, three-putt for par, bogey. If I go one-putt, one-putt, I shoot 59. I was that close to doing it. I wasn't thinking about that at the time, though. Somebody brought it up and mentioned it a little bit later.

    That 63 would be in my top three rounds ever. It was my game plan and that you've got to win it. You've got to be close to winning it. You've got to contend in it. As you prepare to go to a golf tournament, you have to go in with that mindset, and preparation has everything to do with it.

    To feel that locked in, people who don't experience that level of control could never understand how simple it feels. That's what it's all about. That's why we practise. That's why we train our bodies. That's why we train our minds. That's why we have coaches. That's why we get honed in the best way we possibly can and it's very difficult. But it feels easy.

    I'll never forget a great example from Nigel Mansell, the Formula 1 racecar driver. I was with him at the British Grand Prix around the mid '80s. I was sitting on the pit lane wall and he's leading the grand prix. He's whipping by and I'm talking to somebody beside me. He must have been doing 220, 230 down the stretch. He finishes the race. "Congratulations. Well done!" And he says, "Hey, what were you talking about on the pit lane wall with that guy?" And I'm going, "Oh my God."

    You think about it: he's whipping by at 230 and everything must have slowed down in his mind. That's why he's so great at it. It slows down. You see everything. You feel everything. It's like you're in a totally different world. That's no different than golf - it's the same with us. Even though you play five-and-a-half hours for 18 holes, it feels like it's half an hour. You feel like, "Can I just keep going?" It's very, very difficult to explain.

    On 'Making Love To Your Fingers'

    One of the things I recall driving to Royal St George's that Sunday morning is how I was thinking about relaxation and breathing, which you normally do anyway. Grabbing the steering wheel of the car, I actually said to myself, "Make love to your fingers." When I grabbed hold of the steering wheel, I was caressing it and I was feeling it. I had a Jot of sensitivity in my fingertips. The feedback up my body was just really relaxed, instead of squeezing the steering wheel like a lot of people do.

    You get to The Open and there are those little, tiny, narrow roads. You've got to allocate an hour when it can take five minutes. So I wanted to not get amped up in any way, shape or form. To this day, I still use that same messaging. I didn't say it to anybody then, but I've used it probably a dozen times in my life since then, publicly and during clinics. You make love to your fingers when you grab hold of the golf club, right? You don't squeeze the golf club. That's where that saying started.

    On Playing Royal St George's

    I prepared really well with Tony Navarro that Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday in '93. We had a strategy off the tee, for some of the lines off the tee and because of my length and how straight I could hit the golf ball. At Royal St George's, there are a lot of fairly sharp doglegs. Tony and I, we both thought that because of my length, I could actually hit across the doglegs and get to the widest part of the fairway not the narrowest part. That's what I did on a Jot of the holes. When people were laying up, I was like, "See you later, I'm going over the corner."

    Royal St George's is not one of my favourite golf courses. There's a lesson in the fact that you can actually go to a golf course, develop a game plan on the golf course, that... I'm not saying it doesn't suit my eye, but I didn't really like the layout. It felt quirky to me. I played there in the late '70s when the British PGA Championship was there. Even then, I thought, This is not my golf course.

    You have to figure out: are there circumstances where you are going to feel comfortable, in any situation? They're different when you get up there and you make your first speech in front of 10,000 people. How do you make yourself relaxed, comfortable and be able to deliver, like you're having a fireside chat? It's no different going to Royal St George's knowing I didn't like the layout. I had to figure it out, figure out the best way to play it with my style of golf, which Tony and I did.

    Where does the course sit within the Open rota? I'm not going to answer that in PC fashion; I would put it on the low end. It's a very quirky golf course. There are a lot of different angles. It's like a bowl of cooked spaghetti - it's all over the place. It's very hard when you play Royal St George's without it being in The Open, when there's no bleachers and TV towers. It's very difficult to figure out where the centrelines on some of the fairways are. You have to play from knowledge and experience. You can't just walk right up there, even if you have a local caddie that's been there for 50 years and he tells you to "hit it over the sand dune, there's a bunker over there, this is over there and it's out-of-bounds here", because you don't see it. Sometimes it's very difficult just to go and fire away.

    It's one of those golf courses where you need to do a lot of repetitions around it. You need to know it. And the weather changes there dramatically, from the wind out of the north-east, to the wind out of the south-east, to the wind out of the south. That whole course changes with a 10 or 12-degree shift in wind.

    On The Vagaries Of Sport

    Could I have imagined that Open, at age 38, would wind up being my last Major title? No, of course not. Not at all. You don't even think like that at the time because you're going through life. Part of sitting back and reflecting on life, you can reflect back on the incidences, the situations, or what other players have done. That's sport, and anything can happen in sport.

    You think about it in cricket, soccer or swimming in the Olympics. You train for four years and you miss your turn by two one-hundredths of a second and you finish third. You think, OK, what did I do wrong there?

    It's sport. You do the best you possibly can in your training and you execute. You have no control over your opponent or your opposing team. When you look back on it, you see moments in time when you could have done better and you see moments in time when somebody else was just way better than you at that given time.

    On Celebrating Open Victories

    They were not wild nights after either Open. In '93, by the time everything wound down - from media, the R&A, things you've got to do with the volunteers - it's hours and hours and hours going by. I just went to the plane, got on and flew home with my family and friends. That was it.

    Of course, you have a wine or two. You chill out, but most of the time you're just tired. You're coming off a big, hard, focused week, plus the intensity on and off the golf course.

    In '86 it was a little bit different, because there was a Concorde chartered flight that we flew over on and the Concorde was taking us back. Coincidentally, my good friend, Captain John Cook, was bringing the Concorde in to land at Prestwick Airport. All the festivities were over and he committed a bit of an aviation no-no. He came in low over Ailsa Craig, knowing that all of us were standing down there with the trophy. He came straight up the 18th hole at low level and just put it on its tail with the afterburners and just launched it into the atmosphere.