ST ALBANS, ENGLAND | Though born in Australia in 1955 and a U.S. resident for many of the past decades, Greg Norman was moulded in many ways by his experience in Britain and on the European Tour 40 years ago. It is not just that he had to adapt his golf to cope with the different conditions in Europe – to learn how to hit the ball low, for example. It was a lifestyle he was about to experience and would quickly come to love.
After arriving in London early in 1977, he was driven in a black Bentley to his manager’s home, a building that was turreted like a castle and surrounded by a moat. Peacocks strolled around the grounds, and there were servants inside the house. “When they turned up the long driveway that led to the magnificent Beaurepaire House, Norman felt a rush of euphoria,” Lauren St John noted in “Shark,” her biography of Norman. “He pinched himself. If he hadn’t arrived yet, he was well on the way.”
Those clichéd nicknames given to golfers – Nicklaus was the Golden Bear, Ernie Els the Big Easy, Gary Player the Black Knight – did not exclude Norman. His was the Great White Shark, which soon became the name of his business. To the late Jack Newton, a countryman, he was the Great White Fish Finger.
As Norman sat amidst his LIV Golf colleagues at Centurion Club north of London on Wednesday, he didn’t look as though he had changed much since his early days on the European Tour. He wore an open-neck shirt and a suede jacket, still a little Crocodile Dundee, and if he’d had one of his trademark straw hats on his head, you’d swear that it was 1986 all over again. He was as Australian as ever: friendly, talkative, engaging. The fierce stare had not diminished, nor the powerful voice, and the fervour with which he spoke about LIV Golf was messianic. He said time and again, “I’m sorry guys, but I really care about this issue.”
He always had a decent sense of humour, always ready to dig people in the ribs. When Nicklaus split a shoe during their semifinal in the 1986 Suntory World Match Play Championship, Norman quipped: “Your shoes are a lot of old cobblers, Jack.”
Was Greg Norman brash at Centurion Club last week? He always has been brash. Was he articulate last week? He was as talkative as ever. Was he clumsy in some of his responses? Undoubtedly. To say that journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing by employees of the Saudi government was “a mistake” was as misspoken as it is possible to be. Asked about the recent execution of 81 men by the Saudis, Norman airily brushed it off by saying: “Quite honestly, I look forward. I don’t look back. I don’t look into the politics of things ... I am not going to get drawn into the quagmire of whatever happens in the political or somebody else’s world. That doesn’t have anything to do with me.” It does for an awful lot of other people, Greg, and a more tactful response, as well as a little more sympathy and understanding, would have gone a long way.
... if the money behind LIV Golf was coming from a more reputable and frankly less barbaric source than the Saudi Arabians, the idea of a rival tour headed by Norman might attract less opprobrium.
This and other answers of Norman’s raised a question: Surely, some damage-limitation firm had run him through the type of questions he would receive and the answers he should give? It didn’t seem so. It appeared he was doing as he always did, shooting from the hip. There had been a suggestion of that when he began the meeting by reading a statement he had written on his iPad the night before in which he repeated the words he had written to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan: “… surely you jest …” Rarely have PGA Tour officials been so offended by a mere three words.
In many ways, then, last Wednesday Greg Norman was not so much a great white shark as a bull in a china shop.
All of that is true, but I have to admit that I warmed to him just as I had when he was making waves in golf in the 1980s and ’90s. He was the most gracious loser I have ever seen. Two days after his collapse at Augusta in 1996, when he went from six ahead after 54 holes to lose to Nick Faldo by five strokes, we were all at Hilton Head in South Carolina. “Hello, boys,” he said cheerily. “Fingertips worn to the bone yet from all your typing?” As I drove home on Wednesday, I thought that if the money behind LIV Golf was coming from a more reputable and frankly less barbaric source than the Saudi Arabians, the idea of a rival tour headed by Norman might attract less opprobrium.
It is important to realise that for a half-century, Norman has been a man on a mission. At first it was to become the best golfer in the world, to make himself a millionaire by the time he was 30 and marry an American girl, the last two of which he achieved, but he had to wait until age 31, in September 1986, before he became world No. 1. He is driven by what he felt was a lack of approval from his father. He and Toini, his mother, always got on very well, but he and his father, Merv, often butted heads. These disagreements left Norman more determined than ever to succeed; they drove him relentlessly. “I hate failure,” he said in a perceptive comment in 1989. “The idea of failure is, I think, my driving force.”
In the mid-90s, Norman came up with a plan for a world tour. It was blown out of the water by the PGA Tour and others, and could therefore be considered to be a failure. Last week, Norman was asked whether he was conducting a vendetta against authorities in golf because of that perceived failure. “Not a vendetta,” he said. “I see this as an opportunity for golf … you can look at every interview I’ve done with you since 1982 … I’ve been 100-percent consistent: global golf, global golf, global golf. Grow the game of golf globally.”
It might be possible for him to say he isn’t conducting a vendetta, but it is hard for outsiders to conclude anything other than he is.
In September 1984, when Norman was about to defend his World Match Play Championship title, I wrote this: “Norman is a sight worth seeing on a golf course and not only for his guardsman’s walk, his parchment-coloured hair and a voice that echoes around the fairways. He hits the ball as if his life depends on it. From the top of his backswing, when his powerful shoulders are fully turned, he brings his club down at high speed, often grunting with the effort, and swinging so hard that his hands are swept through, up and around his head until his body position resembles a reverse C. When his dander is up, he creates such an impression of power that you wince as he makes contact and you half expect the ball to burst under the onslaught.”
The dispute between LIV Golf and the game’s authorities led by the PGA Tour seems to be heading toward courtrooms faster than a Greg Norman drive. Norman is sometimes crass, sometimes clumsily spoken and sometimes appears without professional advice, but no one can say that he is not true to himself. He is trying to grow the game, however such an aim is financed.
Top: Greg Norman, as always, shoots from the hip and lips during cringe-worthy LIV Golf presser at Centurion Club.