• U.S.

Golfer GREG NORMAN: Just Shy of the Top

10 minute read
Eugene Linden

Unless things change, Greg Norman may enter the record books as the unluckiest golfer in modern history. Only twice have golfers chipped in from off the green on the final hole to win major tournaments. Both times, at the 1986 P.G.A. Championship and the 1987 Masters, Norman was the victim. He has placed second in two other majors, losing the 1986 Masters to Jack Nicklaus because of a wild 4-iron on the very last hole. Despite Olympian skills and what Nicklaus calls “virtually unlimited potential,” Greg Norman has only one major-tournament victory under his belt; the Golden Bear, Nicklaus, has tucked away a record 18. Norman at age 33 is golf’s Job.

But don’t feel too sorry for him. Norman is gifted, rich and a handsome devil besides. He has won 53 professional tournaments and holds the all-time record for single-year winnings at $1.3 million. On the course, the graceful Australian with the preternaturally blond hair first captures attention with his power. When he hits a drive the ball gets small in a hurry, as though some invisible agent is pulling it into the far reaches of that vault of air that is the golfer’s working space. Nicklaus calls him the “longest straight hitter ever.”

Then there is his blazing intensity. Whenever he sets foot on a course, he says, “it’s as though I am going for my first trophy.” For golf’s Great White Shark, each tournament is an opportunity to recapture the “indescribable feeling” of walking the last few holes while in contention to win. It is then that the crowd seems to recede as Norman’s concentration grows and he falls into that state of tunnel vision the pros call “owl’s eyes.” Pumped with adrenaline, he is usually hitting shots breathtakingly farther toward the end of a tournament. Nicklaus likens Norman to himself as a young man: a player with the confidence and skills to “overpower a golf course.”

But not necessarily to overpower a major tournament, as Norman is all too aware. Still, while other golfers with such abominable luck might be smashing their mashies and pulverizing their putters, Norman’s confidence remains unshaken. “I expect to do most of my damage between 35 and 45,” says he. Perhaps more important, the losses have shown that he can handle his setbacks with style, and though it kills him to lose, he asserts, “You do more good * for yourself by losing than by winning.” Norman is also something of a throwback. Golf has become the province of colorless, interchangeable technicians content with the mid-six-figure incomes that come with respectable finishes. But Norman continues to take enormous gambles going for the win, and he has shown class in winning as well as losing. After coming from four strokes back to win the Heritage Classic last spring, he gave his trophy to Jamie Hutton, a young leukemia patient he had invited to accompany him during play. The gesture so moved tournament officials and television announcers that for a moment none of them could speak.

Because of his combination of looks and sportsmanship, the beguiling Australian has been claimed as a hero by three continents, and though Norman may be faltering in his attempt to become the next dominant player, his popularity and income just keep growing. Today he is one of the three or four highest-paid athletes on earth with an estimated income of $8 million to $10 million a year. The key to Greg Norman is that almost no one seems to begrudge him his riches.

The son of an engineer, Norman grew up in Townsville, Australia, in subtropical Queensland. The prevailing Australian ethos held that “if you don’t get hit, it isn’t a sport,” so Norman played Australian Rules football, essentially a riot with goalposts. When he was 16 his mother, a low-handicap amateur of Finnish descent, gave him two of Nicklaus’ books. The boy read them and decided to give golf a try. It soon became clear that the late starter was a prodigy. Greg’s father Merv recalls that he made “phenomenal progress,” shooting par within 18 months of first picking up a golf club.

Pivotal to Norman’s golf development was Charlie Earp, a teaching professional who wisely sought to harness rather than change the young man’s adrenal urges. He encouraged Norman to hit the ball as far as he could, arguing that once you had length you could work on control. Norman now averages 280 yds. a drive; 260 yds. is considered good for a top pro. A few years back, during a pro-celebrity tournament at Gleneagles in Scotland, a wind-aided Norman drive measured 483 yds. Under Earp’s tutelage Norman began cleaning up in amateur tournaments, and at 19 he took a $28-a-week job as assistant pro at the Royal Queensland Golf Club. There, playing for large sums with local high rollers, he learned to perform under pressure.

While many of today’s touring pros are the product of golf academies and genteel collegiate teams, Norman, like Ray Floyd and Lee Trevino before him, took a tougher road. “The gambling gave me a killer instinct,” he asserts. With his minuscule salary, he could not afford to lose. In one match Norman was three holes behind with four holes left to play. Several hundred dollars in the red, he pressed (essentially doubling the stakes) on the 16th and then again on the 18th. Had he lost he would have had to cough up a nonexistent $1,200; instead he ended up $800 ahead. That night, after dinner, he went out and gambled and won again, pitting his extraordinary hand-eye coordination against local pool hustlers. Norman has not forgotten the match-play skills he acquired during those early years. He is a three-time winner of the Suntory World Match-Play Championship, a British tournament that provides the sole opportunity for the world’s top pros to compete head to head.

Norman is legendary for his grit. In one 16-hole stretch during this year’s AT&T-Pebble Beach tournament, he picked up ten shots to tie the leaders. Again, in this year’s Masters he started the final day eleven shots off the pace. It was preposterous for Norman to think of winning, but Greg reasoned that if he lowered the course record by a couple of strokes he might spook the rest of the field. He shot a record-tying score of 30 on the front nine, and as late as the 15th hole was in sight of shooting an incredible 60 before he ended up with a near record round of 64.

Golf requires grace and suppleness, but it proceeds at the sort of stately pace that maximizes the opportunity to choke. With long periods between shots, players are apt to paralyze themselves by thinking about the consequences of a series of motions that will bring a few square inches of club face into contact with a tiny ball 3 ft. away from one’s hands. Norman argues counterintuitively that he needs butterflies to perform well. The trick, he says, is to channel that nervous energy into concentration, and he does this with the confidence born of hitting many thousands of practice shots.

At the highest reaches of golf the difference between winning a major or finishing second may be a vulnerability that surfaces only once every several hundred strokes. Norman remembers vividly how an awkward hillside shot on the 18th fairway during the last round of the 1986 Masters exposed a flaw in his balance during his swing. As he puts it, his stance made him “get stuck” during his swing, causing him to shoot wide of the green. Instead of putting for a routine par, which would have put him in a play-off with Jack Nicklaus, he ended up with a tournament-losing bogey.

That blown chance gnawed at Norman, and so during a sweltering week this past July, he decided to take his first golf lesson in ten years. He called in Phil Rodgers, a slouching, laconic, former touring pro. Viewing the hundreds of balls tightly clustered around various targets on the practice fairway at Florida’s Loxahatchee Golf Club (only two could be said to be errant), an observer found it hard to believe there was any flaw in Norman’s game. But Rodgers noticed that he was standing about half an inch too close to the ball, and that during Norman’s swing his hands had to hurry to catch up. The flaws were tiny, but still serious enough so that Norman could occasionally “get stuck,” costing him perhaps a stroke every four rounds, costing him perhaps the Masters in 1986.

Rodgers advised Norman on his hip movement, club movement, follow-through. At that moment Norman’s world had shrunk to the precise point where the club meets the ball. The two men inspected the club face to see what the dirt pattern disclosed about the way the club was meeting the turf, and Norman, the $10 million-a-year athlete and “bear apparent” to Nicklaus, absorbed the advice with the eagerness of a novice.

Norman’s openness is perhaps one clue to his popularity. Spectators sense that at heart Norman is a simple man without pretense. True, he has four Ferraris, a Rolls-Royce and a Jeep, but one suspects that with a different turn of fate, he would be happy testing the limits of a ’74 Chevy Nova. He lives by fundamental values, and they are sufficiently universal that people in Europe, Japan and America can project upon him the attributes of the hero, in this case the heroism of normality. He tries to keep his life in balance. During an enforced layoff following a wrist injury in this year’s U.S. Open (more bad luck), he did not bother to watch the British Open, preferring to take the opportunity to go fishing and to spend more time with his wife Laura and two young children. Even though Norman lives in a 15,000-sq.-ft. beachfront home in Palm Beach, Fla., complete with pool, courtyard fountain and practice greens, he has escaped the “tall poppy syndrome” that prompts Australians to cut down local heros who have got swelled heads and forgotten their roots.

Three continents may claim the golfer as their own, but Norman sees himself as completely Australian. At the core of his demeanor is the Australian conviction that the world is going to get you, and what matters is how you comport yourself when it does. Thus when Larry Mize stole the 1987 Masters from Norman with a miraculous 140-ft. chip shot, somewhere in the back of Greg’s mind was the image of his grandfather telling stories about Aussie valor in hopeless situations, and though he was dying inside, Norman still managed a mournful quip for the press: “I didn’t think Larry could get down in two from where he was, and I was right.”

Whether Norman will break his major-tournament jinx and dominate the game next season — or ever — is another question. He and Spain’s Seve Ballesteros are the two names most frequently mentioned as the next golfers likely to achieve greatness. Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of the century, picks Norman. “The dominant player must dominate in several areas,” says Nicklaus. “When one area isn’t working another will take over so that you can win even when you are only running on three cylinders. I could do that when I was younger, and Norman can now. Other players need all cylinders working if they are to win.”

Nicklaus does not worry about Norman’s failure to win many majors, noting that the late starter is just now coming into his prime. Rodgers, the wise former pro, also picks Norman as Nicklaus’ likely successor, noting that his bad luck does not seem to have affected his confidence. “In his prime, Nicklaus could destroy you with his eyes,” he says. “Greg Norman has that same look.”

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