A short story from Greg Norman, one of the finest golfers of the late 20th century, highlights the extraordinary natural ability that helped the Australian to two Open Championship victories and 331 weeks as the world’s top-ranked player.
A relative latecomer to the game, Norman was close to celebrating his 16th birthday when he first tried his hand at golf, playing the last four holes at Virginia Golf Club in Brisbane after caddying for his mother.
Instantly hooked, he soon started attending junior clinics at the club. What followed was truly remarkable.
“I was given a 27 handicap. My first official score was 108 and, from there, in 18 months I got down to scratch,” Norman explained. “And not so long after that, in a period of less than five years, I actually won my first professional golf event, which was the Westlakes Classic in Adelaide in November of 1976.”
Norman’s stunning early progress showed he was a player of rare skill, yet he nevertheless recognised he would need to work incredibly hard to make an impact at the very highest level.
If his innate talents played a significant role in his subsequent Open triumphs and wider career accomplishments, it is clear Norman’s devotion to his craft was no less important.
In the decade that followed his maiden professional triumph, Norman gradually made his mark as one of the leading players in the world. Underpinning his improving efforts was a desire to learn from his peers and maximise his natural ability.
Major glory narrowly eluded him in 1981, when he finished just three shots behind Tom Watson at the Masters, and Norman came even closer in the 1984 U.S. Open as he lost to Fuzzy Zoeller in an 18-hole play-off.
By the time he arrived at Turnberry for The 115th Open in 1986, the Great White Shark had recorded half a dozen top-six finishes in majors. What is more, he had held the 54-hole lead at both the Masters and the U.S. Open earlier that year, only to finish second at Augusta and 12th at Shinnecock Hills.
On Scotland’s west coast, where strong winds and a penal set-up provided a fiendishly difficult test, Norman’s tireless work on his game finally reaped rewards.
A record-equalling 63 in round two lifted him to the top of the leaderboard and he ultimately triumphed by five strokes to break his major duck.
After claiming the Claret Jug, Norman could reflect with pride on the countless hours he had put in preparing himself for the sort of challenging conditions often encountered at golf’s original Championship.
“I would go and practice in the rain,” he said. “If a storm came in, I would put my rain gear on in the windy conditions and I would practice left to right, right to left, with the rain coming down banging on the back of my neck.
“I would practice my putting with the rain gear on, because practicing putting with your rain gear flapping around you all the time, you had to learn how to remain very still and stable. Through martial arts I learnt the art of squeezing my abs two inches below my navel and just blocking that point, making that my focal point. My body’s not going to move. I just lock that in, trying to keep everything else relaxed.
“So I kind of enjoyed the adverse conditions if I tell you the truth, but it was a big separator of the mental side of players and it actually played out for many years ahead, even playing regular golf events, that I embraced bad conditions (when others didn’t).”
Norman clearly had no trouble in adapting his game to the gusts at Turnberry in 1986.
Although he had grown up on the other side of the world, he had spent many years honing his skills in somewhat similar circumstances.
“Links golf was contrary to my style of play because I hit the ball so far and through the air and I was more of an aerial type player, but growing up in Australia we played in a lot of wind,” he added.
“It was always 15 to 25 knots of wind, so I was actually a good, solid ball-striker. My coach, Charlie Earp, said ‘swing with ease into the breeze’ and just make solid contact every time. You didn’t have to power the golf ball, you just had to make solid contact.
“So I didn’t have any angst when it was a windy, wet day because in Australia, Royal Melbourne, Royal Queensland, New South Wales Golf Club, it’s kind of links-ish because you can play the ball on the ground, and I always loved it.
“I always loved that first bounce. I always loved the sound of the club head when it went ball, turf and really tight ground, always loved how much spin you could put on or take off or turn or curve the ball, so I was so passionate about it. I knew I’d found a place that I would love to play golf going forward in my life.”
Norman ended the year of his first major triumph at the top of the newly established Official World Golf Rankings, a position he would continue to occupy for much of the remainder of the 1980s.
However, his fortunes declined at the beginning of the next decade, prompting him to enlist the services of renowned coach Butch Harmon.
The Queenslander’s work ethic and dedication to practice became more important than ever before, as he dug deep to return to the pinnacle of the game.
At Royal St George’s in 1993, Norman proved he was back to his brilliant best, as a magnificent final-round 64 lifted him to the top of a star-studded leaderboard in The 122nd Open.
On that occasion, it was not only pre-event preparations that contributed to Norman’s success. A key moment occurred on Friday after a solid 68 had left him two strokes behind reigning Champion Sir Nick Faldo.
“There are certain little things that happened during the week that allowed me to get to that position,” said Norman. “I remember being on the driving range with Butch Harmon and (caddie) Tony Navarro. It was after the second round.
“Anyway there was a lot of noise going on, white noise, and I hated white noise when you practiced because this was your office and this was where you wanted to be, so I looked at Butch and I looked at Tony and I said: ‘Let’s get out of here.’
“They said: ‘Well, where do you want to go because this is the only place you can hit?’ I said: ‘Let’s pick up the baskets, let’s go.’ So we went over behind the manufacturers’ trailers on the right-hand side of the driving range and there was nobody there. It was peaceful. It was quiet.
“People thought we were going to get my golf clubs worked on, but we went in behind there and we started hitting the balls back on the driving range, perfectly into the wind. It wasn’t left to right, it was straight into the wind and we had the most magnificent 25-minute practice session.
“In five or six swings, when Butch was trying to get me to do something, I got it. Boom, got it! Every one I got in five or six swings in a period of 20-25 minutes, until an R&A official came up to me and said, ‘you’re not allowed to practice here, you’ve got to go back over there’, because obviously they wanted me to practice in front of the fans and the spectators, and this was really off the driving range.
“I looked at Butch and I said: ‘We’re done, I’ve got it. We’re good to go now.’ So in that one little split-second decision of having too much white noise in my head, to finding a place to go to, in a matter of 20 minutes, all of a sudden, boom, you’ve got it.”
Buoyed by the results of a somewhat unusual practice session, Norman moved to within one stroke of Faldo on Saturday before securing victory 24 hours later with arguably the greatest round of his life.
A return to the top of the world rankings soon followed, but another success at The Open was the most satisfying achievement for Norman, who ended his career with eight second-place finishes in majors in addition to his two wins.
Upon being reunited with the Claret Jug more than two decades on from his glorious triumph at Sandwich, Norman stated: “It’s the sexiest trophy in sport, number one.
“It’s got a beautiful shape, just the right size, it’s got the history, it’s got the names on there. So when you look at it physically, you say I want to have that because it’s a beautiful trophy.
“And no slight on all the other trophies out there, but I can put all the trophies I’ve won together, this one stands out more than anything else. This Championship, this trophy, it’s kind of the holy grail of golf.”
Norman would remain one of the world’s leading players for several more years following his second Open win in 1993.
However, his victory at Royal St George’s marked a turning point, as he opted to shift more focus towards a business career that now comprises over a dozen companies around the world bearing his name.
As he pursued his new interests with the same drive and commitment he had displayed on the golf course, it was no surprise to see Norman flourish once again.
“I made a conscious decision at the end of 1993 that I wanted to make a dedicated focus on building my business,” he explained. “So I was going through this, from winning The Open Championship, coming out of a big slump, to making a mental decision on what my future is going to be and how I’m going to map it out.
“And nobody knew this, I was just calculating all this in my head and I decided to move on with life in such a way that I gave myself a time period for the next five years, how to structure what I wanted to do for the next 40 years.
“I left my management company. I didn’t re-sign with them. They’re great, wonderful, but I wanted to build equity in my own brand so now all of a sudden my whole world shifts gears. It shifts gears of saying alright, my golf career’s great, it’s going to continue to be what I want it to be but now I’ve got to build into the future because I knew golf wasn’t going to be in my world playing for years to come.
“The older you get, the younger the younger players get. The younger they get, the less intimidated they are, they want to beat you, they’re faster, they hit the ball further, they’ve got no fear. So you knew you were going to be on this finite period of having to move on in life. And that’s when I made a conscious decision to build Great White Shark Enterprises (now the Greg Norman Company).”
Although his priorities gradually shifted away from golf and towards his business empire, Norman was not yet finished with The Open.
In 2008, 31 years after his debut in the Championship, he enjoyed a stunning week at Royal Birkdale and seriously threatened to become the oldest major-winner in history at the age of 53.
As had been the case at Turnberry in 1986, adverse weather conditions made for a fearsome challenge in the north west of England, much to the delight of Norman, who went on to lead through 54 and 63 holes before eventually finishing third behind Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter.
“When I went to Royal Birkdale, when I saw the weather conditions for the rest of the week, I thought: ‘Oh, I love these conditions,’” said Norman.
“I knew you could eliminate a lot of players because a lot of players don’t have some of the shot-making skills that I think you need to have to play consistently in heavy, adverse conditions. And then on top of that, when I played my first practice round, I went: ‘Wow, this is the best I’ve ever seen The R&A set up a Championship golf course.’
“So, all of a sudden, more positive energy came in my head. Every time I went out there for a practice round, I’m loving it. I’m liking the conditions. I’m hitting shots from 108 yards with a 5-iron and everybody’s looking at me like, what is he doing? You know, I can hear them talking to their caddies because they’re trying to hit 9-irons and pitching wedges up into the air and I’m (hitting) little bump, chip, run shots.
“So I actually stuck to my game plan. I said to myself on the Wednesday, I’m going to play this way the rest of the week, you know, pretty much eliminate the yardage book. And as the week went by, my confidence and my approach to the way I was playing the golf course just built and built and built, and so you really forget about your age. You just say to yourself: ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’
“Little did I know what Tom Watson was going to do the next year, but I made the comment that every young child at the age of eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, who are thinking about wanting to become a professional golfer, should sit back and realise they have 40 years ahead. So you have this 40-year timeline that you still have the ability and the chance to win a major championship. I thought that was a pretty cool thing to be able to put out there to the world and to the young kids.”
Having made the transition from a promising teenager to a global golfing superstar and hugely successful businessman, Norman has one other piece of advice for youngsters hoping to make their way in the sport. Unsurprisingly, the value of practice and dedication is emphasised.
“My message to kids who are growing up and watching their heroes is listen to them and take little bits of information, because The Open Championship is a great deliverer of a message about golf and life,” he concluded.
“When you are sitting back and you feel like you can reach through the TV screen and grab hold of that hero of yours that’s on the other side with the golf club, take stock because it takes a lot of physical work, mental work, a lot of dedication, commitment, sacrifice, application and strong belief to get to where that person is, and everybody who watches TV has that chance of being an Open Champion.
“So, as a young kid, you’ve got to be able to sit back and say, ‘well, my hero did that and when he did that he went on in life to do this’, so it’s not about just golf. It’s about the totality of life and there’s a beautiful story to be told through The Open Championship, through any of the major championships, through success in life, and I encourage every young child to embrace The Open Championship, embrace sport and say I can do that.”