Can wedded bliss rejuvenate Greg Norman enough to conquer Augusta National?

Can wedded bliss rejuvenate Greg Norman enough to conquer Augusta National?

Friends first, Evert and Norman married last June.
Walter Iooss Jr.

The Shark was out by the pool this winter, talking business. Talking — to be more specific — recession. “It’s a dramatic slowdown,” he said in his imitable Aussie accent. “Russia’s completely gone off the map. The Caribbean’s shut down. America is dead.” And while there were a few places where golf courses were still being planned or built — Mexico, Vietnam, China, Qatar, Dubai — you now had six to 10 architects fighting for every job. “Everything has been put on hold until further notice,” the Shark said, his gray-blond hair puffed up by a warm breeze. “Or closed down.”

Funny thing, though. The chairman and CEO of Great White Shark Enterprises Inc. did not seem all that perturbed by the global construction slump. Nor was he fretting over a dismal retail climate that presaged a slow period for the Greg Norman Collection, a globally marketed apparel line that bears his familiar Shark logo. His famous blue eyes were as placid as the pool. The hawkish profile suggested a raptor in repose.

You didn’t need a consultant to interpret the Shark’s equanimity. Six months before, at age 53 and six years removed from full-time tournament golf, he had entered the British Open on a whim and shocked the world by nearly winning the damn thing. Now, on the strength of his third-place tie, the Shark was an automatic invitee to the 2009 Masters. If you knew the man’s history at Augusta National — his tie for second in 1986, his playoff loss of ’87 and especially that final-round meltdown of ’96, which produced the indelible image of the Shark bent over in despair, hands on his knees — you saw the glimmer of redemption in his eyes. Business opportunities might be drying up, but the Shark was swimming again in deep water.

Then a door opened at the back of the house, and he turned expectantly. His wife stepped out from under a red-tiled overhang and paused to adjust an earring, giving the Shark a moment to appraise her trim figure, mischievous eyes and windblown hair. A broad grin spread across the Shark’s face, and a perfect storm of pheromones made him turn his head slightly to display that prominent jaw.

A romance writer would describe it better. An old sports hack can only deliver an informed opinion. The Great White Shark wasn’t thinking about the Masters.

Greg Norman, the Hall of Fame golfer, and Chris Evert, the Hall of Fame tennis player, were married on June 28, 2008, in a ceremony in the Bahamas. It was his second marriage, her third, and the messy disentanglements from their penultimate spouses cost Norman $100 million and Evert $7 million. Showing no ill effects from this outlay, the newlyweds honeymooned in Egypt and South Africa before popping up in Southport, England, to entertain spectators at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club — Norman with his spot-on impression of the vintage 1985-95 Shark (winner of two British Opens and top-ranked golfer in the world for a then record 331 weeks), Evert in her fresh and endearing role as the Shark’s most avid fan. That week, and the following week during the Senior British Open at Troon, Scotland, the celebrity couple smooched across the gallery ropes so often that the paparazzi wandered off in search of fish and chips.

Nine months later, as the world teeters at the edge of another Great Depression, Norman and Evert, both recently turned 54, are the sports equivalent of Fred and Ginger, dancing cheek to cheek across a mirrored floor. “They’re goofy in love,” says Evert’s younger brother, John, who runs the Chris Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Fla. “They hold hands and kiss in public, and you don’t want to be around them in a private setting.” He laughs. “I’m like, ‘Guys, could you take it somewhere else?'”

Here, for example, we find Greg resting his bare feet on Chrissie’s knees while he reads the Financial Times. “We both have foot fetishes,” she explains, gently tugging on one little piggy while coyly eyeing another. “We rub each other’s feet all the time.” She tilts her head as she runs her thumbs up his calloused soles. “Boy, feet. I think all athletes know the importance of feet.”

And feats. Starting with the 1976 Westlakes Classic, Norman’s size-10Ds carried him to 20 victories and three money titles on the PGA Tour and to another 70 triumphs on four continents, including the Australian Masters (six), the Dunlop Masters (two) and the Taiheiyo Masters. Evert’s size-71/2s withstood the pounding, sliding and pivoting of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, three doubles titles and the best pro singles record in history — 1,309 wins against 146 losses.

“We both know what it’s like to be Number 1,” Evert said last September while introducing her famous hubby to friends at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Flushing Meadow, N.Y. A marriage counselor would have scribbled that remark in his notebook and underlined it twice, but Evert wasn’t talking about the need for attention that undermines most celebrity unions. She was talking about competition. “It takes a certain kind of person to be in the upper level,” she said, holding court in a dim corridor under the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium. “That’s why Greg and I enjoy watching Olympians perform. You can see it in their eyes.”

“And you feel their pain,” Norman said. “Somebody’s got to lose.”

His words were a poignant reminder that he, more than Evert, found the laurel crown to be full of thorns. For every golf fan who remembers Norman’s final-round 64 to win the British at Royal St. George’s, 10 remember him finding two 18th-hole bunkers and a flagstone patio to lose a playoff at Royal Troon. For every reporter asking him to comment on his tournament-record, 24-under-par obliteration of the feared Stadium course at the 1994 Players Championship, there are 50 asking how he felt when a) Bob Tway holed out from a bunker to steal the 1986 PGA Championship from him, or b) Larry Mize tore his heart out with a 140-foot pitch-in on the second playoff hole at the ’87 Masters, or c) when he shot a final-round 78 to blow a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo at the ’96 Masters.

Evert would have to dig deep to find a disappointment of Normanesque proportions: perhaps Wimbledon in 1983 when, weakened by food poisoning, she lost a third-round match to Kathy Jordan, and with it a chance to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles at the same time.

But why all the doom and gloom? The Shark has been working out with medicine balls and heavy tubing to prepare for this week’s Masters, and he looks as if he could knock out a kangaroo with one punch. “My first priority was getting my body back into golf shape,” he says, his idea of golf shape being a 32-inch waist and gladiator glutes. “It’s not the big muscles that you target, it’s the little core muscles that give you stability and rotational speed.” He grins. “It’s work, but I wake up in the morning feeling great.”

Evert, meanwhile, trains alongside her panting spouse, egging him on while adding redundant tone to a body borrowed from a Disney princess. “No surprise there,” says David Dusek, an editor who used to help Evert pen instructionals for Tennis magazine and now works for Dusek remembers a summer in Aspen, Colo., some years ago, when Evert slipped on her tennis shoes and suggested a hike. “She was in her 40s, she’s got three kids and it’s 7,900 feet,” he says, “but she literally jogged to the top of Aspen Mountain. Are you kidding me? I’m wheezing, she’s running like Bambi.”

Based upon what he’s heard about the Shark, Dusek has no trouble imagining Greg and Chrissie tandem-treadmilling in a blissful state of glycogen deprivation. “I don’t think either of them,” he sums up, “does anything half-assed.”

And now, a day at the beach. She’s in shorts, a tank top and sandals. He’s in shorts, a black polo and flip-flops. “Can we lie on the sand for a couple of hours?” Evert asks, pulling her seat belt tight. “Do we have to rush back?” Norman, in the facing seat, merely smiles.

Sunlight from the starboard windows floods the cabin of N1GN, Norman’s Gulfstream 550, as it rolls along the fenced perimeter at Palm Beach International Airport. She taps the screen of a pink-clad iPhone. He thumbs text on his BlackBerry. Across the aisle, Jason McCoy, senior vice president of Greg Norman Golf Course Design, paws through a shoulder bag at his booted feet.

“Ready, Greg?” The voice comes from the cockpit.

“Yeah, mate!” The engines roar, the plane surges, the grassy verge becomes a blur. A minute later the G 550 soars into cotton-ball clouds above the terra-cotta roofs of The Mar-a-Lago Club, banking south over the graduated blues of the Atlantic.

Evert has deployed a lap blanket. “I was up late helping my son write a five-paragraph essay,” she says, smothering a yawn. A printed itinerary commands her attention for a minute or so. “What is this?” She looks up. “‘Small speech by Chris Evert.'”

“Shouldn’t be more than 10 minutes,” Norman says, turning the pages of his newspaper. A careful reader, he subscribes to Financial Times, USA Today, Time and Newsweek, and most days he peruses the online editions of The Wall Street Journal and The Sydney Morning Herald. His reading informs his small talk — as now, when he shares an item about coastal flooding in the Maldives, or a minute later, when he says, “Here’s an amazing statistic I’ve heard: China has to employ an additional 15 million people a year just to keep up with the birthrate.”

Norman’s ability to compartmentalize is a continuing source of amazement to Evert. “Greg can run all his businesses and still play great golf,” she says. “I had to just play tennis. I couldn’t have my fingers in a lot of different pies.” She is quick to add that the G 550 — which Norman bashers disparage as the aerial counterpart to Aussie Rules, the 228-foot luxury yacht he sold in 2004 for a rumored $77 million — is no flashy indulgence but rather an essential tool that allows him to conduct business on a global scale.

Not that her first flight to Australia on Air Norman didn’t leave her starry-eyed. “You get on the plane,” she recalls with a smile. “A flight attendant serves you the best food, you have all these movies to watch, and then you walk back” — she hoists a thumb toward the back-cabin seating — “and they’ve put a king-sized mattress on the table. So we’re in a king-sized bed going to Australia!” She tilts her head and rests a cheek on steepled hands. “I slept eight hours, and for the first time in my life I arrived in Australia with no jet lag.” (The next day Evert will worry that her description of the plane as “a perk of marriage to Greg” might sound crass. “That’s his business jet,” she says, stopping short of providing fuel receipts and expense logs. “When I do my own stuff, I fly commercial.”)

For the young Evert, the distinction between business and pleasure was always clear. “Chris was an implacable opponent, and she didn’t choke,” says one tennis insider. “Chris on the court was all business,” echoes another. One time, after Evert had won a match 6-0, 6-0, a smiling reporter asked her if she couldn’t have let her victim win just one teeny-tiny game. Evert’s shocked response: “No!” But she was no Iron Maiden after dark. High-spirited and flirty, Evert enchanted some of the 1970s’ most eligible bachelors, including — in alphabetical order — 10-time Grand Slam champ and mixed-doubles partner Jimmy Connors (to whom she was invitations-stamped engaged), British pop star Adam Faith, presidential scion Jack Ford, tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis and actor Burt Reynolds.

The young Norman, oddly enough, was Evert’s opposite — flamboyant in public, introverted by nature. Raised in Townsville, Queensland, on the apron of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, he grew up riding horses on the beach and spearfishing in Nelley Bay. He didn’t become a brand until a Friday morning in 1981, when he woke up to a headline in The Augusta Chronicle: Great White Shark Leads Masters. Intuiting that his striking appearance and Aussie accent could set him apart, Norman began to work the media and play to the galleries.

“Greg understood how golf should be promoted,” says Australian broadcaster Graeme Agars. “I reckon he drew a hundred thousand people one day at the Australian Masters.” But the radio man didn’t fully appreciate Norman’s appeal until one day at the Taiheiyo Masters, when he noticed a young Japanese woman walking behind the Shark while making rubbing gestures. “She was rubbing his aura,” Agars recalls with awe.

Norman’s family life, on the other hand, excited little interest. He met flight attendant Laura Andrassy in 1979, and they dated for two years before tying the knot. Their 25-year marriage produced a daughter (Morgan-Leigh, now 26 and dating golfer Sergio Garcia), a son (Gregory Jr., 23) and an air of marital stability that held up until four years ago when, Norman says, Andrassy asked for a divorce.

The plane banks and a dark landmass fills the windows.

“I was telling Chrissie that the Dominican Republic has 15,000 golfers and 35,000 tennis players,” Norman says, shifting in his chair. “That’s surprising, isn’t it?”

It’s 11:40 a.m., Atlantic time, when the famous couple scrambles out of a chartered helicopter, crouching beneath the decelerating rotors. They have landed on a paradise shore of palms and gentle breakers, a place for lovers to oil up and sizzle in the sun — only not today, because the site is overrun with growling front loaders, banging dump trucks and beeping backhoes, along with a small army of sweaty, muscled men who seem bent on moving rocks and sand from the shore over to a distant riverbank, and vice versa. A TV crew and a backpedaling knot of photographers and reporters greet the Shark and his bride, who have donned socks and sneakers.

Norman has designed more than 70 golf courses on six continents, so he knows the drill. He voices his pleasure at being back in the Dominican Republic, explains that the billion-dollar Costa Blanca development will offer residents a pleasing mix of condo towers and fairway villas, plus a mega-yacht marina and a Chris Evert Tennis Center. He expresses confidence that his Costa Blanca course, nine holes of which are already roughed in, will rival any tropical track in the world for beauty while providing a challenging but fair test to golfers of all skill levels. The Shark then gives Evert an off-to-work kiss and strides to the west with McCoy and a work-booted foreman, while Evert heads north with the white-shirted developers and their aides — causing panic among the journos as they weigh which celebrity to follow.

Those who pursue Evert wind up on a dusty stretch of landfill by the river, where Steve Ankrom, Costa Blanca’s sales veep, points to an imagined tennis clubhouse and 10 imagined courts. He wants her recommendation for the residential component. Town houses? Cottages? “Off the top of my head, tennis villas are a big thing,” she replies, trying to picture a garden complex with balconies overlooking a yacht harbor. “Two or three bedrooms, that comes to mind.” Court types? “Kids like to play on the hard courts, and a lot of tournaments are on hard. Obviously, clay is easier on the body for the club player and older person.”

Ankrom has to be nervous — this is November 2008, when the market for leisure properties is collapsing like a house of CDOs — but he expresses an almost religious faith that Norman and Evert will fulfill his dreams. “It’s all about branding,” he says, gazing at the distant silhouette of the Shark, unmistakable at 200 yards. “With so many big projects in the world, you’ve got to set yourself apart.”

The sun is near its zenith by the time Norman finishes his site visit. The helicopter’s next touchdown is just up the coast, at the Metro Country Club, where a hotel suite has been reserved for the sweaty couple. After a quick shower and a change into resort casual, the twosome saunters onto the clubhouse veranda, where a crowd has gathered for their press conference. Norman speaks first, trading eights with his interpreter, and then Evert takes over. “Buenos dias,” she says, and then in English, “I’ll translate for people who don’t understand Spanish,” giving the Shark a sideways glance. He grins.

During the Q&A, Evert is asked to compare Norman’s tennis with her golf game. “Greg’s been playing for two years,” she replies. “He’s very quick on his feet, he has great hand-eye coordination and he’s very competitive. So he’s picked up tennis very quickly.” She adds, “I don’t play golf, but wait till I do!” It’s a spunky line, but in private Evert will admit that she was embarrassed years ago when she topped her ball off the 1st tee at a pro-am. “I can’t simply dabble in something,” she says after the press conference. “But Greg” — and here she gives the Shark another one of those I-could-eat-you-for-breakfast looks — “is exceptional.”

That past weekend, in fact, Norman played in his first tennis pro-am, a charity match for 5,000 spectators at the Delray Beach (Fla.) Tennis Center. (The Shark and Justin Gimelstob defeated Evert and comedian Billy Crystal 7-5.) The next day Norman partnered with Greg Jr., a professional kiteboarder who will caddie for his father at the Masters, at the ADT Skills Challenge in Aventura, Fla. The Shark won the putting and short-pitching categories with hole outs and then watched Junior steal the finale by hitting a 111-yard pitching wedge to within an inch of the hole.

“How’d it go?” Evert asked afterward.

“We won the event. We won $290,000.”

“Oh. Nice weekend, honey.”

Telling the story, Evert rolls her eyes.

Upstairs, in the club’s cigar room, Norman spends a few minutes with an architect looking over condo drawings spread out on the pool table. He then grabs a plate of finger sandwiches and sits next to Evert on a love seat. The room is divided by gender, the well-coiffed damas clustered around the tennis star, the prosperous caballeros leaning in to audit the Shark.

Norman announces to one of the men, “If I got another boat, it would be a 65- or 70-footer. You can go anywhere in the world.”

Evert says to one of the women, “Nobody’s ever done this in tennis before, and it was Greg’s idea. He said, ‘Why don’t tennis players do developments?’ “

A woman asks, “Do either of you have grandchildren?”

Evert, taken aback, starts to laugh. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that question!” She turns to Norman, who returns her smile.

Do the Shark and Chrissie have the right to be happy? When banks are failing? When workers are losing their jobs? When hospitality tents are doling out Doritos and soft drinks instead of lobster and Chardonnay? Should fiftysomething lovers be allowed to glow?

Strict moralists will look at the circumstances of their initial attraction — the messy entanglement of a wealthy sportsman with the wife of a good friend, Andy Mill; the Madison County-style longings of a hausfrau with three school-age children — and deliver a swift verdict of no. To bolster their case, the scolds need only point to the postseparation remarks of Laura Andrassy, who told an Australian newspaper that Evert had been “aggressive” in pursuit of her husband of 25 years (“In front of me, like I didn’t exist”) and that Norman’s quest for superstardom in both golf and business had left her feeling “like a single mom.”

On the other hand, don’t we believe in Love Conquers All? Listen to Norman: “She makes me feel alive again.” Listen to Evert: “We’re better people together.” Listen to Diderot: Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.

Or simply lean back in your recliner and click the remote. On March 1 Norman and Evert appeared on Australia’s 60 Minutes to deny that they had nuked two healthy marriages to be together. “[Laura and I] were seeing a marriage counselor for years and years and years,” Norman told reporter Eddie McGuire. “It’s a two-way street. It’s never just a one-way street.” As for the pair’s 30-year acquaintanceship, Evert acknowledged the occasional flirtation — “There was always a little spark” — but insisted it went nowhere. “There wasn’t any physical relationship between us,” said Norman. “I mean, I can put my hand on my heart and swear that over my mum and dad’s life and my kids’ life.” Evert, meanwhile, told McGuire that Andrassy’s accusations came “from a place of pain,” adding that, “You can’t control full-blown falling in love. You can’t control it.” Later, Evert added, “I think everybody has moved on except for one person.”

They all, she seemed to be admitting, had reached the age where you stare at sunsets a little longer.

“Chrissie likes to do things with me,” Norman says, kicking off his shoes as N1GN breaks through the clouds over Santo Domingo. “One of the greatest compliments a spouse can give you is to simply say, ‘Hey, can I come with you? Hey, let’s go for a hike in the Tibetan mountains.’ My ex-wife never gave me that.” He, in turn, had made the common male mistake of thinking that having President Clinton and his bodyguards as houseguests at your Jupiter Island estate would make up for the missed dinners and parent-teacher conferences. “You give up a lot to achieve your goals, and you do a lot of things for the wrong reasons.” Norman rubs his forehead. “Marriages do grow apart.”

The cabin attendant has put out platters of fresh fruit and warm cookies, so the barefoot lovers pad down the aisle and slide onto an upholstered bench, sitting so close as to look conjoined. “Nothing’s been difficult,” Evert says, referring to the postdivorce relocation of Norman to her red-roofed hacienda in the polo precincts of western Boca Raton. “We live very well and very easily together. It would have been uncomfortable if my boys” — Alex, 17, Nicky, 14, and Colton, 12 — “had been resistant, but Greg has been wonderful with them. Even Andy tells the kids, ‘I’m your father, but you’re lucky to have Greg.'”

Norman has also been accepted by his new father-in-law, Jimmy Evert, who retired after nearly five decades of coaching tennis at Fort Lauderdale’s Holiday Park. “I was bowled over when Chris’s dad asked me to look after her finances,” Norman says. “That was one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever gotten.” As for rumors that their wedding was boycotted by several PGA Tour wives as a show of sympathy for Laura, Norman says, “I only had two real strong push-backs. One was a golf friend.” He shrugs. “Maybe they’re jealous.”

The Shark looks at Evert, who has taken up his right hand and is gently cracking his knuckles. “At the end of the day,” he says, “my friends know how happy I am.”

A happy Greg Norman is dangerous,” Graeme Agars said last fall.

The Shark chuckled when a reporter shared the d word with him. It took him back to the mid-’90s, when his name on a leader board triggered the throbbing DUM-dum, DUM-dum, DUM-dum of Jaws. Or maybe it took him back to last July at Royal Birkdale, where his final-round pursuit of Padraig Harrington kept fans on six continents glued to their sets. It wasn’t until the Irishman hit a for-the-ages five-wood and eagled the 71st hole that the royal engraver could safely reach for the claret jug.

“I always believed I still had it in me,” Norman said.

Now he is training for the Masters as if it were a title bout. He pushes paper and buttons at his West Palm Beach headquarters from 8:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., spends the afternoon practicing at any one of several golf clubs and then gets ready for dinner by giving his core and lungs a thorough workout in the home gym. “It takes six to eight weeks to get strong again,” he said after a recent spot of tennis with Evert on their private court. “But what a refreshing feeling it is. Whether I play good golf is almost immaterial.”

And almost impossible to predict. Norman is eight years older than the oldest Masters winner (Jack Nicklaus, 46), and Augusta National is 510 yards longer than it was in 1996, and 165 yards longer than at his last appearance, a 36th in 2002. He has new equipment, having signed an endorsement deal with TaylorMade just a week ago, but has played in only three full-field events since last summer, missing the cut at the Johnnie Walker Classic and finishing 36th at the Cap Cana Championship (a Champions tour event) and 70th at the Shell Houston Open, his final warmup for the Masters.

In the meantime it’s full speed ahead for the Norman-Evert love train. She says, “I just love the guy and respect him so much.” He says, “I was searching until Chris came into my life.” Ralph Waldo Emerson says, The only true gift is a portion of yourself. As you read this, some Hollywood studio head is probably green-lighting a script.

“We still have things apart,” Evert said recently, watching a lithe European girl return serves at the Evert Academy. “I have the tennis side of my life. But it’s fun to introduce Greg to my world, and it’s fun for him to introduce me to his world.” Both their worlds, she didn’t have to add, were walled gardens in which an Adam and an Eve could reach for apples by day and snuggle by night.

“I don’t know how it works in Hollywood,” John Evert said later, watching his sister trade volleys with a pigtailed ingenue. “But I can tell you how it’s going to work with Greg and Chrissie. Their bond is only going to get stronger and better each day.” He shrugged. “It makes me feel good.”

In case you were keeping score.