Golf Magazine Interview: Greg Norman

July 16, 2009

Almost three decades later, Greg Norman still won’t give up the name. The incident happened during the 1981 Atlanta Classic, on Atlanta Country Club’s par-5 11th hole. After the 26-year-old Aussie, new to the American tour, launched a pin-seeking approach shot to reach the green in two, his veteran playing partner turned and said, “Why don’t you go back to Australia? You’re not good enough to play here.” When people try to tear you down, says Norman, who still won’t name the culprit, “You have to believe in yourself.” Armed with that steel-plated credo — and a cheering section that included his new bride, tennis legend Chris Evert — Norman nearly won the 2008 British Open at Royal Birkdale. The oldest 54-hole leader in major history couldn’t hold his two-stroke lead, but he undoubtedly won the day. This month, Norman returns to the site of his first major win, in 1986, for another shot at glory. We caught up with him to talk Turnberry, Tiger, Chrissie — and how this 54-year-old is aging like a bottle of fine Greg Norman Estates Shiraz.

Last year at Birkdale, you nearly became golf’s oldest major winner, at 53, before tying for third. How much sleep have you lost over yet another ‘what might have been’ major?

You can’t worry about what might have been. You play your best, and see where you are on the leaderboard. That whole week was wonderful, because Chrissie was there to experience it. I just didn’t have the results I wanted on Sunday.

The problems you’ve had holding a 54-hole lead are well-documented. Last year you shot a 77, after a superb 72 on Saturday in harsh conditions. Was it nerves?

I walked to the first tee Sunday feeling great, just like I had on Saturday. But golf has a lot of nuances. Some putts started lipping out. That was frustrating. Some days you feel great and shoot 70. Some days you feel not so great and shoot 64. It’s golf.

Before the Masters, you candidly said you ‘probably’ couldn’t win, and you missed the cut. Can you win at Turnberry?

[Long pause] I’ll have to wait to see how I feel, take it day-by-day. Look, I’m a realist. I’m 54, not 34 or 24. Luck plays a big part in golf. But I want to win, and will I try my damndest? You bet. Again, golf is a funny game. This might surprise you, but I played better at Augusta [this year] than I did at the [2008] British Open, where I could have won. So how do you explain that? Putts drop instead of lip out. Bounces go your way. It’s the nuances of the game that add up to a lot of strokes.

Unlike at Augusta, you have positive mojo in your favor at Turnberry. You shot a 63 there in 1986 en route to winning your first major.

And it should have been a 59 or 60. I three- putted the final hole and left some shots out there. There’s no question that the British was always my best chance for a major. When I walked to the first tee of an Open Championship, and the weather was bad, I had an advantage. I grew up in Australia, and we played with a lot of wind, and I understood how to play in it. Also, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to let weather frustrate me. It got to other guys.

Last year, you were literally honeymooning at Birkdale. You hadn’t been playing or practicing much, yet you played some of your best golf for three days. Is there a lesson there about not wanting something too much?

No question, having balance in your life helps you play better. It helps you in many ways, on and off the course. I enjoy and love things away from golf — Chrissie, my kids, scuba, business. But I think Chrissie has been the key. You play better when you have a smile on your face.

Which moment most stands out from Birkdale?

Having Chrissie there with me. I don’t care what anybody says, Chrissie is the most successful athlete ever. Anyone who’s won 90 percent of her matches is an athlete for all time, and no one in any sport comes close to her record. I always wanted her to experience our Wimbledon, and she loved it. I’m only sorry that I’ll never be able to see her compete on Centre Court. But I’m glad that I got to show her my world.

What has she taught you about competing?

Nothing that I didn’t already know, but I’m a better golfer with her than without her. When two people have been No. 1 for as long as Chrissie and I were, few people know what that feels like. There are hundreds of No. 2’s, thousands of No. 3’s and 4’s, but there’s only one No. 1. How do you share that with someone who’s never been there? Chrissie and I both say, “I wish I’d had you around when I was playing.” We would have been good for each other. Because we could have helped each other deal with everything off the course, or court, that affects how you play on it.

Would you have won more than two majors if she’d been in your life in your prime?

[Long pause] I think I would have won more. She understands what it takes. Would I have changed my golf style? Maybe. I might have added some strategy, inspired by the way she played tennis. And she said to me, “I might have been more aggressive, played more like you.”

Chrissie was in your corner at Birkdale, but you also had fellow players rooting for you.

Imagine that — Greg Norman, Mr. Popularity. It wasn’t always like that. When I came over here in the early ’80s, I was an international player coming to the lion’s den. And then I became the top of the heap, No. 1. It’s no different today. Players don’t walk up to Tiger and say, “Good luck — go out there and beat our asses today!” But yes, at Birkdale, I was taken aback.

So, did you and Nick Faldo share a long hug?

Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But you mellow out over the years, you wish people well and let go of bad feelings.

What’s the story about the tour pro who told you to go back Down Under when you started playing in the U.S.?

We were playing in Atlanta, in the early ’80s. On the 11th hole, a par-5, I smoked a driver. Then I knock it on in two. He says, “Why don’t you go back to Australia? You’re not good enough to play out here.” I thought, “What the hell is that comment?” I could take you to the very spot it happened. I’ve never believed in that, in gamesmanship. It goes back to what I’ve said: You have to believe in yourself because very few people you meet along the way will believe in you. And some will root against you.

You’ve never revealed his name.

No. And I won’t. We pass each other and I just say, “Hello.”

Is he here this week (at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in Savannah, Ga.)?


If it’s Tom Watson, cough once.

[Laughs] Nice try.

Much is made about your age, but you’re a longer driver now than in your prime, right?

With today’s equipment, I can get it out there 315, 320 yards. I carry it 295, compared to 280 back then. I used a persimmon driver and used to drive it 300 yards with an old Tour Edition golf ball that used to spin too much.

If you could take your high-tech clubs, go back in time and play your persimmon-swinging self, who wins — Old Greg or Young Greg?

[Laughs] Well, Old Greg would knock it past Young Greg, no question. I could hit it over 300 yards back then, but I had to really wallop it with the equipment we used. So, Old Greg is longer, but Young Greg’s scoring game was better, and my feel and confidence in playing the shots would be better as a young man. But I’ll tell you, if I took four months to work on my short game and scoring, Old Greg would give Young Greg one tough match.

If you were in your prime today, who would be longer — you or Tiger?

Just look at our swing speeds. Twenty-four-year-old Greg playing today’s clubs would hit it 340, 350 yards, easy. I’d say Young Greg averages 350 off the tee. Back in 1977, my clubhead speed was 132. Today, that means I’d carry it 340. Just compare our clubhead speeds and do the math. Mine was 132 [mph]. He’s probably 130, 131. If I didn’t hit it at least 320, 330 on average, I’d be upset.

Bubba Watson leads the Tour (as of May 14) in driving, at 313 yards. You’re saying you’d be longer than him too? You’d be No. 1 in driving?

It’s all relative. I was the longest then. I would be now. I’d be at the top.

Today, you’re more businessman than golfer. Great White Shark Enterprises has interests in course design, wine, real estate and style. How has the global financial crisis affected you?

We’ve all been hurt by it. There’s a lot of pain on everybody’s faces. But how do you deal with it? The same way you deal with any adversity — you either wallow in self-pity, or you figure out how to get through it. You stay ahead of the curve. I look at the glass as half-full. The bad times weed out the bad people, and when you come through it, all the good people are left standing.

It must anger you to think about the people — investment bankers, mortgage brokers — who drove us off this cliff.

What makes me angriest is the way these banks and companies leveraged themselves out 30, 40 times. If I’d run GWSE like that, I’d be finished. People’s dreams have been taken away, 401(k)s lost. And it wasn’t incompetence. It was pure greed — side bets on bad mortgages, flipping houses. And it’s affected every single taxpayer on the planet. Why? Because they lost sight of what business is about. It’s not about greed. It’s about giving growth to your shareholders in a sustainable way. They were going off false numbers, and they knew it. Look, I’m not a genius out of Harvard Business School, but I know Business 101, and they failed. It’s a crying shame.

You’ve succeeded in golf and business. How are the two alike?

They’re both about doing due diligence. The key is to be proactive, not reactive. And that will get you to victory.

Finish this sentence: ‘One thing I know for sure is…’

When you’re a success, you’re gonna piss people off. So be consistent. Don’t say one thing and do another. Don’t be something you’re not. That will deliver for you. How many times have you seen a politician get into office, and he’s completely different? So far, President Obama has stayed consistent to what he promised. If he continues, he’ll succeed. When you’re No. 1, people take shots at you. But I’ve learned that if you’re pissing a few people off, then you’re doing something right.

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