This interview originally appeared in the July, 2003 issue of GOLF Magazine.
Greg Norman is arguably the best player of his generation, and definitely the most charismatic. He’s also the most successful businessman of any golfer ever. In person, he is larger than life yet at the same time down-to-earth. During our interview, I never felt like he was looking at his watch. Norman belongs with Arnold Palmer and Seve Ballesteros as the game’s great actors—thrilling to watch, regardless of the circumstance. Their ability to make us desperately care about the outcome allows us to live through their exploits, good and bad. In his flamenco-dancer shirt at the 1993 British Open, Norman swept us up in the euphoric wake of his winning final-round 64. And we actively shared his pain in his Sunday meltdown at the 1996 Masters.
Can you win another major championship?
Absolutely. I’m a young 48 and an experienced 48. If I continue to feel healthy I can definitely win another major. I’ve won them before and I haven’t forgotten how.
But you’ve only won two.
The range of possibilities is from no majors up to Jack’s 20 [including two U.S. Amateurs]. I could have won 20. I should have won five to seven. In the tournament of life, which is the biggest major, I have one of the best records ever.
Don’t forget, Greg, you’re golf’s most tragic figure.
If what I’ve done playing golf, loving, nurturing a family, and establishing the track record I have in business is tragic, the guys writing that stuff may want to figure out what about their lives is really bothering them. If I am a tragic figure, then tragic is good.
Your win 10 year ago at Royal St. George’s in the Open Championship was as good as any victory I’ve ever seen. Why didn’t you win more times just like that?
I’ve won dozens of times like that. Sprinting through the tape at the finish line. I’ve won almost 100 times around the world. I only won two majors playing that way when it should have been more, and while my record is not perfect it’s more than good enough.
The Sunday morning of that Open when I drove to the course, I said to myself, “Today you are going to have to play extremely well because look who is in the lead-your nemesis and defending champ Nick Faldo.”
“I want you to make love to the steering wheel with your hands, just caress it and feel it. That how I want you to be on the golf course.” So my sensitivity was really alert very early on that day.
I say that to myself on the course under pressure, “Make love to your hands, just touch your fingertips, be sensitive, feel what they are.”
Everything was calm with me that day. I was in total control of my feelings. When I hit the first drive I knew. I don’t think I looked at the leader board until I hit it to about two inches on the 9th hole and I was walking to the 10th tee. I looked up and I was one shot ahead. I said, “Ah!” and I knew they would have a hard time catching me, the way I was feeling.
I had to wait on the 10th tee. I remember Larry Bird telling me that he always wanted the ball for the final shot. I said, “That is me right now. I want the lead.”
Did you try to conjure that ‘give me the ball’ feeling at other times?
Absolutely. I don’t think you should go to the well with the same thought all the time. I think your well should be deep enough to trigger different emotions. There have been times when I have tried to go to that. But you know whether you are telling yourself the truth. You might get some type of thought process that doesn’t really trigger it. So you try something different.
On the days when you had the ball but couldn’t score, what was going though your head?
I think that is where you get to pushing a little bit. I think that is a weakness of all great players because we expect to be able to do it. But human nature doesn’t allow you to do everything all the time. In the fourth round at Augusta [in the 1996 Masters, when Norman lost a six-stroke lead], I sensed it very early in my round. I said to Tony [Navarro, his caddie], “Boy, its going to be a tough day today.” I couldn’t grab a hold of anything. The more I tried to grab it, the more it went away. You try to push yourself instead of backing off, taking the flag out of your mind, and just saying, “OK, I am at the driving range and I am hitting to the middle of the range.”
That is why I love this game more than anything else I have ever done. Because everything is a challenge within yourself. No sports psychologist can ever understand what it is actually like to execute that shot, when your heart is pounding and your adrenaline is racing. How do you suppress that? There is no better feeling than when you are able to control that. Sometimes not controlling it is great. You go, “Maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was.” And that is a reality check.
In 1984 for your second win on the PGA Tour, you beat Jack Nicklaus at the Canadian Open. What is your strongest memory of that?
I read before the third round that Jack never won the Canadian Open. I knew he wanted that event so badly. It was tough playing Jack because there has been no tougher competitor. Maybe Tiger’s getting close, but I don’t think there has ever been any tougher competitor than Jack Nicklaus, over 40 years. Time will tell with Tiger. He is very young. He is just a rookie, really.
Is Jack the number one player of all time in your mind?
Oh absolutely. He didn’t have the advantage of equipment, the psychologists, nutritionists, trainers, and coaches. The golfers nowadays are very good, but throw them back with the old equipment: Would they be the same?
I think technology is magnificent for the masses. It should entice more people into the game. So they buy more product. Money goes back into the business. Golf keeps healthy. But [on Tour] the technology has probably brought a lot of players together. You don’t get the separation because if you miss a shot, it’s self-correcting.
Norman is a sensitive guy. It hurts him deeply that he has never won The Masters. But he also is keenly aware that if he can’t be happy with his fairy-tale existence, happiness must not exist. He’s grateful for the good things that have come his way.
Is it still inconceivable to you that you didn’t win a Masters? Isn’t it hard to believe that you can’t go into the Champions Locker Room at Augusta?
I would say yes, after not playing it this year; I didn’t feel that way while I was still playing it. Not being there caused me to go overseas that week. I came back Saturday night and watched the last nine holes on Sunday. Things went through my mind, like “It’s a shame I didn’t win it,” or “I feel like I should be there.” Those are the types of things that go through your head, but you accept it. That’s life.
I relate it to Dan Marino not winning a Super Bowl. I think of Olympic athletes who train for four years and miss a medal by a hundredth of a second. I also think of the Olympics where people are revered for getting a bronze medal or silver. You finish third or second in golf, they think you are a loser.
You’ve been out much of this season with injuries. Have you missed not having the opportunity to choke?
Yes. That’s the whole point—to get in contention and see what happened. You can’t choke if you don’t have a chance to win. Sometimes I flew to the finish line, sometimes I stumbled across it, and sometimes I went flat before I got there. That’s the nature of the game. I also got the most out of myself and my game eight out of 10 times during my career.
Almost every player of your generation says you were the best of your time. Does that surprise you?
I’ve got to say yes. Yes and no, because in my own mind I thought I was at a level that was very special. I had belief in myself. I projected that to the other player. I projected an air, and a lot of people interpret this as arrogance or ego, but you’ve got to have that to be a great golfer.
Is there more to look at than how many majors a player’s won?
There is way more. I’ve only learned that in the last five or six years. When you are actually in the arena battling the bulls, you really don’t see it. Quite honestly, winning a major is no more difficult then winning a regular tournament. If you have a putt on the last hole to get in the playoff, like Mike Weir at The Masters, you would still have to make that putt if it was a regular event. People are going to say, “How can you say that when it’s The Masters?” He’s not thinking about The Masters. He is thinking about that moment, that shot.
The majors aren’t more important?
The best players in the world are stepping up to the plate for those four weeks more so than a regular event. They want those events. So a lot of emphasis is put on major championships, and justifiably so. But I think too much emphasis is put on the number of major championships. Is that a benchmark of success? Absolutely. Is that a benchmark of a person’s overall success? Absolutely not. There are things that happen through losses that actually make you a better person. I sit here and say I’m a better person for losing Augusta in 1996. Golf is a part of life. It is not all of life. Things I learned on the course about myself I’ve taken to life.
People who know you well say one of the things you have done best is being an incredible father to your two children [Morgan-Leigh, 20, and Gregory, 17]. Do you feel this is an accurate characterization?
I would say yes, but I’ve got an incredible wife. I’ve had to sacrifice things by not being there on the weekends. I think our family is tighter now than it has ever been because I’m away from the game. They like me away from the game to a degree, though they’ve always been accepting.
Five or six years ago, I asked Gregory if he wanted to go with me down to the chipping and putting range we had in the backyard. He said, “No. I’ll stay here and watch you.” I asked later, “Why didn’t you want to go practice with me?” He replied, “Dad, I’m seeing what this game has done, taking you away from us a lot, and I didn’t want to do that.”
So there is the gut check. But that’s our sport. You travel 40 weeks a year. You might play 30 tournaments, but you still have to travel another 10 weeks to other things like corporate outings.
Did you tell him that?
Oh, yeah. He was understanding but it was the first time he actually told me his thoughts. Fair enough. To this day, Gregory likes to play golf, but won’t spend a lot of time playing. My kids have been great and that comes from their mother instilling in them that Dad has to do this to be what he wants to be and to give us the things we enjoy today.
How do you think the Tour is doing these days running the business end?
I still am unhappy about it. I really don’t think we know the entire story. Because when I speak to some my business friends about certain ways the Tour operates, they say they couldn’t do that in their world. It always intrigues me that they have this huge business. It is hard to be a master of everything and if you dilute yourself too much, sometimes you lose a little focus.
That is the most careful response I have ever heard from you.
When I spoke out on this at the end of last year, the message I was sending was to the 21-year-olds, not the 30-or 40-year-olds. I want them to think: OK, everything is great right now and your future looks fantastic, but where will you be when you are 45 or 50? Where will the Tour be? There is no business in the world that can sustain that growth curve that the PGA Tour is on. If there is a correction, how are they going to manage it?
Put your mind to it. Find out where the money is going. Find out how big the administration is. Find out what actually goes on. It is very difficult to get an answer, but if you are young enough and you ask the questions, you will eventually get the answers. It is the players’ Tour. It is not one administration person’s Tour. The players have every right to do all they can do to understand the internal workings.
If you were appointed commissioner for a day, which three things would you tackle first?
I would take a look at the players’ pension. The retirement plan is an asset of the Tour. But let’s just say there is another Ping scenario. [The company sued the Tour in 1989.] That asset is vulnerable. The Tour’s so-called retirement plan goes poof. It is not a true pension plan where it is protected.
I would like to really understand the structure of the TPCs [Tournament Players Clubs], how profitable they are. I see the annual report, but it is not a full-blown, in-line report.
In all the years I have been involved in golf, I have never been asked to give my opinion. Yes, we have these forms to fill out. And we have our players meetings, our Players Advisory Council, and our player directors. That’s wonderful, but still I think you need to tie into the best players because they do have some good sense. I’m talking about four or five players. The problem with the Tour is that it’s one man, one vote. A vast majority of the players are happy with the security blanket instead of saying they want to build this thing to be a better, safer, longer-lasting organization.
Everybody from Johnny Miller to Nick Faldo says that the hardest shot to hit in golf is a long, high, straight drive and nobody did it better than you. What were the driving keys that made you so successful for so many years?
I think I had excellent rotation. I was always on top of the ball, but at impact just a little behind it.
Behind it with your weight, you mean?
Yeah. With my center of gravity. Just a fraction behind it. My body rotation speed was pretty damn good. I had a lot of clubhead speed at a young age with the equipment we had. I used a very heavy, short club. Today, my driver is short, but it has a lighter shaft and more weight in the head, so technology has changed the balance. Occasionally, I take my old wooden driver out and it is like hitting a lamppost.
That’s because you’re so old.
There is nothing there and you go, “Wow, I used to rip this thing.” Now it is a totally different feel because the club bends more and my flex point has to be a little bit higher.
Nicklaus said great players evidence themselves on putts of four to 12 feet. In your prime, no one did it better. What were your keys?
Well, I had great visualization. I have always been a very still-bodied person. I think that is the secret—being dead still. Then it becomes just a motion with your shoulders. My motion and repetitive feel for my putting stroke were always the same. Under the gun, I have no fear of missing and you make a lot if you visualize making a lot.
The hardest thing is when you don’t make the putts early in the round. I don’t care who you are. Whether you are Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus. It still gets to you. You don’t make the first one, it gets harder and harder.
Perhaps it is Norman’s resiliency that best characterizes his career. No other player ever came back from so many devastating losses to contend again like Norman. Players pulled off extraordinary shots to deny him his destiny, and there were his own self-destructive tendencies to overcome. Which he did. Norman always got back off the canvas.
Does your golf record have too many downs in it?
I don’t ever, ever think that way. I think back to when I was making $38 a week as an assistant pro and wondering whether I could even get a chance to play in a four-round tournament. I think losing is part of my sport. That I was there so consistently is testament to the fact that I was an intense competitor and a great player, and I still am both of these things. It also tells me that I’m a very resilient guy because no matter what happens I have the ability to put it behind me. I’m able to turn it into a positive. People who criticize me probably can actually learn a lot from me.
What could keep you out of contention as you approach 50?
The mental ability never goes away. The only thing that would not allow me to do that is my physical ability. For Jack, it was his hip. Golf is probably one of the worst sports you can play over time because it causes tremendous wear and tear on your body. Unless you keep up with it and are very aware of your body and keep yourself fit, it is going to catch you faster than you think.
What’s the biggest change in you since you first won as a professional in 1976?
When you are a kid, you have no distractions. You wake up and go to the course. You live, eat, sleep, and breathe the game. As time goes on, you get married and have kids, and your life starts to change. You say, “How do I establish something to protect what I have now with my wife and my kids?” I think it is a wonderful learning process.
It has a tendency to restrict your time on the course, including practice. But I have noticed the older I get, the fewer balls I need to hit. It takes me less time to fix a problem, and when I was young I hit probably too many balls and a fault would come in because of fatigue.
Is your life in a transitional phase?
What I enjoy now are the people I meet through the game. The business world fascinates me and I feel comfortable sitting down with businessmen and having a discussion about everything in life. That is a wonderful thing that golf has given me. What amazes me is that some of these businessmen have told me, “Greg, you know what, we’re great in our business, but you have something 99.9 percent of the people in this world don’t have. You know what it’s like to be number one.”
They may be great CEOs, but they don’t know if they’re the best CEO because it can’t be measured. Sometimes I feel more recognizable and popular now than when I was playing regularly. That may not seem like it makes sense, but that’s how I feel. It’s a different world for me now, a better world. I enjoy my world more than I ever have. I’m a very lucky guy.