Two-time major winner and former World No. 1 Greg Norman was named advisory coach to the Chinese National Golf Team in March, charged with building a golf program worthy of competing in the Rio Games in 2016. In an interview with Golf.com, Norman discusses his latest venture in his longstanding effort to grow the game globally, gives a blueprint for building a successful grassroots golf movement and — like any good coach — complains about the parents looking over his shoulder.
How did you come to be the coach of the Chinese National Team?
It evolved with a lot of the work I do in the grassroots. I've built golf courses there, I've given a few clinics, so I was approached by the China Golf Association to see if I was interested, and I was! It's the greatest compliment that I could be paid by another government, to come to their country and build a program to compete in the Olympics. It's a great honor.
What exactly is your role there? How do you build a national golf program?
I'm an advisory coach, so I'll bring in another coach to oversee things, and we can work together to implement a new program that helps coaches and players from a physical training standpoint. They have great facilities, but there can be major refinement with their physical training. I'll also be implementing a training program on the mental side of things. I've talked to a couple players, and we need to get them to have more of a positive attitude towards the game instead of being so stuck in the physical side of just hitting a golf ball, not getting so down if something doesn't go right.
What are your goals for the team?
My goals are realistic. We need to get the players playing in events where they can accumulate points to qualify for the Olympics. That shouldn't be a problem for the women's team, but the men's team needs to get on tours and get the experience of playing professional events, which allows them to get into the qualifying system for Rio 2016. It's already around the corner. Three years is a very short time period in the upper echelon of golf. So I'll be going to China at beginning of 2014, working with players at the China Golf Association facility and seeing if players and programs need to be adjusted. When I was growing up, there was no better boost of confidence than when I spoke with Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer or Ray Floyd or Tom Watson. They know what they need to do, but I can show them how to make it work.
Guan Tianlang (at 14) became the youngest golfer ever to play in the Masters. Dou Zecheng (at 16) became the youngest golfer ever to make the cut at the Volvo China Open. Ye Wocheng (at 12) became the youngest golfer ever to qualify for the European Tour. Should we remember these names? Are these the stars of the future?
I think you will remember those names. They have the ability to go on, but this is only the first wave of what's going to come. This is the tip of the iceberg. These kids will go on and be successful, creating a whole new wave of kids that are nine, 10, 11 years old now, looking up at these 15-year olds as their idols. That's what happens in China. They're put up on a pedestal, and they're held in such high regard and respected. I'm a strong believer that the East will take over the West in the next generation as long as the China Golf Association and the central government allow game to develop sustainably and foster grassroots access to the game in their country. They'll have access to 1.3 billion people. We'll have 100 million golfers out in the world if they implement the plan correctly and reach down to their massive population base. We could pull 40 million golfers out of China alone, which I would love to see.
How long will it be before we see a Chinese major champion?
You have to be realistic. Look at Sweden. In a period of 25 years, they went from zero to hero. Small population base, but they were committed to promoting and growing the game through academies and foundations and programs, and now they have several players on Tour and a big stars in Henrik Stenson and Annika Sorenstam. You don't know when its gonna come, but it will come.
What's the biggest challenge standing in the way of the development of the game in China?
Building sustainable golf courses. There's talk of building 10 to 15 thousand golf courses in china, and that's a huge undertaking. It's like a drop in the bucket for them, but they have to build these courses in a sustainable fashion that allows the grassroots access, not just the wealthy, but the not so wealthy. That's the hardest part for them to understand. The elitist image is absolutely damaging. I can roll back 35 years, when I went to Europe, I was treated like an elitist. Trying to grow a sport like golf in China, access is a problem. The ones who can join early on are the wealthy, so children of the wealthy are the benefactors, but we have to change that.
What's the biggest adjustment you've had to make in your new role as a coach?
I never thought I'd be a good coach, but I get more enjoyment out of giving back to the game of golf than I ever anticipated. But the big issue is the parents. You're seeing this with the Michelle Wies of the world — you gotta let them go, put them in the hands of people who are pros and trust them. You don't have the experience, and you can create chaos for a young kid by bringing the wrong thoughts or too much pressure into the kid's mind.
Golf (in the United States, at least) has a growth problem, with the National Golf Foundation reporting in 2012 a 13 percent drop in the number of golfers over the last five years. Is China the lynchpin of the golf's growth and continued success? Are the Olympics?
The Olympics was the accelerator, but China is not the lynchpin. With the recession, disposable income is eliminated, so you drop your golf course membership, but we'll find that the game of golf will pick up again in the U.S. It's an amenity that people love.
The Chinese cherish the gold medal. They want that gold medallion hanging around their necks, and they will put their resources behind it. If you could actually see this training center in Nanshan, it would blow your mind. The Chinese are doing what America did for itself in the 80s and 90s — 400 golf courses per year on unlimited budgets. One thing I'm really impressed with about the Chinese is that they put their mind to it and they really go after it. They are so determined to reach their goals. Imagine what it does for the manufacturing of golf balls and equipment and shoes — everything in the game of golf — if you could double the number of golfers, it would be great. Everyone wants to see this happen, and if we all band together in the right direction, we could make it work.
Matt Kuchar said recently "I absolutely do see the PGA Tour, the European Tour, the Asian Tour, the Australian Tour somehow turning into some sort of global world tour. And I think it will be in my time…We may all be saying Greg Norman was right at the end of the day." You've been promoting this idea for decades. Is the game ready for it? How far away are we from making the World Tour a reality?
I think it's inevitable. Everybody's fighting for water from the same well. Most corporations are sponsoring both tours, so there's golf 24/7, everywhere in the world. At the end of the day, it made sense to me to get both institutions together and come up with a better scheme.
Why have you been so outspoken in your support for the aggressive growth of the game globally?
I am protective of the game of golf. I got to travel the world playing and promoting the game, so if I have one tiny little part in its growth, whether it's in Australia or China, it would be one of the greatest honors in the game. I would love to see the game grow to a hundred million people, because I'm so passionate about all the game has given me.