Dermot Gilleece traces the always fascinating playing and business career of Greg Norman
When interviewed him in the build-up to his dramatic collapse in the 1996 Masters at Augusta National, Greg Norman’s first wife, Laura, made a fascinating observation about her husband. ‘Greg loves being good at things,’ she said. ‘Sometimes I think he believes he’s invincible.’
It’s a notion which is proving to be quite helpful in Norman’s current role as chief executive of LIV, the Saudi Arabian backed rebel golf tour. And given that the Australian never appeared to be over-burdened by humility, he is bound to view his ongoing international prominence as a bonus, more than 12 years since he quit serious competitive golf.
Fans around these parts will retain memories of his appearances in various stagings of the Irish Open, dating back to his debut at Portmarnock in 1977, when he was tied third behind American, Hubert Green. Then there was the remarkable challenge he staged against Padraig Harrington in the 2008 Open Championship, before sharing third place once more, as the Dubliner retained the title at Royal Birkdale. I have found Norman to be a fascinating sportsman, who I had the privilege of actually playing golf with at Doonbeg, the links he designed in west Clare, in 2002. He was a golf-writer’s dream, not only for his spectacular play but for a readiness to be interviewed. In fact I can never recall being rejected by him. You may not always have received the length of time you desired, but a response was invariably forthcoming.
Long, straight driving made his game a natural fit for the Masters, a tournament he coveted above all others. And this from a player who achieved 88 professional wins during a career in which he also reigned as world number-one, for 331 weeks.
Against this background, it will come as no surprise to learn that Norman is a perfectionist, who carries all the baggage this affliction entails. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and at one time, possessed the impetuosity of the road-hog, driving cars at breakneck speeds and generally trying to fit 30 hours’ activity into every day.
Yet there is also a disarming, boyish warmth about him. For instance, at the peak of his playing powers, early in the 1990s, he was followed for 20 miles by a Florida police car, doing 120 mph in his Ferrari Testarossa while weaving in an out of traffic and emergency lanes.
When finally pulled in by the tenacious highway patrolman, Norman turned on one of his broadest smiles for the cop while brashly suggesting: ‘Wanna drive it?’ He didn’t get a ticket.
His shock defeat by Nick Faldo in the ’96 Masters was his 52nd runner-up finish on tour. And he duly turned up for the post-round press conference, just as he had done for all the others, notwithstanding the painfully insensitive questions he knew awaited him. Even this, his most crushing set-back was borne with a patient shrug.
While clearly respecting his fans, he readily acknowledged that the Great White Shark image was a media creation which he could profitably perpetuate. Which did much to explain the lucrative contracts which came his way over the years. And I can recall the stunned reaction, even from Jack Nicklaus, no less, when it was revealed that he had received $45 million for his share of Cobra Golf. His one-time manager, Frank Williams, observed: ‘The reason Greg is so wealthy is that he has a sharp, business mind. The only thing he puts his name on that he doesn’t own part of, is Chevrolet.’
His close friends are few, which most observers put down to envy. Others have suggested bitterly that there’s no room for anybody else at a table where Norman and his ego are already seated. He found this attitude odd, especially for America. ‘America was built by people who started as shoeshine boys and ended up owning the shoe factory,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand begrudgery.’
Norman was at one stage at the centre of a major rumpus involving appearance fees paid to him by Murphy’s Brewery for an appearance in the 1995 Irish Open at Mount Juliet. Their advance payment to the Shark was estimated at $350,000 and in the wake of an impressive if unavailing challenge in Dubai in early March 1997, the Shark kicked up his own desert storm. Citing three tournaments, including that particular Irish Open, the focus of his anger was Ken Schofield, executive director of the European Tour.
The most intriguing aspect of the attack was that it came totally without prompting. It arose during a meeting I had with him in Dubai, where I pointed to the record crowds he had attracted to Mount Juliet two years previously.
‘I love going to Ireland,’ he said. ‘You say the attendance figures were up in 1995. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that, and it makes me feel good, though I don’t know whether it had to do with me or the way Murphy’s marketed the event.
‘But I’ll tell you what: out of that year, 1995, the thing that disappointed me the most –and here I am being forthright again –was the way Ken Schofield treated me about the appearance money issue. Singling me out about the Dubai Desert Classic, the Irish Open and the Swiss Open.’
The upshot of the whole affair was that at the end of the 1995 season, Schofield wrote letters to this effect to the organisers of those three events. Based on figures bandied about in Dubai, the Irish Open payment to Norman was talked of as $350,000 for his Mount Juliet appearance.
Those letters of censure hurt the Shark. ‘These people here in Dubai wanted me to come back last year,’ he said. ‘But I couldn’t come back. And to make matters worse, the whole matter was made into a public spectacle. I’m not a person to make things public, when it should have been kept on a one-on-one basis [between Norman and Schofield].’
It so happened that around that time, he was also at loggerheads with Tim Fincham, commissioner of the PGA Tour, over tournament matters in the US. Looking back at those events on either side of the Atlantic, it is interesting to note that where Schofield came into golf administration from banking, Finchem was a practising lawyer. And a particularly shrewd one at that.
Those of us of a certain age will recall how, despite the financial backing of Fox News Network, Finchem brilliantly out-manoeuvred Norman when the Shark attempted to launch a world tour in the 1990s. With delicious timing, the American delivered the coup de grace during the week of the 1997 Tour Championship in Houston where, as spokesman for the world’s five major tours, he announced the creation of three $4m World Golf Championship events for 1999 and a fourth a year later.
Clearly stunned by this, Norman could only respond: ‘Hopefully, the arrows can now come out of my back. Let them have it and let them see what they can do.’All of which prompts the thought that as a preamble to this latest move, Norman had set his heart on settling old scores.
From a purely business perspective, one could question why, at 67 and with more money than he could ever hope to spend, Norman wouldn’t simply climb aboard his yacht, Aussie Rules, and sail off peacefully into the sunset. The answer may lie in what he perceives as the temerity of tour officials in attempting to get the better of him.
While there’s nothing he can do to repair the hurt Faldo inflicted on him at Augusta National 26 years ago, he can rectify much of what he perceived as the actions of mindless tour officials.
And as he sees it, time is not on his side. ‘I don’t know what it is,’ he said. ‘I guess there’s this hidden thing in me that wants to get everything done before I die.’