SPORTS

RETUEN OF THE SHARK

JAMES DEACON September 13 1993
SPORTS

RETUEN OF THE SHARK

JAMES DEACON September 13 1993

RETUEN OF THE SHARK

SPORTS

It is oppressively hot in Akron, Ohio’s “Rubber City,” and Greg Norman looks ready to melt. He has played competitive golf for 27 straight days, and still has five more wearing rounds before a much-needed week off. Preparing for a charity event before the NEC World Series of Golf, he tunes out the Akron spectators straining against the fences around the driving range. He shows no sign of hearing a kid call “Nice shot, Mr. Norman” when he hits his first sand shot into the hole on a practice green. (His second and third go in, too, but by then the kid has run off to tell a friend.) On the way to the first tee, he does not seem to notice a breathless woman who, upon seeing him pass, sighs, “I can go home now, I’ve seen what I came to see.” Once on the first tee, however, Norman is all smiles as he shakes hands and poses for photographs with his amateur foursome. And when it is his turn to drive, he adjusts his trademark panama hat, takes aim and rifles a shot straight down the middle. So much for fatigue. “I was very tired,” he told Maclean’s afterward. “But that’s where pride comes into it. When you get yourself into this kind of position, you have to carry yourself beyond where you think you are capable of going.”

Norman has already gone where few sports personalities have ventured before. Around the world, the 38-year-old Australian known as the Great White Shark is rivalled only by the legendary Arnold Palmer in popularity among golfers, past or present. And according to published estimates of athletes’ earnings, Norman’s endorsement income ranks second only to basketball star Michael Jordan, whose bank account is bloated by a shoe contract that pays more than $20 million annually. That profile invites its share of hazards. At Akron, for example, security broke down between the ninth green and 10th tee, and Norman was accosted by a swarm of autograph-seekers. Youths in untied high-tops and women in not enough clothing thrust themselves and their hats and programs into his face; kids darted recklessly in and out of the tangle of legs. Norman somehow never broke stride, signing what he could before reaching the respite of the ropes around the tee. “He’s living under such a microscope—he is so heavily scrutinized,” says fellow golfer Paul Azinger, currently the leading American on the PGA Tour. “I feel for him, but Greg handles it beautifully.”

If anything, the galleries following the former No. 1 golfer in the world are likely to get bigger still. After a 27-month period during which he fell into an uncharacteristic winless slump, the Shark has sharpened his competitive teeth for another attack at the top. And to a certain extent, he has Canada to thank. It was at last year’s Canadian Open at Glen Abbey in Oakville, Ont., that Norman broke out of his doldrums. He is particularly proud of that title, defeating Texan Bruce Lietzke in a playoff thanks to a series of nervy shots. “I’m so glad I won the Canadian Open in a playoff,” says Norman, who is back at Glen Abbey this week to defend his title. ‘That did more for me than winning by three or four shots. What that told me was that I could play tough shots under a lot of pressure.”

That victory touched off a chain reaction of successes. He shot an incredible 63 in the windy final round of the Johnnie Walker World Championship in Jamaica last December before narrowly losing to Nick Faldo in a playoff.

He blew away the field at the Doral Ryder Open in Miami last March with a winning total that was five strokes better than the previous tournament record. He overwhelmed a star-studded leader board at the British Open in July with a finalround score of 64—a performance some golf historians called the greatest-ever final round in a major championship. As a measure of his consistency, he has finished seventh or better in 13 out of the 18 tournaments he has played in 1993, including his recent playoff loss in the PGA championship. And there seems to be more to come. “I think that Greg, in the next four or five years, is going to stay one of the top players in the world,” says Nick Price of Zimbabwe, a longtime friend and the 1991 Canadian Open champion. “His game is so sound, so solid. And he has the will to win.”

By his own account, Norman returns to Canada a changed man. He still has the lean and rugged figure, the handsome, chiselled face, the predator’s eyes and the thick whiteblond hair. Although he has shortened his backswing, he still attacks the golf course with abandon. As he showed in losing a playoff to Azinger at last month’s PGA championship, he remains gracious in defeat. And he has known defeat. He has suffered playoff losses in the Masters, the PGA and the U.S. and British opens—what has been called the Grand Slammed. He has lost tournaments to opponents who sank seemingly impossible shots on final holes from bunkers, fringes or, once, from 160 yards back on the fairway. For years, he claimed that those losses did not get him down. But in the midst of his slump, he finally admitted that they had hurt him deeply. “I learned that the longer you hold something inside, the worse you are going to react to it,” he says. “You might find

yourself at the pub having had a few cocktails and, if someone hits you the wrong way with something in conversation, you just pop. It makes you look like a jerk.”

Norman also endured numerous stories speculating about the cause of his slump. Many suggested that he had worn himself thin with corporate outings and events around the world—an explanation that Norman emphatically denies. “My schedule on and off the golf course has not changed in a decade,” he says. “I can say that I probably played less, and did less, during that time than at any previous time. But then, there are people who said that I was on drugs.” Norman laughs that one off, but friends say that media criticism of his many secondplace finishes has been harder to take. “I think that Greg Norman can win the British Open and lose the PGA championship in a playoff and get ripped by the media,” Azinger says. “I just think that people’s ex-

pectations of Greg are beyond what is humanly possible.”

Norman himself attributes the slump to a lack of focus. And he credits his revival to what he calls his seven-year plan. While keeping the details of the plan to himself, he admits that it is essentially a philosophical blueprint, something that embraces his entire life, not just what unfolds on the golf course. After seven years, Norman will be 45—an age beyond which few tour pros remain competitive. By then, his involvement in golf-course architecture and other pursuits will likely crowd his playing schedule. And in that time there will be seven more Masters, seven more U.S. and British opens, seven more PGAs—plenty of chance to quench his competitive thirst. “I spearheaded the plan with golf, because that’s what I do for a living,” says Norman, who now lives in Höbe Sound, Fla., with his wife, Laura, daughter Morgan-Leigh, who turns 11 this month, and son Gregory, 7. “But it includes a lot of things. The seven years fits my family because, by then, my daughter will be 18 years old. She’ll have basically flown the coop by that time. My family is at the root of this, because I want them to have a happy life. I want them to understand what life is all about, and what their father did, and why he had to travel so much. I try to include them when we talk about all of this.”

Growing up in the Australian state of

Queensland, Norman took up golf in his midteens. By 19 he had informed his father that he had decided against joining the air force (“I wanted to fly F-16s”) and would pursue a career in golf. “I’ve always believed that my first thought is the right thought,” he says. “My first thought way back in 1974 was that I wanted to be a professional golfer.” His father, a 27 handicap at golf, was dubious; he wanted the younger Norman to take over his engineering business. But while rejecting his father’s advice, Norman says that he inherited his tenacity. “My father’s good at everything he does,” he says, “except golf.”

By 1977, Norman had earned his first invitation to play in America, at Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. Larry O’Brien, vice-president of Nicklaus’s Golden Bear International, recalls that Norman failed to qualify for the final two rounds, and hated it. “I remember that every morning he’d get up early and go hit 300 or more balls on the practice tee,” O’Brien says. “He was so determined that this would not happen again.” In 1979, Norman moved to England for the first of five years on the European Tour, then shifted full time to the United States in 1984, where he has twice finished atop the PGA Tour’s money list.

For the Canadian Open, having Norman return as defending champion bolsters an already strong field. “His win at the British Open also helps,” says tournament director Bill Paul. “People want to come out and see him more than ever.” They will also see Price, Azinger, 1992 PGA Player of the Year Fred Couples, U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen and even Nicklaus, along with Canadians Richard Zokol, Dave Barr and Dan Halldorson. “I mean no disrespect to other tournaments, but the Canadian Open is a national title, and that means something,” says Price in explaining the event’s popularity among the players. “It establishes your credibility worldwide. People remember national open champions.”

Sometime later this month, Norman and Price and their wives will slip away for a week to some private place in the Bahamas and go diving and fishing and whatever else feels good at the time. It is something they used to do frequently, but schedules and celebrity have recently conspired to get in the way. Norman says that, afterward, he will take some time off. But can a shark ever rest? “I think I can,” he says. “My wife says no.” And can he ever get away from golf? “After 32 straight days, I was tired of playing,” he says of his recent binge. “I didn’t want to even see a golf club for at least a week. And yet, there I was yesterday afternoon with my two children, playing golf out in the backyard.” As for his chances in this week’s open, he says simply: “I am a better player now than I was a year ago.” And a year ago, he won.

JAMES DEACON

in Akron

Defending champ Greg Norman takes on the Canadian Open with a renewed appetite