As a player, in his pomp, Greg Norman was a sight to behold, athletic, muscular, chiselled, bronzed and blonde, but with a soft underbelly, a susceptibility to falter when the chips were down and the pressure dialled up to the max in the pressure cooker environment that were the final days of his ‘Major’ championship appearances.
28 top-10 finishes to add to his two solitary Open Championship wins in 92 ‘Major’ appearances, including some catastrophic collapses from all too many winning positions suggests, in the parlance of his adopted USA, ‘Close, but no cigar.’
Having had his dream of an elite World Golf Tour ripped away from him back in 1994, its distant cousin, the Saudi-backed LIV Golf, which fell into his lap shortly after announcing his “scaling back” of his sprawling business empire, finds itself mired in controversy and division, with its Commissioner / CEO front and centre of the firestorm raging through the normally sedate and respectful world of golf.
And as the voice – and face – of the breakaway circuit, which faces judgment in the courts on both sides of the Atlantic and a battle for the heart and soul of the royal and ancient game, diplomacy is not a word in the lexicon of Australia’s archetypal Alpha Male, and, with the pressure on and winning – and being seen to win – against the PGA TOUR and what Norman views as its co-conspirator, the DP World Tour the only outcome he can contemplate, Bunker Mentality asks, ‘Has the Great White Shark bitten off more than he can chew?’
There are many different and conflicting component parts to the career Australian golf legend, the former world number one Greg Norman has carved out in a varied, financially rewarding and at times controversial livelihood for himself over the past 46 years since turning professional at the age of 21; without question, a star of his era, second only to Tiger Woods, with 331 weeks in total at the top, Woods replacing Norman three times at #1 in 1997 / 98, the self-styled, ‘Shark’ recording just under half the 683 weeks – 280 of them consecutively – Tiger has spent at the top of the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR).
For context, Norman spent more than twice the time at the top of the golfing tree spent by his prize LIV Golf recruit, American Dustin Johnson (139 weeks) and almost three times the current holder of top spot, the Australian’s arch nemesis, Rory McIlroy whose epic win in the Dubai Desert Classic took to 121 the total weeks the Northern Irishman was sitting proudly on top of the pile, his 15th straight week atop the OWGR and counting.
Indeed, in his era, the swashbuckling Australian was dominant, outstripping many of his contemporaries in time spent at the top, Nick Faldo (97 weeks), Seve Ballesteros (61 weeks), Ian Woosnam (50 weeks), Nick Price (44 weeks), Vijay Singh (33 weeks), Fred Couples (16 weeks) and Bernhard Langer (3 weeks), Norman racking-up 18 victories on the PGA Tour in the 1980s and 1990s as well as a dozen wins on the then European Tour across three different decades.
But just two ‘Majors,’ both Open Championships in 1986 and 1993, a record that is broadly viewed as a poor return for a man of such natural talent and prodigious physical power, his below average ‘Majors’ record is widely – and correctly – used as evidence of his failure to perform at the very top level when under the utmost pressure.
Almost a third of Norman’s 88 professional victories in the paid ranks – 33 in total – were secured on his home PGA Tour of Australia, in those days, a relative backwater where the competition was modest in quality, although, to counterbalance that, Norman did win the so-called ‘Fifth Major,’ the Players Championship in 1994, also bagging three PGA Grand Slam of Golf titles and two NEC World Series crowns while, in Europe, a hat-trick of wins at the then highly-prestigious World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, all adding up to the conclusion that Greg Norman was a fine, perhaps even very fine golfer but sadly – and contrary to his self-perception – Bunker Mentality argues is some considerable way short of being one of the all-time greats.
However, based on the paucity of ‘Major’ championship titles – two Open Championships but not a single Masters, US Open or USPGA Championship together with a poor PGA Tour play-off record – only four wins out of 12 play-offs – this could reasonably lead to suggestions the ‘Great White Shark’ may also be, when the chips are down and the stakes are high, something approaching a ‘Choker.’
Norman had earned that most unwelcomed and unwanted sobriquet as a player with a penchant for and tendency towards snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, courtesy largely of a quadruple of catastrophic collapses, most notably, the surrender of a 54-hole lead at the 1986 US Open at Shinnecock Hills won eventually by Raymond Floyd and thrice at The Masters, in 1986, 1987, and most spectacularly, in 1996 when the Australian blew a six-stroke overnight lead going into the Sunday showdown.
But, like many before and after him, a poor start, a bogey on the first was followed by a golfing car crash around Amen Corner, a final round of six-over-par 78 to Faldo’s sublime 65, yet another Green Jacket eluding the Australian, for whom second was nowhere; Faldo rubbing salt in Norman’s already painful wound by observing, “I could feel the nervousness emanating from Greg,” adding, “he gripped and regripped the club, as though he could not steel himself to hit the ball.”
At first glance, Greg Norman’s ‘Numbers’ appear impressive; he earned more than $1million five times on the PGA TOUR, including three Arnold Palmer Awards as the Tour’s leading money winner – 1986, 1989 and 1994 and was the first player in Tour history to surpass $10 million in career earnings, clearly a very impressive body of work in an era when, although the top end of the men’s game was packed with iconic players, from Seve Ballesteros to Nick Faldo, Bernard Langer to Vijay Singh, Nick Price, Ian Woosnam, the depth of the talent pool – and therefore the ability to rack-up multiple victories season-after-season – was widely considered to have been somewhat shallower than the present day.
Then, out of the blue, in late 1994 and while at the peak of his not inconsiderable playing powers, still ranked number 2 in the world, the 39-year-old Greg Norman, took the pin out of a golfing grenade and lobbed it into the massed ranks of the long-established order of men’s pro golf, which he viewed as ‘complacent’ and ‘underperforming.’ In partnership with Fox TV, Norman boldly announced that from the start of the following 1995 season, just a few short months in the future, there would be a brand-new men’s professional circuit, an eight-event schedule, boasting a purse of $25million plus a $50,000 travel stipend and a $1million bonus to the player of the year.
Norman’s attempt to properly globalise the game and leverage maximum earnings for him and his fellow high-ranked players – he named it the World Golf Tour (WGT) – rapidly drew fire from the old order, in particular, that the abrasive Australian was planning to hijack the top-30 players in the world with his proposed schedule of big money events going head-to-head with, and therefore posing a significant threat to a PGA TOUR he had already started to rail against and openly criticise.
Another charge was that Norman – a man who had become accustomed to rich pickings in the form of hefty appearance fees and generous prize money – was acting in self-interest courtesy of a guaranteed share of the proceeds of the overall WGT revenues, including TV income as well as the prize pots he and his fellow WGT ‘rebels’ would enjoy, all for a man described by his contemporary and compatriot, Roger Davis to have been, ‘Always turned on by money’.
For context, the most generous first-place cheque for a PGA Tournament in 1994 was $540,000 for winning the Tour Championship, but, under his WGT budget, as proposed by Norman, every player signing up to his rival circuit would be guaranteed a minimum of $290,000 per year based on the last place payout of $30,000 – first-place prize for each of the eight events was $600,000 – plus travel and accommodation expenses and a share of Fox’s exclusive and overarching multi-million-dollar broadcast rights fee.
Back in 1994, these were attractive numbers to a raft of top players, many of whom felt they were being short-changed by the PGA TOUR and in November 1994, a few months before the inaugural event, the Washington Post, carried a remarkably prescient – considering the recent advent of LIV Golf – sports opinion story.
‘Potentially, the World Golf Tour – if it ever really comes into existence – could throw golf into an ugly spasm of chaos,’ predicted the Washington Post, adding, ‘Just think of golf, ripped by litigation and bad blood between rival groups of players.
‘Think of the US Federal Trade Commission, jumping all over the PGA TOUR on restraint of trade issues,’ the Post continued, concluding, ‘Thanks Greg, you’re a buddy.’
In 1994, Norman’s audacious project floundered and sank seemingly without a trace, his World Golf Tour failing to get off the ground in the face of threats of litigation from a powerful PGA TOUR and nervousness amongst commercial backers over getting involved in such a controversial and radical project, the Australian’s pipe dream put not so much into cold storage as the deep freeze.
As a player, Greg Norman never officially announced his retirement from professional golf, but it was becoming increasingly clear as the 20th century drew to a close that the Australian’s career was in injury-ravaged terminal decline, with a young Tiger Woods entering stage right as Norman bowed out, his last PGA TOUR victories coming in 1997 but there was to be a flashback to the pinnacle of his career, and a sharp reminder of his old frailties.
Taking an improbable two-stroke lead into the final round of the 137th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in 2008, eight bogeys in a final round 77 left the door ajar for his playing partner, Ireland’s Pádraig Harrington who, gratefully and gleefully, kicked that door down in a stunning successful defence of the Claret Jug he had won at Carnoustie 12-months-earlier, a man who could seemingly always find a way to win surpassing a man who, all too often in the ‘Majors,’ found a way to lose.
Unlike his contemporaries such as Vijay Singh and Bernhard Langer, Norman by-and-large eschewed the lucrative Champions Tour, setting up and growing his business empire, initially known as ‘Great White Shark Enterprises,’ subsequently re-branded as the ‘Greg Norman Company,’ the Australian’s playing career ended with career earnings of US$14,484,458, currently standing at 154th on the PGA TOUR all-time money list, but, for a man who had written his first autobiography at the age of 28, it was time to branch out and exploit his name and his personae to the max.
Focusing instead on building his multi-faceted corporate empire, his design-and-build operation responsible for 100 courses opened across 34 countries and six continents, including Doonbeg Golf Club in County Clare, other signature courses including his eponymous offering at Mission Hills in China, The Wave in Oman and The Fire Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai, his other eponymous products ranging from fine wines to Greg Norman eyewear and prime Australian beef.
Fast forward and, having suffered a debilitating bout of Coronavirus, the ‘Shark’ it seemed, was planning his ‘homeward bound’ strategy and a return to his Australian roots; as recently as April 2021, he announced in Australia’s Stellar lifestyle magazine he was, “Scaling back” and “Skinning down” his labyrinthine business empire reportedly worth an estimated, but never officially confirmed US$400m (Approx. €368m), Norman reflecting, “As you progressively get gracefully older you find an interesting balance in yourself.
“The materialistic things you liked 25 years ago, you go, ‘Why did I even have those then?’”, before answering his own rhetorical question admitting, “It was ego, it was a statement because ‘look what I can do’, [but] today I think ‘less is more,’ I don’t need that, I don’t need this,’” concluding, “You actually sit back and realise that I don’t need another X-millions of dollars.”
Hardly the words of a man imminently planning for the relaunch of the near-30-year-old concept that was his World Golf Tour, and while mystery and conspiracy theories swirled around as to how the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, PIF ended up in bed with the man who by his own admission was preparing for retirement, and all in considerably less than a year has never been properly explained.
According to a well-placed source at the DP World Tour, who had witnessed close up the now notorious Pro-am four-ball ahead of the Wentworth-based circuit’s 2020 Saudi International involving six-time ‘Major’ champion Phil Mickelson, Majed Al-Sorour, CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation, a representative of PIF, the quartet completed by a director of the embryonic Premier Golf League said, “It appeared to have been an intense five hours out there on the Royal Greens course and was all highly secretive, but Phil [Mickelson] was all ears, clearly very engaged with what he was hearing and taking it all in.”
The Wentworth insider continued, “Phil had clearly sensed the sheer scale of what was on offer, not millions but billions, and, once the Saudis had decided against the Premier Golf League concept, it’s not difficult to join the dots linking Mickelson through his brother / agent Tim [who is Spaniard Jon Rahm’s agent] and his long-time adviser and friend, Steve Loy to Greg Norman who had been waiting in the wings with his World Golf Tour all the way back to 1994, and the rest, as they say, ‘is history,’ the advent of LIV Golf.
“Phil subsequently reaped his reward, reported to have been US$200m, the highest signing-on fee of anyone to date, very generous for a man eligible for the Champions / Seniors tours, while the received wisdom is that Greg Norman just got lucky, very, very lucky, right man, right place with an ‘Oven ready’ concept that appeared to fit the Saudi ambitions.”
Having unexpectedly struck paydirt, Norman inserted himself at the very top of the start-up business’s hierarchy as Commissioner & CEO, his financial reward thought to be in the same league – or even a bit more – as Mickelson’s, eyewatering remuneration packages for two men in the twilight years of their admittedly impressive careers and is said to tick two important boxes in the mindset of the 68-year-old Australian.
Norman has a reputation as a loner, something of an outsider within the structure of men’s professional golf, there are those who believe the controversial Australian had never forgiven the game’s ‘establishment,’ and especially the PGA TOUR for scuppering his World Golf Tour concept back in 1994, a view held by several past and present stalwarts of the game, triggering a war of words as the elite end of the royal and ancient game hung out its dirty washing in the full glare of avaricious media and public, golf fans, the media and, most worryingly of all, current and prospective sponsors.
Typically, Norman himself has not minced his words, publicly branding the PGA TOUR an “Illegal monopoly” as well as “Anti-golfer, anti-fan, and anti-competitive,” and even had the temerity to call Jack Nicklaus, “A hypocrite,” over the Golden Bear’s stance of the Saudi-backed breakaway circuit, the Australian also took a swing at the venerable R&A, the most powerful organisation in world golf, accusing the St Andrews-based governing body and promoters of The Open Championship of being, “Petty,” over their decision not to invite him – along with other living past champions – to the 150th anniversary celebrations of the world’s oldest and most prestigious ‘Major’ championship.
“I’m disappointed,” bleated the two-time winner of the Claret Jug, boasting to Golf Digest, Australia with his trademark braggadocio, “All I have done is promote and grow the game of golf globally, on and off the golf course, for more than four decades.”
The Australian, who Fred Couples recently implied has no friends inside the game, and that, “No one’s liked Greg Norman for 25-years,” is never slow in blowing his own trumpet, frequently emphasizing what he sees as his altruistic approach and benevolence towards growing the game was found repeating that trope in his first press conference as Commissioner & CEO of LIV Golf in Saudi Arabia on 1st February 2022.
“I’ve been very impressed and helpful in growing the game of golf across all continents that I could possibly go,” proclaimed the newly installed LIV Golf head honcho, adding with no hint of modesty, “When you’re fortunate enough to be No. 1 player in the world because of your capabilities and your competitive level to get to that spot, it’s no easy feat, but when you get there, you have a lot of responsibilities you have to assume,” boldly adding, “My responsibility as the best player in the world was to grow the game of golf as much as I could possibly grow it.”
But as the fledgling circuit – complete with catchy strap-line of, ‘Golf, but Louder’ – prepares after a difficult birth for its second – and some say facing a ‘pivotal, make-or-break’ – season, with 14 tournaments across six different counties and five continents, offering exorbitant fantasy financial rewards seemingly with little or no regard for any real-world return on investment, Norman’s position as Commissioner & CEO within the LIV Golf corporate structure appears to have strengthened.
Following a string of high-level executive departures including managing director Majed Al Sorour, chief operating officer Atul Khosla and two very senior marketing / communications executives, the Australian is now answerable only to Saudi national oil company Aramco chairman and PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan and, ultimately, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
And with further high-level resignations rumoured, Norman may short term be more influential than ever, but medium to long term, he looks increasingly isolated amid accusations he is running LIV Golf primarily to fuel his avaricious ego and personal wealth to satisfy what is widely rumoured to be his insatiable appetite for money and to exact revenge on the PGA TOUR for strangling his 1994 World Golf Tour brainchild at birth.
Norman’s current vulnerability lies not only in the unseemly war of words that his belligerent rhetoric has caused leading to the wrong sort headlines the game has rarely if ever generated, but also because he has failed to date to add any significant marquee names to its 70-man roster following the high-water mark of capturing the reigning Open Champion, the-then World #2 Cameron Smith, as the LIV Golf roll-call is already looking somewhat jaded and in serious need of a significant upgrade.
Only Smith, alongside Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and arguably Abraham Ancer could be considered ‘marquee names,’ the rest a mix of aspiring, up-and-coming hopefuls such as American Turk Pettit, England’s Sam Horsfield and Chilean prospect Joaquín Niemann and a raft of aging mostly European aging Ryder Cup stalwarts in the twilight years of their stellar careers.
Many current and former players have had their say on LIV Golf in general and its CEO & Commissioner in particular, including the ‘Big 2,’ Tiger Woods and current world #1 Rory McIlroy, who did not mince his words in saying the Australian should, “Exit stage left,” while Woods chipped in, “I think Greg’s got to leave,” describing LIV as, “An endless pit of money.”
But Norman is a man who likes to have the last word, retorting to the McIlroy / Woods criticism of him and his leadership style, calling the American, “A mouthpiece for the PGA TOUR,” adding, “I pay zero attention to McIlroy and Woods, it has no bearing or effect on me [and] I’m going to be with LIV for a long, long period of time.”
Just how long that, ‘long, long period of time might be,’ is, in the make believe world of LIV Golf, open to debate and interpretation, and whether the self-styled ‘Shark’ gets to have the ‘final word,’ is equally uncertain; in his playing days, Gregory John Norman was a supreme athlete but as a golfer, he palpably failed to establish himself at the very top of the pantheon of great golfers, his two ‘Major’ wins – admittedly, both Open Championship titles – places him alongside the likes of Tony Jacklin, Americans Andy North and Curtis Strange and his fellow-Australian, the indominable David Graham.
But to speak of him in the same breath as contemporaries such as Seve Ballesteros or Nick Faldo (five and six ‘Majors’ respectively) would be plain wrong, Norman’s body of work is nowhere near that quality, two ‘Major’ titles out of 92 appearances is in and of itself, a poor return for a player of such natural ability and athletic prowess, but, factor in the opportunities he missed from seemingly nailed-on winning positions shows a clear chink in the ‘Shark’s’ armour, revealing at best, a frailty under pressure, at worst, a fatal flaw in his sporting psyche.
One suspects Norman views himself in the same golfing hierarchy as Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, seven, eight, nine, 15 and 18 ‘Majors’ respectively, but, truth be told, he cannot reasonably even be regarded as the best Australian of all time, the legendary Peter Thomson with five Open Championship wins to his name, including three-in-a-row in 1954, 1955 and 1956 comfortably eclipsing the Queenslander, even taking the somewhat less demanding era the quiet, unassuming Thomson played in.
There is also a hint that having his World Golf Tour unceremoniously killed-off before getting started in 1994 was the unfinished business his somewhat fortuitous inheritance of LIV Golf was to become 28-years-later, the desire to ‘get even’ with the golf authorities he now wages war with suggesting his judgment – notwithstanding the seemingly unlimited billions of petro-dollars at his disposal – may be fatally flawed.
What if his World Golf Tour Mark II, aka LIV Golf is not the all-conquering answer to all golf’s prayers, and, what if Greg Norman fails to close out the outright victory over the PGA TOUR, the DP World Tour and now, the R&A, in the same fashion as his final round vulnerability at the four Grand Slam events?
The jury – literally and figuratively – remains out on those judgment calls, meaning the self-styled ‘Great White Shark’ could find himself beached, isolated and once again branded as golf’s ‘Nearly Man.’
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