Is Greg Norman snakebit? In 1986 the Australian-born Norman made a sensational charge at all four of golf's majors, leading each tournament heading into the final day, only to lose all but the British Open. Bob Tway's bunker-shot birdie on the 72nd hole of that year's PGA Championship was only one of several stunning endings that have snatched victory from the Shark's jaws during his career. In the '87 Masters he met sudden death on the second playoff hole when Larry Mize chipped in from 140 feet. Last year Norman lost the Nestle Invitational when rookie Robert Gamez holed a seven-iron from 176 yards for a final-hole eagle. Increasingly, it has been suggested in the press that Norman's reversals of fortune have had to do with some lack of fortitude on his part. Such criticism has grown in volume in 1991, a year in which Norman's game, earnings and tour ranking have all slipped sharply.
At 36, in his ninth year on the PGA Tour, Norman lives in Lost Tree Village, Fla., with his wife, Laura, and their children, Morgan-Leigh, 9, and Gregory, 6.
Sports Illustrated: Why have you become such a magnet for criticism lately?
Greg Norman: I can't understand it. I don't know why I get the wrath of God all the time. I'm out there trying the best I can, but I'm being projected in a bad light, and I don't know how to change it.
SI: Can you date your bad press to any particular incident?
GN: No. I don't know what's happened. I haven't changed. There have been a few stories that were a little over the top, but I guess you have to expect that when certain reporters write articles without having the courtesy to ask questions.
Look what Tom Watson did on the 18th hole at Augusta this year—double bogey to lose. Look what Josè-María Olazàbal did—bogey. Yet I do something like that and they bash me all to hell. It's perplexing. I've talked with Jack Nicklaus about this, and he says to just accept it. He went through it when he was taking over Arnold Palmer's throne. The writers called him Fat Jack—really cutting stuff. And I guess it hurt him. We're all sensitive, we're all human beings.
SI: Some critical remarks have a long shelf life. For instance, Fred Couples has to live with Tom Weiskopf's published sniping about his alleged aimlessness.
GN: What Weiskopf said was way out of line. Freddy does get flustered and irritated, but he doesn't show it the way we show it. So he gets this tag on him that he's lackadaisical. I'll defend Freddy to the day I die, because I've played with Freddy, I know what he's like. Freddy's got just as much fire burning inside him as anybody else.
SI: Do people maybe not empathize with you because they don't quite accept that you're real? You're a striking-looking individual, you come from the other side of the globe, you've got the hat and the image and the Great White Shark thing—it's almost as if you're a fictional character, a part in a movie.
GN: You're right, in a way. People think I'm a machine and I ought to be able to do everything. But I'm a country boy, really. I'm not a flamboyant individual. I was a very shy, introverted guy, and I had to change a lot to be successful.
SI: How old were you when you started becoming a celebrity?
GN: I won my first golf tournament in 1976, when I was 21. That evening, at the presentation, I was supposed to mingle with the sponsors, but I didn't know what to say or how to go about it. I was off by myself in the corner. I was wearing white pants and a green shirt—it's that vivid in my mind. I said to myself, Son, you've got to change. If you want to be the best player you can be and go on and win golf tournaments, you're going to have to learn to mingle and make conversation. You're going to have to come out of your shell.
That was harder for me than working on my golf game, because it went against my grain. It probably took me a good five years. I started to reap the rewards when I won the British Open. By then I knew how to handle myself.
SI: You were quoted this year to the effect that you had lost the fire in your belly.
GN: It was around the time of the Masters that I said that, but I think it started toward the end of last year. I'd been working hard and practicing hard, and everything was taking its toll on me. I was trying to be six people in one. I was trying to run my business, give a lot to charities, look after my family. I didn't delegate enough, and finally it was like walking into a brick wall. But now I feel like I'm walking away from the brick wall. I've started delegating people to do certain jobs for me. I've got somebody looking after my business affairs. I've really prioritized my life.
SI: Whom have you delegated to do your fishing?
GN: Me. There are three things that are most important to me in life—my family, my golf and fishing.
SI: When you decided to get away from golf for a few weeks in April, was it difficult to do?
GN: It was quite easy to do. I can make a week feel like a month. I slow down that much. I like to go fishing on my own boat. There are no phones. I scuba dive. I can disappear.
Actually my wife suggested I should take six months off. In hindsight she was probably right, but I have commitments, and I feel an obligation to the game.
SI: You haven't won a tournament this year, coming off a year in which you were the PGA Tour's leading money-winner.
GN: Everybody goes through a slump. I had one in 1980, and I've had my ups and downs since then in 11 years of hard golf.
The thing with golf is, it's like a cat chasing its tail. You're never going to catch it. The day you think you've got your swing down pat, something goes awry and you've got to go back to the driving range, back to square one. That's one reason why I love the game so much. It's the soul-searching and the never-ending search for the perfect swing. Nobody's ever going to achieve the perfect swing, but you get those moments where you can put a golf ball within a foot from 180 yards away. That's a very unique time.
SI: How would you describe that feeling?
GN: There's this inner calm you get. Nobody's going to break your concentration, and it's like you're flowing along—you don't feel the ground. You pick up the golf club and it feels like you're milking it. The swing feels like it takes five seconds, when it really takes 1.2. That's what the game is all about, that feeling.
SI: How long can you sustain that feeling?
GN: One shot, maybe. Yeah, 'cause the next shot is a different situation. You might have a bad lie, the wind might have changed direction. See, every shot's a game, and that's why you have to treat the day one shot at a time. If you go out there and try to shoot a 66, you're never going to achieve it.
SI: There are times this season when you've seemed to be in that "zone." But you haven't been able to lock in long enough to win.
GN: That's right. It looked like I was going to win the Western Open [in July] and I didn't. [Norman was five shots ahead with eight holes to play but finished second behind Russ Cochran.] If somebody had told me when I made the turn on Sunday, "In two hours' time, you aren't going to win this golf tournament," I would have called him a liar. I'd have said, "There's no way I'm not going to win this golf tournament." But life's a humbling experience. I made a major blunder there, and I didn't win.
SI: What was the blunder?
GN: My technique was incorrect. When your swing is not right and you get under pressure, it will fail. My swing probably looked good to everybody else, but in tournament golf, a quarter of an inch movement here or there and you're talking about 30 yards' end result. It was just some little flaw in my swing. But you learn. Life is a learning experience, and maybe I needed that to make me realize I had to get back out there and work.
SI: Golf's a nasty game. One's confidence can be undermined so quickly.
GN: Sometimes focusing on the negatives creates more negatives. I've never been a negative individual. Never. Let's say I'm playing my bunker shots poorly. Instead of going out there and practicing my bunker shots hour after hour, I'll go chip or hit my five-iron instead, something I can be positive about. Then, after four or five days of not even touching my sand wedge, I'll say, "O.K., let's go to work." Instead of worrying about it and pressuring myself to fix the problem immediately, I walk away from it and analyze the situation. Boom! It comes back very, very quickly.
Another thing I pride myself on is not living in the past. Whether I've played exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly, I've always been able to proceed as if nothing has happened. What's the point in crying over spilt milk? It's just going to create more anguish between your ears.
SI: But you've had some disappointments that are hard to shrug off.
GN: I admit there've been times when I've gotten hurt. The time Larry Mize chipped in to beat me in the Masters, for instance. I went out and sat on the beach at three o'clock in the morning and cried. When that happened, right on top of Bob Tway beating me in the PGA by holing that shot from the bunker on the final hole...I was kind of, Ohhhh, what have I done wrong? I sat down in front of my house in North Palm Beach and just listened to the surf come in.
The game takes a lot out of you; it takes a lot of energy from you. But then again, it gives you a stronger sense of self-esteem if you can rise above it.
SI: Your media critics said you should have risen above your hip injury at the U.S. Open at Hazeltine in June and kept playing. When you quit after 27 holes, they surrounded the fitness trailer and wouldn't leave until you came out to explain yourself.
GN: Yeah, it was like somebody had died in the thing or something. These guys didn't realize the pain I was going through, and yet they wanted to rip me for withdrawing. I wanted to keep playing. My physiotherapist made me withdraw. I didn't want to be interviewed about it; I just wanted to quietly withdraw and go home. But God almighty, it was like something major, a catastrophe. It was ridiculous, total stupidity, for that much attention to be thrown on the situation. I mean, I get injured, and I get nailed for it.
If any of these people took themselves out from behind the typewriter and put themselves in my shoes... but they'll never do that. I guess that's the freedom of the press. People believe it when they make a judgment call on your character, and that's the sad part.
SI: One theory is that you're getting ripped now because you're a disappointment. You haven't fulfilled your billing as the next Nicklaus.
GN: I know I've only won one major. But my life's not over. And you know, I don't have to prove anything to anybody else. I'm not out there to prove the reporters wrong or to prove my critics in the gallery wrong. I'm out there to prove to myself that I can do it.
I'll never forget what Jack told me one time at Christmas. We were out in his driveway, leaning against my car, and it was pouring rain. We were standing in the rain talking for about an hour, and his wife, Barbara, had to come out and tell us it was raining—we were that deep in conversation. And Jack said, "Greg, you just have to understand that when you're a certain type of player, people want to beat you. They'll do something to beat you, whether it's holing a shot or playing a phenomenal round to catch you, whatever. You're going to have to learn to accept that, because you are one of those players people want to beat. And you should take it as a compliment." He said, "I know, because that happened to me a lot."
It was one of those wonderful conversations that stuck with me. It's like when I was standing in the corner in 1976 in my green and white outfit, reevaluating my life. I respect Jack because of what he is and what he's done in the game, and I listen to him.
And he was right—100-percent right.
SI: Is it possible anymore to dominate professional golf the way Nicklaus did? The way people expected you to?
GN: I don't know whether it will ever happen again. Tom Watson was the last one who really dominated golf. Now, you can just finish in the top 20 every week and still make $300,000 or $400,000 a year. But if I were a young kid, my Number One ambition would still be to dominate.
SI: Do you see anybody out there now who approaches the game that way?
GN: I loved John Daly's attitude at the PGA. He went out there with a flair, a flamboyant attitude. "Let's go, let's just rip it! Wherever it lands, I'll hit it again and go."
That's what people want to see. They don't want to see this plop, plop, chip, putt stuff. They want to see a guy who hits it 300 yards. Hey, I even sat down to watch him when I finished playing, and I don't watch golf on television. So you know he caught the imagination of everybody, from golfer to hacker.
Now, get John on a different type of golf course where the fairways are hard and the greens are hard, and maybe that won't happen. But he maximized his opportunity, and I thought that was a wonderful achievement.
SI: How do you rate your own game as this season nears an end?
GN: I would say on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd be a 7. I think there's a lot of room for improvement. I'm getting a 3,600-square-foot putting green behind my house and designing it where I can practice bump and run shots from 40 or 50 yards away. You know, all that imaginative stuff you need to have. I can walk down there with a pair of shorts on, no shirt, and just chip and putt all day long. I'm preparing myself for next year as I have never prepared myself before. I'm putting time and effort into it because I really want to get myself back in the game.
Because quite honestly, I enjoy it. As much of an aggravation as it is sometimes, I still love to play the game.
SI: Will you disappear again? Or have the events of the last year restored your competitive edge?
GN: I'm in a position now where my life is pretty well organized. I think I've finally found the right path. I shouldn't say, "I think." I know I've found the right path. Believe it or not, I'm really looking forward to my next 10 years of golf. I've had an average-to-poor year, but it's starting to feel better and better every day.
Anyway, my flame is still burning. The flame never goes out.