In April, his arm in a sling, he had said, "I'm at the stage now
where I can say, 'I've had a great time playing the game, but
I've got other things to do. It's time to move on.'" In August,
aglow from a summer of sun and fun with his wife and kids, he
had said, "I feel like I finally got my life back again." On
Wednesday of last week, two days before he was to play his first
competitive round since the Masters, he said, "The time off was
the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn't miss the game
How, then, do you explain the maniacal grin Greg Norman wore
while winning last week's eponymous Shark Shootout in Thousand
Oaks, Calif.? What does one make of the way he glided around
Sherwood Country Club, yukking it up with fellow players,
tossing bouquets to fans and cracking wise with reporters?
Norman, 43, has always been a walking contradiction, the best
golfer in the world but a player likely to slip on a banana peel
at the worst possible moment. Now, seven months removed from
major surgery on his left shoulder, Norman has returned for one
last go at clarifying his muddled legacy, and more than just his
fickle fin seems to have been reconstructed. Norman's psyche,
which has been written about so much it ought to have its own
spot in the Tour media guide, appears to have been cleansed by
his time away from golf. He came to the Shootout not caring if
he won. So, of course, he did, rolling in one clutch putt after
another as he and partner Steve Elkington defeated John Cook and
Peter Jacobsen on Sunday on the third hole of a playoff.
"I don't feel an urgency anymore when it comes to playing golf,"
Norman said earlier in the week. "I want to go out there and
enjoy it. I don't ever again want to get in a situation where
I'm going through the motions. I'll get out for good before I'll
just take up oxygen on a golf course."
Those comments only hint at how suffocated Norman felt in the
year leading up to his surgery. "There was a good reason I was
burnt out: I was frustrated because I didn't know what was going
on with my swing," he says. "I didn't realize how much my
shoulder was affecting it."
November 23, 1998
Norman has never been one for moderation, and this goes beyond
his seven Ferraris. He claims to have hit 3,000 balls a week
since he was 16, and as far back as two years ago the wear and
tear began catching up with him. Though the pain would shoot
from his shoulder all the way down to his wrist, he ignored it
and soldiered on. Finally, at this year's Players Championship,
in late March, Norman's shoulder was so stiff and painful that
he was forced to withdraw. Still, he couldn't bring himself to
sit out the Masters two weeks later. During the first round at
Augusta, he says his shoulder locked up on the 18th tee, and he
heeled a drive that came frightfully close to taking out some
gallery members before it caromed off a tree and rolled back
toward the tee, settling not 30 yards from an ashen-faced
Norman. "I nearly killed somebody," he says. "Except for the
cold top I had against Nicklaus the first time we played, at the
Australian Open, in 1976, that was the most embarrassing shot I
ever hit." Norman followed his opening-round 76 with a 78,
missing the cut for the third time in his last five majors, and
was duly convinced that he needed to see a doctor. After
returning home to Florida, he had an MRI that revealed a series
of bone spurs that had inflamed and destabilized the shoulder
ligaments. "I was happy when the diagnosis came," Norman says.
"I finally had an explanation."
Last April 22 in Vail, Colo., the Shark underwent a cutting-edge
procedure known as ElectroThermal Arthroscopy, performed by the
Hawk, a.k.a. Dr. Richard Hawkins, a shoulder savant who has cut
on John Elway, Jim Kelly and Billie Jean King, among others. The
spurs were shaved down and the loose ligaments shrunk using a
heat probe. (A spokesman for Oratec Interventions, Inc., which
holds the patent on ElectroThermal Arthroscopy, calls the
procedure "real Buck Rodgers stuff.") It would be 147 days
before Norman was allowed to swing so much as a pitching wedge.
In the meantime he discovered some long-lost friends--his wife,
Laura; his daughter, Morgan-Leigh, 16; and his son, Gregory, 13.
This summer was the first in family history not built around
Dad's golf schedule, and the Normans took full advantage. They
did the tourist thing in New York City, shopping and catching
Broadway shows; got lost for a week in the Colorado mountains,
biking and fishing; and spent an unprecedented amount of time
together at home. The sign on the front gate to the Norman house
in Hobe Sound, has long read TRANQUILLITY, but for the first
time Norman actually got to experience it.
At a pre-Shootout press conference he was asked what was the
best part of being away from golf. "Being away from golf," he
said archly. Turning serious, Norman asked the reporter, "Are
you a father? What do you do with your kids? You go to the
movies. Watch 'em play soccer. You go to the ice cream parlor
together. You sit around the pool and chat, and you take them to
the beach with the dogs. Well, I did all that this summer, and
there were a lot of other firsts, too." Like the day Norman
decided the palm fronds needed a trim, pulled out a chain saw
and did it himself.
That was not, however, the only work that got done. Even before
his forced layoff Norman's Great White Shark Enterprises was
doing blockbuster business. Having the boss around on a regular
basis "moved up our business plan by 18 months to two years,"
says Bart Collins, the company's president. Norman has 20 golf
courses under contract (his fee for signature designs has risen
to $1 million); his turfgrass business is growing like a weed
(this season's Super Bowl will be played at Pro Player Stadium,
where the grass is his patented GN-1 strain); he's working with
General Motors on a Shark model Chevy S-10 Blazer (it has a
ragtop and a jacked-up suspension for that manly Aussie look);
and he has launched Medallist, a land-development company, with
Sydney's Macquarie Bank (according to Collins, the joint venture
has $350 million worth of gated golf course communities in the
works, making it the second-largest private developer of
residential real estate in Australia). He has also been busy
fussing over color swatches for the $35 million Boeing 737 that
he's taking delivery on early next year. Oh, and did we mention
that Norman got into cycling this summer, squeezing in 100 miles
a week? "I'd like to think I took advantage of the time off," he
says with a straight face.
It wasn't until early September that Norman began hitting full
shots, following a strict program prescribed by Hawkins that
began with the shortest clubs and gradually worked up to the
driver. (This led, inevitably, to breathless updates on Norman's
progress in the golf press--he's now swinging an eight-iron!) By
the time Norman arrived in Thousand Oaks, he was ready and then
some. He's longer by half a club with his irons and by 10 to 15
yards with his driver. "My left shoulder is now stronger than my
right," Norman says. "It's my 25-year-old shoulder, and my right
is my 43-year-old shoulder." Still, even though the Shootout is
the silliest of Silly Season events, Norman admitted he had a
few butterflies. "I'd be disappointed if I wasn't nervous," he
said on the eve of the tournament.
History will show that Norman's first ball back, hit at 9:13 on
Friday morning, was a towering fade that split the fairway, the
longest drive in a group that included noted long knocker Davis
Love III. At the 202-yard 3rd hole, Norman sent a charge through
the crowd when he covered the flag with a four-iron, stopping
his ball five feet from the hole. He didn't quite maintain this
standard the rest of the round--he pulled a few approach shots,
his putting was iffy and on the 16th hole he left one in a
bunker--but that wasn't the point. "It's good to have the old
guy back," Elkington said after the round, a 67 in the modified
alternate-shot format that left the Aussies only two strokes off
the lead. On Saturday, in best-ball play, Norman made four
birdies and showed an improved touch around the greens. With a
team 64, he and Elk went into the final round only one shot off
the lead. During Sunday's scramble, Norman got to play the hero
with his hot putter. He made an eight-footer for birdie on the
final hole of regulation to force the playoff and a 10-foot bird
on the first extra hole to extend it. On the third playoff hole
he drilled a tricky 2 1/2-footer for the victory.
"I expect him to be the Number 1 player in the world again
within a very short time," says Bruce Lietzke, who teamed with
Scott McCarron to win last year's Shootout. "Over the last four
or five years Greg was tugged and pulled in so many ways that he
lost his love of the game, and it showed. He desperately needed
this time off. You take his talent and his determination, add to
that a renewed perspective and all this fire in the belly, and
Greg is going to be a real force. I can't think of anything that
would be better for the game."
Really? Golf's alltime leading money winner finished 235th on
the list this year, with $25,925, yet the game's popularity
continued to soar. The man who has been No. 1 for 331 weeks of
the World Ranking's 657 weeks of existence and who had never
fallen south of seventh before his shoulder surgery, is now
14th, but all the talk is about how the quality of play is
better than ever. So why does golf need Greg Norman? "Because he
can provide ambassadorship better than anybody else out here,"
Lietzke says. "He's the player I want to follow Arnold Palmer,
Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. He's the person we need to take
golf into the next millennium."
"We don't have a lot of guys with Greg's star quality," says
Elkington. "It has been missed."
The question then becomes, Does Greg Norman still need golf? The
answer used to be clear-cut. The old Norman was consumed by the
majors and securing his place in history. The new Norman has a
different perspective. Will that make it difficult for him to
regain the single-mindedness that made him a top contender?
There is, of course, still plenty of time left. Mark O'Meara
reinvented himself this year at age 41, and Nicklaus, Ray Floyd
and Hale Irwin all won major championships when they were 43 or
older. Norman knows all this, but he's trying not to get
suckered into that kind of thinking. "I don't have any extra
motivation because everyone thinks I should have won more
majors," he says. "I don't want to fall into that trap again. I
had the chance to step out of the game and look back. I saw the
mistakes that I've made."
If that's the past, then what about the future? "At the moment
my Number 1 passion is playing golf," Norman says. "As long as
that passion is there, I want to keep playing, and winning."