You would think Greg Norman had arrived at the place where the task of being Greg Norman was all plain sailing. Sixty-seven years old, in pretty good nick, rich as Croeses, entrepreneur, vineyard grower and the owner of a golf legacy that, while wildly uneven, was never less than vivid.
Yes, Norman, a rapacious regular tournament winner, will always be associated with that terrible, four-hour Sunday collapse in the 1996 Masters. It’s a story that has been told a thousand times yet still merited a recent full-length ESPN treatment by Jason Hehir, who directed the Michael Jordan extravaganza, neatly titled Shark. Here was the inverse of the Jordan experience – the serial winner. Here was the story of a charismatic sports figure whose fate it was to implode, immortally, on golf’s fabled stage.
The scenes are etched in the minds of the witnesses – because that is how it felt to the millions watching around the world. Golf’s audience became voyeurs to one man’s humbling by the game. And because it was Norman it seemed all the more terrible.
In many ways Norman was the beating heart of the mid-1980s machismo. He belonged to the same cut-out book as Magnum PI as he tore through golf’s tournaments, pocketing millions before taking to the skies for an urgent bout of surfing or skiing.
He stood apart from the tour group of clubby Americans and reticent Europeans: a big, smiling white-blond (his grandfather was a Finnish carpenter) Aussie with supreme athleticism and ever-present lip balm.
Golf didn’t really go in for nicknames but Norman was the Great White Shark. And when tapped into his high-octane A-game, it was apt. He seemed to brook no doubts about anything – except how to play in the tightening hours of Major golf tournaments. And although he won two those Major wins are unfairly if inevitably eclipsed by the staggering free-fall in 1996.
The images of the day are indelible: the naff patterns of the apparel favored by Norman and Nick Faldo in that final pairing. The dreamy backdrop of Augusta as Norman slowly and then suddenly blew a six-shot lead while Faldo crept closer and closer and then took over without a flicker of emotion, remorseless and thorough as a debt collector.
The strange, touching moment on the 18th when Faldo abandoned his quintessential Englishness to put a fraternal arm around Norman, who was then walking through a nightmare which, it would seem, he has declined to ever revisit.
It was perhaps a blessing for Norman that Tiger Woods made such an electrifying debut at Augusta the year afterwards, helping people forget about Norman’s spectacular fall and creating a clear dividing line for the sport itself – before and after Tiger.
“Would my life have been different if I had that green jacket?” a terse Norman asks rhetorically in Shark, nudging the audience towards the no. But it’s impossible for the public not to think: Well, yes …
How could it not?
That certainly came to mind watching Norman’s pitiful interview with Jamie Weir on Sky this week as he attempted to defend his role as a front man for LIV Golf, the Saudi Arabia-financed golf league with plans to hold 10 events on the Asian tour if it persuades players to sign up.
Norman started by claiming it was “pretty impressive” that six of the top 50 golfers in the world are slated to play at the first LIV event in the Centurion club in London after the “white noise” that none of the leading players would show up . He began to talk about accelerating the move towards a more tolerant and liberal Saudi culture through the promotion of golf and moved to generalize the complexities of political regimes and sports. But his interviewer had other issues on his mind.
“I’m not talking about every country. I’m talking about Saudi Arabia and the fact of the matter is the same people who stone women to death, who chop journalists up into little pieces, who chemically castrate homosexuals; who two months ago said they executed 81 men on the same day… they are your bosses. ”
Here was the moment when Norman’s legacy as a hugely entertaining golf star from a fading era collided with his present and future reputation in the sport. Here was the moment when he privately must have wondered what had brought him to this point even as he stumbled through a series of ruinous responses.
On the butchering and murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the crusading journalist who himself would become the subject of a documentary streamed around the world, Norman allowed that the state-sponsored killing was “reprehensible” before offering the daft caveat: “Everyone makes mistakes. Own it. Learn from it. ”
Just like that Norman cut himself adrift from the mainstream of golf culture. Over the course of five minutes he managed to set himself up as the spokesman for a renegade force in the sport in an era when it is wrestling with its conscience. Norman either cannot or will not see that he is being used as a front man for Saudi ambitions to start a golf Super League, a de facto rival to the PGA tour (which Sky Sports broadcast) but with more lucrative enticements.
As Eamon Lynch laid out in a withering column in Golfweek last October, the legal minefield in which any PGA tour member tempted to sign up for this putative tour “makes Norman a perfect guinea pig for the Saudis – a PGA Tour member who can test the legality of a ban in court while having nothing at stake ”.
It is almost forgotten that the man who finished third in that 1996 Masters is Phil “Lefty” Mickelson, who was condemned by all and sundry for his declaration in February that he would support a Saudi breakaway tour despite their being “scary mother *** *** s ”who kill and execute people for homosexuality. But for all that, he couldn’t overlook the once in a lifetime chance to “reshape how the PGA tour operates”.
Mickelson was forced to go away and have a think for himself after the comments became public and he has done inestimable damage to his reputation. Norman saw all of this and still elected to present himself as a mouthpiece for a start-up tournament funded by a political regime that uses prestige sport like a vanity mirror.
Before all of this Norman had guaranteed for himself a unique if curious slice of golf history: the erratic, dazzling talent who walked away from the worst fates the golf gods could inflict with his shoulders held high. He was always slightly outside the establishment and his fate was to stare across the stream at the cadre of icons like Ben and Jack and Tiger as the mercurial talent. He was the shark. And sharks must always keep moving.
It’s impossible for us to know what difference winning the Masters in 1996 would have made to the life of Greg Norman because it’s a question he can never bring himself to answer. But it might just have eased some of the restlessness within him.
It might even have led him on a path that would have prevented him from this sad and dismal concluding chapter when he is defending the indefensible without, it would seem, having any clear idea of why he is doing it.