Greg Norman – Golf’s Great Evangelist
Robb Report sits down with Australian sporting great to talk golf’s growth and coming home.
Greg Norman, arguably Australia’s greatest golfer and undeniably the country’s most famous, has had a headline-grabbing run of late.
Not only was the multiple British Open champion hammered and hospitalised by an infectious disease and then a positive Covid test, he garnered even more attention by going viral.
Well, his ‘manhood’ did.
It was in late November that the 66-year-old posted photo of himself walking with his dog on a Floridian beach—a seemingly innocent image that quickly created an internet sensation.
When quizzed about the social-media storm that followed, Norman is, unusually and briefly, coy on the subject.
“Which photo do you mean?” he enquires.
“Ah, the one where it looks like you’ve packed an extra club in your bag?”
“Ha! Well, that’s just a reaction that people had, there was no intent or malice, or gloating going on, it’s just how people see things,” he chuckles, before turning dead serious. “It is what it is—what you see is what you get.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Norman says he enjoys social media and wishes he’d had access back in the 1980s and ’90s, when he spent 331 weeks as the world’s number one, claiming 89 professional tournaments—including two British Open Championships.
“Certain media judge you or portray you in the wrong light, they get to tell your story for you. But with social media, you can just portray yourself, tell the true story about exactly what’s going on, and speak directly to your fans, and I still have quite a following,” he explains.
As for the bout of Covid-19 that saw him posting “this hideous virus” had “kicked the crap out of me like nothing I have ever experienced before” last December, he’s clearly moved past that, too.
“I was not frightened at all, I’m very fit and very strong, mentally, and I had great doctors around me. I’m bulletproof now, and I’m fully vaccinated … But I still can’t fly to Australia without quarantining, apparently,” he says, with more than a touch of bitterness.
The proud Queenslander says he thinks about moving back to Australia every second day. He misses the way it sounds—the birdlife in the background when he talks to his parents on the phone hits him particularly hard, alongside the smells, the people, even the coffee.
Reports that he’s planning to return after more than 30 years of being based in the United States are “not fake news, I will move back,” he says.
Norman recently sold his waterfront Florida estate, Tranquility, for $78m, after buying it for $6.4m in 1991. A month later he also let go of his Seven Lakes Lodge in Colorado. Purchased for $12m in 2004, the mansion fetched $52m—an impressive profit in just 17 years.
He’s also reportedly scaling back on his vast business empire—made up of no less than 13 companies, including a wine brand, a wagyu beef importer, a restaurant and his famous clothing line, featuring the emblematic Great White Shark logo.
Norman may step away from as many as half of those businesses, though he’s adamant it’s not a case of slowing down nor, God forbid, retiring.
“Not at all, it’s just a stage in life where a lot of the businesses are self-sustaining, so I don’t have to be focused on them as much as I have been since 1993; it’s just a natural progression of what you do in business,” he explains.
“I don’t plan on stopping, I enjoy what I do in my work and every month there’s a new opportunity that comes across my desk, so you explore that, you run it to ground, you pursue it.”
The one business he’ll never, ever let go, though, is golf-course design: “I’ll do that until the day I die, it’s one of my passions.”
It allows him to continue what he sees as his life’s work—being an evangelist for the game. Ask him what it is about golf that people—from the presidents he’s played with to the kid swinging a club in a Queensland backyard—love so much, and he lights up with pure passion.
“It’s a social thing, for a start, males and females connect really well on the golf course, and it’s a friendly environment, but it can also be competitive, and it’s fun—you can make jokes, you can rib each other, you can gamble. It’s just that environment that the game of golf can give individuals—four to five hours where you’re away from everything else,” he enthuses.
“And it’s a great place to do business, too; I’ve met some wonderful CEOs through the game of golf and had opportunities that wouldn’t have happened without the game.
“And some of the things I’ve seen golf do, the opening up of tournaments on mainland China, I’ve seen Dubai grow out of the desert, the way the game has grown in Sweden, how it’s exploded in South Korea, and Japan, and South America, guys coming out of those places to win majors.
“It’s been a pleasure to see, and for me it’s been an honour, honestly. I pride myself on my golf diplomacy, and it’s just been incredible to see the growth in the game over the years.”
Course design, in particular (which has seen his company, Greg Norman Golf Course Design, create more than 100 courses across 34 countries and six continents) is how he’s been able to continue carrying his golfing message around the globe over the past three decades.
“I get a lot of incredible feedback, and I get to see the world through a different prism because it takes me to so many different countries, designing courses in places like Dubai, and Saudi Arabia, in particular, the way golf is taking off there, for Saudi women to be allowed to get out there and play golf, that’s been amazing to see.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Norman says his favourite course in the world is not one of his own, nor the immaculate concept that is Augusta National, home of The Masters. Speaking of which, why hasn’t anyone ever just copied that most perfect of courses for all to play?
“My favourite is Royal Melbourne in Australia, it’s just a naturally beautiful golf course,” Norman says. “And you can’t just make another Augusta, it’s like trying to replicate a fingerprint. You’d have to find that exact same piece of topography, with another Rae’s Creek—it’s just not possible.
“People have tried to replicate St Andrews [in Scotland and known as “The Home of Golf”] but you can’t, because it’s all about the place, the atmosphere, the people. That’s what makes it special.”
Good golf-course design is all about “balance”, Norman explains, which means that he’s trying to create holes that are tough enough to host professional tournaments, yet still accessible enough for players with less super-human skills.
Norman has played with plenty of other celebrities and, most notably, many American presidents over the years. It seems to be a job that inspires a love of golf, with Dwight Eisenhower playing more than 800 rounds while in office, and Norman’s friend, Donald Trump, more than 140.
“Anyone who thinks that the leader of the free world plays too much golf doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve known presidents who get up at 3am and go to bed again at 1am—they have a lot to worry about and they need to get away.
“It can be so cathartic for them to just get away, to get out on the grass, so I don’t begrudge any leader that.”
Are they good golfers?
“No, and Donald Trump is better than all of them, but they’re very interesting people.
“The most enjoyable person I ever played golf with was George W. Bush Senior, who loved to play fast. If it took more than an hour and a half to play 18 holes, that was too slow for him. He had things to do.
“I admired him more than most—he’d been head of the CIA and just his bandwidth for knowing what was going on in the world, his level of knowledge, was as good or better than anyone else. And he was just a genuinely lovely guy.”
Clearly, Norman is looking forward to getting back to Australia. And, in good news for local hackers (and those less familiar with the rough), you can expect The Great White Shark to pour himself into the creation of more local courses.
“We will definitely be doing more work in Australia—there are opportunities there on our plate right now; we’ve just got to get down there.”