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Opinion

Always a polarising figure: ESPN Shark doco highlights Norman’s complex contradictions

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Expert
21st April, 2022
6

There are not enough adjectives to describe Greg Norman’s career.

So many competing terms come to mind – successful, heart-breaking, lucrative, record-breaking, eye-catching, ground-breaking, strong, vulnerable.

He was an over-achiever but someone who fell short of expectations as well.

Perhaps the most appropriate way to describe him is polarising. From his playing days to now, everyone has an opinion on Norman, often a conflicted one whether talking about his deeds on and off the golf course.

When it comes to talent, Norman was a sensation who dominated his sport for more than a decade.

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From the time the official world rankings were introduced in 1986, Norman spent 331 weeks in the top spot, which is still second only to Tiger Woods.

The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, simply titled Shark, premiered on Wednesday night, details his rise from an amateur in Townsville to the heights of his two major wins at the British Open in 1986 and 1993.

But the tale of the Great White Shark is inextricably linked to his failures at the majors, particularly at the pinnacle – the US Masters, and how much he contributed to those epic losses, particularly his meltdown in the fourth round of 1996 when Nick Faldo not only reeled in a six-shot lead but galloped away to win by five in a two-man shoot-out on the final day. 

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The Bob Tway bunker shot at the ‘86 US PGA and the Larry Mize chip at the playoff hole a year later at the Masters are indelibly linked in the Norman psyche as the worst of luck but he contributed to each defeat.

And he admits that in the documentary – he had poor rounds to finish and put himself in a vulnerable position.

But the ‘96 loss is the one that is remembered as not only the biggest choke in golf history but probably in world sport.

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And again to his credit, Norman in the documentary not only watches the that excruciating vision of that Sunday for the first time, he plays a round at Augusta National, recounting the ill-fated round as if it were yesterday.

Augusta National is an impossibly picturesque golf course and even without the crowds filling the edges of the wide shots, Norman was unmistakable as he traversed the 18 holes. Still looking super fit, the 67-year-old retains that imposing, broad-shouldered gait as he stalks the fairways. 

The camera zooms in on his eyes. He looks more like a hawk than a shark these days. Norman’s piercing eyes still have that determined look about them that he took onto golf courses to intimidate opponents. The power trip usually worked on rivals but his intense demeanour had a tendency to bring him undone at the most inopportune times when an ability to relax or play conservatively would have been a better plan.

As he sits in a relaxed position recounting the round, Norman claims he was not worried early in the day but Faldo saw otherwise, saying he’d noticed his foe gripping and re-gripping his club several times. 

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Sensing Norman’s nerves, Faldo said his goal was to get within three strokes by the turn to the back nine, “then anything can happen”.

After birdie at the eighth, he’d achieved that objective and that was enough to prompt Norman’s rapid descent.

“Right there I knew I was in trouble,” Norman recalls after watching his terrible approach shot at the ninth. Then we cut to modern day and Norman plays the same shot to the green – “I would’ve taken that on the Sunday in 1996,” he laughs ruefully. 

A double-bogey five at the 12th put him behind by two and he maintained his attacking mindset, kept gambling and continued slipping away from his dream.

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Norman is shown straight after the loss addressing the media, showing grace at the time and again in his recently recorded interview, refusing to blame anyone but himself for his capitulation. 

ESPN broadcaster Scott van Pelt summed it up perfectly when he said: “even for the best players in the world, golf is f—ing hard. You will lose more than you will win and maybe the losses are what people will remember more but you’ll know that you won a whole lot more than you lost.”

Norman admitted he swore at the golfing gods after narrowly missing what could have been a tying chip at 15 but for the most part he rejected the notion that he had been “snakebit” with the amount of bad luck he’d endured in critical moments of his career.

In ‘86 he earned the dubious honour of the Saturday Slam – leading all four majors after three rounds but only sealing the deal in the UK.

After the ‘96 loss at the Masters, he managed to retain the No.1 ranking for another 18 months but the following year at Augusta National, it was Tiger Woods who won his first green jacket and golf was never the same. The baton had been passed and Norman’s time as “the man’ on tour was over.

14 Apr 1996 :  Greg Norman of Australia collapses on the ground after narrowly missing his chip shot on the 15th green during the final tound of the 1996 US Masters Golf Championship at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Nick Faldo wenton to win the event from Greg Norman. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Munday/ALLSPORT

Greg Norman collapses on the ground after narrowly missing his chip shot on the 15th green during the final tound of the 1996 US Mastersat Augusta National. (Stephen Munday/ALLSPORT)

Australia is unfortunately notorious for the Tall Poppy Syndrome and in the 1980s and ‘90s, there was no bigger figure on the world sporting stage from Down Under than Greg Norman. He was arguably the most famous Australian on the planet alongside Paul Hogan.

Living in the States and picking up an American twang in his accent lost him plenty of supporters in his homeland but there was always countless more to replace the critics. He’d return home for the fading Australian tour and always draw a crowd, but if he didn’t perform then there’d be the usual headlines about whether he was worth the investment for his appearance fee.

The snide remarks were not just confined to loungeroom experts. Many of his fellow tour professionals were unimpressed with the way Norman would flaunt his wealth with flashy cars and boats, arriving at tournaments via helicopter on occasion.

Greg Norman tips his hat

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Advertisers loved him. Whereas golf’s previous generations of champions like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were genteel on and off the course, Norman was bold, flashy and in your face.

Faldo, in the Shark documentary, recalled the general feeling towards Norman among many of his contemporaries.

“If you come in and win, and rub it in their faces as well because you’re stealing the media light and everything, you’re going for everything. He wanted to get a complete hold on the golf course and off the golf course,” he said.

In retirement, Norman is still as polarising now as he was in his playing days.

He has been condemned across the globe for his decision to accept a role as the head of LIV Golf, an organisation backed by Saudi Arabian investors which is competing with the PGA Tour by hosting lucrative events later this year.

AL MUROOJ, SAUDI ARABIA - FEBRUARY 01: Greg Norman, CEO of Liv Golf Investments talks to the media during a practice round prior to the PIF Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club on February 01, 2022 in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Luke Walker/WME IMG/WME IMG via Getty Images)

Greg Norman talks to the media in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia. in February (Photo by Luke Walker/WME IMG/WME IMG via Getty Images)

Many of the world’s leading professionals who had signed up for the rival tour have withdrawn due to the Saudi government’s horrific human rights record.

The concept of sportswashing, countries using sport to improve its global standing when accused of heinous acts, means many of the world’s major sporting organisations shun places like Saudi Arabia.

“Every country has got a cross to bear,” Norman said when asked about his involvement in the Saudi golfing set-up. “”So what has been done wrong in the past can be righted in the future. To me, don’t judge situations or people on the past, judge them on what the facts are today.”

It was a tone-deaf response from Norman about a country which still carries out mass executions as recently as February.

Polarising as always. Just like on the golf course many times during his career, Norman’s alpha male persona means he refuses to acknowledge his way might not be the right one but will stick to his guns even if in the end he shoots himself in the foot.

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