If I have an area of professional expertise, one might say it’s around the concept of fallibility. Much of this is rooted in first-hand experience, but it’s expanded to a broad array of ways people screw up—dumb decisions, physical gaffes, moments of weakness at the worst possible times. The menu is quite long, and I study it pretty much every day. Recently I’ve been thinking about it as it relates to Greg Norman.
Several years ago, I pitched an editor a book around the topic of losing. It was meant to be a sports book, and I initially envisioned it to be about harnessing the emotions of my irrationally competitive sons. The editor was intrigued, but pushed to expand it in scope. We were only so interesting, he surmised correctly, so it would be better if I could draw on high-profile examples of people who had failed in dramatic ways and somehow benefited from the experience.
This is when I thought of Norman. It had been nearly two decades since Norman blew a six-shot lead in the final round to lose the 1996 Masters to Nick Faldo, and I had long held him up as an example of someone who confronted his lowest professional moment with admirable grace. My main premise, which I believed but also used to convince Norman to talk to me, was that Norman earned more fans for the honest way he handled defeat than he ever would have in victory.
Over the ensuing months, I pursued a profile of Norman that comprised one of the foundational chapters of my book. I talked to Greg several times, but also the people around him—his children, his then-coach and then-agent, other golfers who knew him well or studied him from afar. Norman was mostly helpful on the topic—he was vague on some details, and tended to employ the type of motivational cliches printed on coffee mugs—but his was still a compelling and worthwhile example. Here was someone who lost in a bunch of big ways, never more so than in April 1996, but appeared to achieve a more enlightened perspective as a result.
“It’s very simple,” Norman told me then. “I stood up and embraced the failure of it all. I accepted the fact that one of the most precious things in my whole life, I didn’t get. And in that situation, it really hit home with people.”
The underlying message of my chapter on Norman and the book as a whole was pretty simple: People make mistakes. There’s no way around it, so the sooner one can embrace their own fallibility, the greater the wisdom they stand to derive from the experience.
Of course, I think about that now in the context of Norman’s new role as the CEO of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf, and the series of comical missteps he’s made along the way.
Mostly I’ve thought about this quote, which Norman gave last week at a LIV Golf Media Day in response to a question about his new employer’s involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. "From what I heard and what you guys reported, just take ownership of what it is. Take ownership no matter what it is. Look, we've all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward."
There are several reasons to cringe at those remarks, but most jarring to me was how closely they echoed Norman’s answers a few years earlier about blowing the Masters. We’ve all made mistakes. Just take ownership. Back then we were talking about dumping a tee shot in Rae’s Creek. Now the subject was far more sinister.
Mind you, I’m not so arrogant to suggest anything I wrote empowered Greg to co-opt this worldview as a type of carte blanche excuse for every moral shortcoming. If Norman read the rest of the book, he would also see that not all mistakes can be treated equally. Moreover, as the research professor Brené Brown explains, simply acknowledging a mistake doesn’t ensure higher ground on its own.
“We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping, redemptive ending,” Brown said. “Embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit. To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important—toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.”
Whether the subject matter is club selection or the people you do business with, Brown is describing a type of internal inventory that is essential for real growth. It’s the part I fear Norman tends to skip, because it’s what separates the people who learn from their mistakes, and those who are bound to repeat them. Much as I continue to admire the way Greg Norman lost the Masters throughout his career, the last few months have helped crystallize why he never came back and won.