This is a new series on the 70th anniversary of Golf Digest commemorating the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.
It’s often said that journalism is the first draft of history. Peter Dobereiner wrote this prescient profile of Greg Norman in the summer of 1984 when Greg had won only two tournaments on the PGA Tour. He would win 18 more plus an additional 70 around the world. Norman would go on to dominate the Official World Golf Ranking as No. 1 for 331 weeks, but his nemeses were the major championships—the measuring stick of greatness in the post-Nicklaus era—of which he would win only two, the 1986 and 1994 Open Championships. He became equally known for failing to close in them down the stretch, the epic example coming at the 1996 Masters when he led by six after three rounds. Upon entering the clubhouse on Saturday night, all but triumphant, Norman encountered his old friend Peter Dobereiner on the way to the locker room. They embraced heartily and Peter whispered in his ear, “Greg, even you can’t f--- this one up.” The next day, Norman shot a 78 to Nick Faldo’s 67. Norman had finished runner-up in the majors for an eighth time.
But Norman had an uncanny touch for making money. Besides piling up prize winnings, he was exceptionally successful at business ventures. In the high-flying IPO days, he took his endorsement money from Cobra in stock and cashed out a rich man. He was Tiger before Tiger. And Norman flaunted it with race cars and mansions. A modest Englishman like Dobereiner looked at Norman in bewilderment, yet his assessment of the golfer-to-be at the start of his career proved prophetically accurate.
In his own right, Dobereiner was a giant of sporting literature, the heir to Bernard Darwin. In fact, Dobereiner was the last link to that roundtable of British writers, including Henry Longhurst and Pat Ward-Thomas, who defined golf for the English-speaking world after WWII. Dobereiner once managed a sugar plantation in India and took up the game on the maharajah’s nine-hole course. He wrote a daily column for the Guardian and a weekly column for the Observer (both out of London) and a monthly column for Golf Digest. He was reckoned to have traveled two million miles, written one million words and collected 200 million readers. He authored or edited 30 books. This piece appeared in September 1984, and it foretold all that was to come for Mr. Norman. —Jerry Tarde
According to the statistics of foreign prejudice, the average Australian is a potbellied drunk with bad teeth. According to the view that Australians hold of themselves, the average Australian is seven feet tall, stomach hard and flat as a spade, built like a brick outhouse with muscles abulge, dazzling white grain against mahogany complexion and clipped, flaxen hair. Furthermore, he is a two-fisted, spit-in-your-eye, down-to-earth cove with none of our effete English intellectual pretensions, and the sheila has not been born who can resist his vibrant sexual magnetism for more than seven seconds.
The mythology of this Australian stereotype is sustained by a tiny fraction of the population, of which Greg Norman is a Class A member. He is a slight disappointment because he does not have the essential Australian coarseness of Jack Newton, who tends to order his steak with the instruction: “Just cut off its horns, wash it off and serve it up.” And Norman does not stay up until 2 every morning drinking 20 pints of ice-cold lager and emphasizing his points of view with lusty punches to the face of anyone who voices a contrary opinion.
Otherwise, Norman is an Aussie’s ideal of an ideal Aussie, 6-1, hair the color of whipped cream (inherited from his Nordic mother) and shoulders so wide that he has to edge sideways through the average doorway.
He is deeply religious, which in Australian terms means that he is a sports freak. As a boy growing up near Moreton Bay on the eastern coast of Australia he played them all: tennis, cricket, soccer, rugby and that curious amalgamation of the two football games plus a liberal seasoning of kung fu, Australian Rules. He also boxed and swam and surfed, and it was a reluctant 16-year-old who was pressed into service to caddie for his 3-handicap mother in a competition. He thought golf a sissy game and it was only curiosity after the round that prompted him to try a few shots for himself on the range. He nailed one shot, and that is all it takes.
In less than two years he was down to scratch and facing a quandary. His ambition was to be a fighter pilot, a properly macho occupation, and he had passed his examinations for flying training. His father went with him for the enrollment formalities into the Royal Australian Air Force. A squadron leader had the enlistment papers prepared, and Norman had his hand poised to sign when he tossed down the pen and announced: “No, I am going to be a pro golfer.” For better or worse, the choice was made and he became an assistant, winning his fifth tournament as a pro (better) and then blowing sky high when he was paired with his idol, Jack Nicklaus, in the Australian Open (worse).
On balance it was a highly promising start to his career, and it was at this time he established the origins of his nickname The Great White Shark. Like Nicklaus, he relaxed from golf by deep-sea fishing, and there are few better waters than off the Brisbane coast.
It annoyed Norman that, having hooked into a big one, his catch would be devoured by a passing shark just as he was reeling it to the surface. He bought a government army surplus rifle. Almost every male over the age of 55 within the British Commonwealth is familiar with the Short Lee Enfield rifle, the standard infantry weapon for half a century or so. (Even today I swear I could dismantle and reassemble it blindfolded, naming each part down to the rear spring retaining pawl. My left palm still tingles at the mention of the Short Lee Enfield because as a young cadet I was detailed for the ceremonial party for the funeral of a Lord of the Admiralty. We must have slapped those magazine a thousand times in rehearsing our “Present Arms” because the admiral inconsiderately took two weeks to die.) Norman’s association with the Short Lee Enfield was less formal. When he saw a shark gliding into the vicinity of his boat as he was hauling in a catch he would give the creature five rounds of .303, rapid fire, and that way he began to land more than dismembered fish heads.
In his first full year as a tournament pro, Norman made the top five of the Australian order of merit table, and that qualified him to compete on the European circuit. He arrived in Britain in 1977, having won a Japanese tournament en route, and immediately established himself as one of the most exciting young players on the tour. His attitude was modest and mature. “I am in no hurry,” he told me. “I regard Europe as my apprenticeship as a golfer. Once I have learned to win here there will be time enough to start thinking about major championships.”
For the next five years professional golf in Europe provided fascinating competition. The fledgling European circuit was raw in many ways, compared with the richly endowed and efficient U.S. tour. There was no great depth of playing quality, but the annual battle for supremacy was intense—and the golf, I insist, was often the best being played on any circuit in the world. As well as Norman there were the emerging Severiano Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer, with classy but veteran players such as Neil Coles and Christy O’Connor to pit experience against youthful zeal, Norman regularly won two or three tournaments a year, although only once, in 1982, did he take the title of European No. 1. His international reputation, founded on two victories in the World Match-Play championship, was enhanced by successes in his increasing world travels, with wins in Fiji and Hong Kong and dominance of his home circuit (Australian Open, 1980; Australian Masters, 1981, 1983).
Norman is a streak player, as he again demonstrated with his winning the Kemper, finishing second in the U.S. Open and winning the Canadian Open in successive outings. He is no slouch at any time, with his booming drives (averaging 274.4 yards on the PGA Tour stats), but when every department of his game clicks into place he is unbeatable. I have only once seen him in total command of his swing, when he walked away with the 1980 French Open at St. Cloud and made nonsense of the par 5s with driver and 9-iron.
You could have put Vardon, Jones, Hagen, Nelson, Hogan, Nicklaus and Watson against him that week and they would have been powerless to match his sublime play. Last year he decided that he was ready for America and had already taken unto himself an American wife and sired a daughter. He made a leisurely journey to the United States, winning four successive overseas tournaments on the way to Bay Hill, where he has a house on Arnold Palmer’s up-market development. Norman was a revelation to the cloistered world of American golf that tends to believe foreigners are incapable of playing golf until the ritual laying on of hands by Commissioner Deane Beman and the awarding of a PGA Tour card.
At the Bay Hill Classic, Norman tied for first and was beaten, by an absurdly rash putt and Mike Nicolette, in the sudden-death playoff. It was always a matter of some delicacy knowing what to say to a friend who has just blown a winning chance, and a long friendship with Ben Crenshaw has not taught me a diplomatic turn of phrase for the occasion. My trepidation was groundless. Norman sought me out and said, “Come and look at something.” The something was a blood-red Ferrari that had just been delivered, an event of much greater importance in Norman’s mind than losing a playoff. He is an unabashed car perv, in his phrase, and his stable contains two Rolls-Royces plus sundry high-performance beasts. On this occasion, my envy was expressed in a caustic question about what shall it profit a man to own a Ferrari in a country with a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, not counting a reasonable tolerance on the part of the highway patrol.
Norman completely ruined my day by saying that he had an arrangement with a racetrack and could give his hairy monsters their head anytime he liked. My guess is that he will soon start flying lessons.
A few more guesses are in order at this state of his career as, at the age of 29, he is poised at the crossroads. Will he take the Pilgrim’s Progress path to greatness and spiritual fulfillment? Or will he be delivered into the lush byways of winning millions of dollars without causing a flutter among the record books? Well, I will wager my Scottish castle, my Black Forest shooting estate and 20 of my most attentive handmaidens that he will win at least one major championship. Beyond that I would prefer to hedge my bets. It all depends on that core of ambition and determination residing so deeply within him that even he cannot unravel its secrets.
Those who know him best are equally ambivalent about his potential. Every golfer respects his ability, but, in the rarified level that we are discussing, technique is 10 percent of the game, at most. Australians are notoriously reluctant to find a good word about their fellow countrymen. Peter Thomson, five times the British Open champion, has serious reservations about Greg Norman’s capacity to go all the way in golf. Jack Newton refers to him as The Great White Fish Finger. Graham Marsh, on the other hand, believes that Norman will improve further and become a truly dominant figure. It is, of course, best that we do not know, because life would be arid without the mystery. It is enough to know of the rich rewards to be had from watching Norman’s progress, win or lose.