Swimming With The Shark

Greg Norman’s legacy is complicated, but his impact upon his native Australia — on and off the golf course — is undeniable.

Swimming With The Shark

Late-model family sedans and station wagons make their way into an empty car park. It isn’t 6 a.m. yet. Through the darkness, golfers emerge, ranging from the old and pious to the young and hungover. Then there is another group that just looks sharper: the middle-aged group.

These men sit on the edge of their boots and carefully assemble their gear. Wheels are deftly attached, greetings are heartily swapped, bags are safely secured, dad jokes are liberally exchanged, and clubs are lovingly cleaned. They tug at their shoulders until their shirts sit perfectly. They brush down their slacks. They check that their hat is on straight.

Once they are ready, they grab the handle of their buggy, and march confidently toward the first tee.

Monday to Friday, these are the members of lower-middle management, the factory supervisors, the small-business men and salesmen. They are the suburban working class. On this cold Sunday morning in the 1980s, however, they are The Shark’s men.

The Australian dream is quite simple. You should own your own house. On a decent-sized block. Space for your cars in the driveway. Room for a BBQ and backyard cricket pitch. It is not an impossible dream, either. Many achieve it. with home ownership in the country at over 65 percent.

By the ’80s, many baby boomers had achieved this goal. Folks were comfortable. At least one kid. Weekends were their time. The men had given up playing football and cricket, and with it, their last dreams of being Aussie sporting stars. Instead, they became spectators; trips to the pitch, visits to the races to place a bet or three, and cold ones on the couch while watching cricket on television.

And then another sport came along.

Unlike Australian rules football, rugby, and cricket, golf had been, according to Australian Golf historian Jack Pollard, played by “judges, successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and pastoralists who could afford high membership fees.” This led to what Pollard describes as “a veneer of snobbery developed during years of widespread prosperity and leading clubs introduced firm bans on the membership of retailers, shopkeepers, and artisans.”

Jews and Aboriginals often were refused memberships.

During the 1930s, pitch-and-putt courses began to flourish as golf became more accessible to the working classes. After World War II, when Australia started to become the nation it is today, the old English-style class distinctions began to fade away.

The working class also had its own heroes, none better than Peter Thomson. For a time, Thomson might have been the best golfer in the world; he was the only man in the last hundred years to win the British Open three consecutive times. In all, he won it five times.

Australia also had a golden run with athletes at this time, and golf was barely thought of as a huge sport. The majors (as we now know them) existed, but until Arnold Palmer came along, they weren’t really a part of sport lore.

By the 1960s, though, golf was big in Australia. Prize money was as good as it was anywhere outside the U.S. With golf now firmly in the working classes, it spread everywhere, meaning anyone who could put a couple of clubs together and find a course in the afternoon could play a round. Andrew Crockett, author of the beautiful golfing book “Bump and Run” says, “We had the best club makers, golf ball manufacturers, and golf club manufacturers.”

And in Thomson, one of the best golfers. But golf was just becoming something else. Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Thomson and Gary Player had made it a bigger sport, but the next thing was to be aspirational. This wasn’t just an Australian thing. Around the world, golf went from just a sport to a status symbol, a culture all of its own. Money can be made from aspiration. Mark McCormack, the founder of the world’s biggest sporting agency, IMG, signed up all of those men except Thomson.

Thomson did spread the game. He wrote the game. He commentated on it. He built golf courses. He spent time helping rehabilitate drug users. But he didn’t become the kind of legend that Player, Palmer and Nicklaus now are.

While IMG may not have signed Thomson, it did sign the next big golfer out of Australia — a man that David Graham, the Australian golfer who won two majors, once said, “He alone is responsible for the golfing boom in Australia.”

He was — is — more than that.

Perpetually windswept. Confident. Tanned. Rugged. Handsome. Ruggedly handsome. Greg Norman wasn’t a golfer; he was a movie star that swaggered aggressively into the sport. From Australia’s wild northeast onto the world’s golf courses. All smile, assuredness, and his own cowboy hat. He was straight out of a western, a weird hybrid of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Distinguished and youthful, his confidence, nay arrogance, dripped off him as he was striding down the fairway. Striding, not walking.

Greg Norman was golfing cool before Tiger Woods was even a pro. (AP)

Australia was just about to make a cultural impact in America after years of practically not existing there. Mel Gibson as Mad Max. Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee. Greg Norman as The Great White Shark. Men’s men, from some forgotten and ignored wild west. The cameras loved all three.

Norman already was popular in Australia, but it was the American TV cameras that really fell in love with him. With the improvements in camera and TV technology, Norman became a weekly star in America. Palmer had been an idol, Player had been focused, and Nicklaus had been majestic, but none were cowboys. They were cool, and great, and loved, but none were brought up among sharks.

It was Norman with the physical presence. Norman playing golf like a gambler in a saloon. Norman with the face for close-ups. Norman who was showing his every emotion like a movie heartthrob.

He drove long and powerfully. He took on hazards. He took on courses. This wasn’t golf by percentages; this was kill-or-be-killed golf. He picked up tournaments by the throat and tossed them aside. He was the golfer TV had been waiting for.

Frank Chirkinian, the godfather of TV golf, had found his Mad Max, his Crocodile Dundee, and he put him front and center as often as he could. At times, such was the coverage, you could almost sense of Chirkinian’s man crush through the lens. Other colorful golfers existed, but Norman was his man. He had his Robert Redford with a club, and he showed him as often as he could.

This had an effect on Norman’s celebrity in the U.S., but also in Australia. The best way to be adored in Australia had always been to be adored in the United Kingdom and America. Now, Australians were seeing their man be feted (and fetished) on live U.S. television.

The American majors were on early in the morning down under. Fathers and sons could watch the final round together before heading off to school and work. One way or another, Norman would be there, a major part of the drama, the flawed leading man. Whether they knew it or not at the time, these successful men — grown men, family men — had a new hero. One that was younger than them. They all wanted to be this man, such was his gravitational pull, and there wasn’t even enough golf courses for them.

Royal Burnley was not royal. It was a public golf course that floated above a freeway. It was small and cramped; a decent drive, even with a wooden driver, could reach some of the par-4 greens. But you wouldn’t know you were in such a lowbrow golf place when you were on the tee. There would be men standing there who had taken the utmost pride in their appearance.

Golfers had strived to look fashionable, even if from the outside, that was hard to believe. It was clear that this was a fashion largely inspired by, and designed by, middle-aged men without the slightest idea of good taste. Mostly, it looked like hotel curtains-chic. Of course, there was safety in the uniform that they created: Everyone looked that silly.

There had been fashion icons in golf before. Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer, both moved golf away from the formal attire of its past. And then there was the Australian, Norman von Nida, who once shocked Peter Thomson by showing him more pairs of trousers than he had ever seen in a department store.

By the 1980s, though, golf was well into its polo shirt phase. You could own a shirt with Palmer’s umbrella logo, or even the golden bear of Nicklaus, but they had not yet taken off in Australia in a massive way. On golf courses in Australia, there were three ways of dressing: In proper old school golf clothes, in whatever you would wear to head down to the local pub for a pot, or like Greg Norman.

Smart slacks. Pristine polo shirt. Golf glove perfectly placed in back pocket. Fashionable golf shoes. Signature hat. Winning smirk. Even if you were wearing a cheap brand shirt, these men were, usually, trying to look like Norman. This wasn’t golf fashion; it was a lifestyle ensemble.

Norman did not invent the look, but he perfected it. His athletic frame meant that anything he wore, even the worst of 80s fashion, somehow looked good on his footy shoulders under his wild blonde mane. Even if he hadn’t had an agent from early on, even if he hadn’t learned to look after his own affairs, or then gone on to sign with IMG, people still would have thrown money at him.

He looked good in things; other golfers looked old and stale in comparison. They looked like middle-aged men while Norman looked like an athlete. Many golfers looked like they simply couldn’t have played another sport; Norman looked like he could have played them all. He could have been a three-point specialist for the SuperSonics, a striker for the Netherlands, or a quarterback for the Dolphins.

That athleticism may have looked good, but he used it better.

It was at his best when he drove. That confidence, that style, that power with which Norman hit the ball. You can talk about his reverse C of his follow-through, the purity of his swing, the consistency of his results, but he was, first and foremost, a hitter. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was a golf ball, a baseball or a cricket ball, he was going to hit it. And some days, the technique would change slightly, and his front foot would twitch and splay out. There’s no surer sign that someone just wants to launch something than that little foot twitch.

The ball would fly off his wooden driver like it had a preordained history a few hundred yards away. Norman’s predator eyes would stare it down. And then when he was sure the ball was gone, he would give a triumphant power stroll down his golf course. How could you see it, and not want to do it? How could you not let it rip in the hope you could stare down your ball and then own the course?

At the dogleg, you could see it on their faces. Maybe it wasn’t a dogleg, but behind a tree, in front of some water, behind a hive of bunkers … it didn’t matter. The choice mattered. Lay up or go for it. Perhaps they always would have gone for it. They were after all, Australian, and there is something about the DNA that hardwires people to go for it.

Norman won dozens of titles worldwide, but only two major championships. (AP)

But Norman gave them permission, inspiration. He was not a lay-up kind of guy; they had seen this on their TVs so many times. He was a man who once hit four straight balls into the water because he refused to be beaten by nature. They saw him go for birdie after birdie, taking chance after chance, all with that same cold-eyed glaze and swagger. They saw him get excited when he nailed it, get angry when he didn’t. So when they had a chance, they barely needed someone in their quartet to say “have a go.” In nature and nurture, they were ready to have that go.

Often, they would fail. They should have laid up, hit around, found a safer way; despite their passion and hard work, they were not born with the gifts of Norman. But occasionally it worked. They cleared that tree, beat that bunker, stuck the ball on the impossible green, and they knew what it was like to be him. Any golfer, Norman fan or not, will tell you what that feels like. The rush, beating golf, beating nature — it’s golf’s heroin. The difference for these men was, even in the failure, even banging into that tree, clearing that fence or losing a ball to water, they seemed to retain a sense of pride at even trying.

The Drive By Truckers sing about the feeling in their song “Daddy’s cup”:

“It ain’t about the money or even being #1

You gotta know when it’s all over you did the best you could’ve done
Knowing that it’s in you and you never let it out

Is worse than blowing any engine or any wreck you’ll ever have”

Norman made it much simpler.

On a recent Instagram photo, in between the photos of Norman topless, or living the perfect life, there is one that his new wife took as he walked away from camera. Even at age 60, you can see him tanned and muscular, looking like a winner, with palm trees around him … and the back of his shirt says “attack life.”

By the ‘90s, almost all of the men that Norman brought to golf in the Australian suburbs in the ‘80s also owned something with his name, nickname, and logo on it. Now they were powerfully striding down the fairway, decked out in his shirt, his golf cowboy hat, hitting his ball, or maybe just taking their woods out of their shark golf covers.

They were winners, and their shirt proved it. They had attacked life, and they had the shirt to prove it. That was only Norman’s stage one, though. You cannot attack life properly with golf and lifestyle apparel alone.

Right now you can live on a property that Norman was the developer of, leave your front door to play golf on a course he designed, get in a golf cart associated with him, with a GPS system he also is involved with, use clubs that he once owned a stake in, to hit a ball with his logo on it, wearing clothes that bear his name, have a lovely glass of his brand of red before the 10th, shield your eyes with his sunglasses, head up to the 19th hole to enjoy a Greg Norman steak, have a shower to change from your Greg Norman Collection clothes to your Greg Norman corporate collection outfit, while checking the time on your Norman-partner Omega watch to make sure that you won’t miss a flight from his first sponsor, Qantas, which is taking you to a Greg Norman-promoted Sandals resort. And if at any time you need a pill, his partner Dow Chemicals, will be able to provide them.

He can feed you, clothe you, fly you, and cure you. That is more God than golfer.

According to Norman, he is “the living brand.” An aspirational life model. A good-looking, gentler Donald Trump, selling his name, his image, his nickname, his logo, to whoever will pay well and whose products have a certain level of aspiration attached. You aren’t just buying something with a logo plastered on; you are buying a little bit of win. You are buying your way to proof of a successful life.

Norman is not actually a god, though, and one day when he dies, there is a danger that so will his brand. To counter this, Norman already has announced a 200-year business plan. Yes, two hundred years.

Norman doesn’t want to be remembered as a golfer. That was never enough. He wants to transcend life and be a logo on your chest. It’s about eternal fame, like his hero: little-known tennis player and well-known fashion icon Rene Lacoste. Every time you put that little overpriced crocodile on your chest, Lacoste wins. If it worked for a crocodile, why not for a shark?

With that shark on your chest, with the confidence that gave, even a poor round didn’t matter. Somehow, these men made losing seem better than others did winning. They were passionate, determined, in charge, and one bad shot, putt or round was just that. They would be back. They even grabbed the ball out of the hole with more confidence after a three-putt than the scruffy bloke next to them had for their birdie.

At the end of the round, when they shook your hand, it was an alpha dog handshake. Not a bone crusher. Just firm, and dry, with a look in your eyes.

Norman didn’t always win. Behind the 331 weeks spent at No. 1, there is the number two. Two majors. It seems almost silly to chastise a golfer for only winning two majors, but Greg Norman was golf in the ‘80s. People still believe he was the greatest driver of a ball that ever existed. He won around the world over 80 times. He was the man you brought to your tournament if you wanted people to turn up, if you wanted TV cameras. But that didn’t work in majors. In majors, the bravado, the confidence, the belief never lasted long enough.

In 1986 he won the British Open, but that year he was just as known for leading all four majors into the final rounds. For many golf fans today, Norman is remembered as a punchline. The man who Nick Faldo turned into a piñata. The man who would lead into Sunday, and find a new and humiliating way to lose. The man who could play great, but never became one. The winner who is remembered for what he didn’t win.

In Golf Digest, David Leadbetter, one of the world’s leading golf instructors, said, “Probably the best player with the worst record, with all due respect.” In the same interview, Butch Harmon, then Tiger Woods’ swing coach, said, “You can’t really put a lot of it down to luck, either. I mean, the Bob Tway shot [1986 PGA Championship], when he holed it out of the bunker at Inverness, that was a heck of a shot. But Greg shot 40 on that back nine. If he takes care of business, it doesn’t come down to that bunker shot. But that’s just him being aggressive. He’s like that in the way he drives his car, the way he scuba dives. It’s the way he does everything.”

Even when Norman lost, he did it with aggression, with aplomb. You can call him a choker, but he could never hear you over the engine of his private jet. He won, won and won, even when he lost.

When Greg Norman arrived, Australia was a working-class country. A sun-burnt lucky country that had built itself largely on the sheep’s back. The men liked facial and chest hair. Their sporting stars were throbbing with masculinity and attitude. They weren’t trying to look tough. They were tough. John Newcombe looked like he could beat up most of the tennis world if he wanted to. The Australian cricket team tried to break people mentally and physically while pretending to chew gum and not give a sh*t.

The men of that era wore stubbies shorts, which were designed to look uncool, along with singlets and bluestone boots. They prided themselves on what they could do with their hands. They looked down on anything different from under their massive eff-you moustaches. They drove cars with bigger engines than they needed. Everything about them suggested they were real men.

By the time Greg Norman was a golf course-designing property magnate, the country had changed. His Queensland — Australia’s Texas — was being gentrified and sold off. The sheep living on the land were worth a fraction of the billions of minerals found deep within it. Australia as a nation was no longer working-class grit, but a middle-class society where the standard of living was obscenely good and the headline on Australian papers daily could be “Bloody hell, how good is this place.”

Norman was the living embodiment of this change. He was from Mt. Isa, a place in the middle of nowhere that was, in Australianese, harsh but fair. Now he has his own jet. Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush hang out with him. The Chinese government brought him in to look after its Olympic golf team. He gives lectures on how to be successful to wealthy businessmen.

He’s about as working class as a Senator’s son. He once was sponsored by Swan Lager, the beer of choice in Western Australia. Now he sells his own wine to the world.

His men have done the same. Wine was once drunk in Australia in cardboard boxes or as coolers. Real men wouldn’t be seen with wine, it was a ‘Sheila’s drink.’ Now his men know the right wine to go with salmon. They know how to taste it, what the best regions are, and even when they drink beer, they don’t drink local brews like Swan anymore. Instead, they search for boutique brews from independent craftsmen.

Australia is now a place where you can get a decaf mocha latte and biscotti, even in a country town. The old Australia is still there, and many think of Norman as a showy wanker, or worse, a Yank. But in those cafes, drinking their overpriced coffees and daintily dipping their european biscuits, are middle-aged men, fit and sun-damaged, wearing pleated shorts with a leather belt, and proudly donning a golf shirt. Some of them no longer see Norman as their hero, but there they sit, in smart casual golf clothes, on a day they are not even playing golf.

The man runs his own small businesses. His driveway has a German car. His simple suburban house has been transformed into the best house on the street. The kitchen is sparkling and new. The furniture is high end. The lounge room looks out over the swimming pool. The house is full of expensive sporting merchandise. The man is not a golfer, as such.

But Greg Norman isn’t golf.

Usually, this man is very confident. He enjoys life, he wins at it, and he’s a well respected in his local community. But there is something on his leg that has got him feeling more self-conscious than he usually would. It’s a small tattoo, just a couple of inches, just above his ankle.

That tattoo is not instantly obvious. How often do you look at a middle-aged man’s ankle? Unlike most tattoos, it isn’t in dark colour outlines either. It is in many bright colours, but it doesn’t stick out, and some of the lighter colours are practically invisible. “Yellow doesn’t tattoo well” he admits sheepishly. But even with some of it all but invisible, you can tell that it is a shark. Not any shark, but The Shark, Norman’s shark logo.

This man, who is a success in his world, went to a tattoo parlour, took a logo with him, sat in the cheap faux leather chair and let some tattooed man stick needles in him. All so he could honour a man younger than him who plays a sport that he is not even remotely obsessed with.

This man doesn’t have this tattoo because Greg Norman is a golfer. He has this tattoo because Greg Norman is Greg Norman.