Was there a more pleasing sight in sport – never mind just golf – last year than the rampaging, near-perfect storm offered for us to gaze upon by Greg Norman during The Open? Of course there wasn’t. Now hitting his mid-fifties, Greg did wonders not only for his own self-esteem (never really in doubt actually) but for middle-aged men everywhere who are increasingly sidelined by a Botox world obsessed with youth or the crazed attempt to recapture those heady days when you could fall in love twice before lunch. What’s more, you could do something about it.
This love thing is not a daft subject here. Greg’s marriage to Chrissie Evert a couple of months before Royal Birkdale offered the old(ish) boy the motivation to grind out some practice before that Open. What he wanted to do was simple enough – he wished to show his new wife what he used to do brilliantly for a living and he wanted to do it well. ‘Showing off’ really can be a very sound place to start for any sportsman intent on success.
In the end his third-place finish offered much for Chrissie to savour. For Greg there was even more. Having spent the last decade reducing his handicap spectacularly as a businessman, my old friend suddenly rediscovered the glaringly obvious fact that at his core he is a pro golfer – one of the very best ever to swing a club, never mind the fact that he only won two Majors. So now here he is contemplating a return to Turnberry where he won the first of those Open Championships in 1986 and where he began ten years that saw him dominate the world rankings and almost everything else. Tall, blond and aggressive as only Aussies can be, he is also laid-back, thoughtful and loyal. These are excellent qualities. He has his critics, a bunch of people who dislike him no matter what he does or says, but these people probably don’t like anyone who is good looking, successful and happy to so obviously enjoy these things. Small minds come up with big reasons not to like things.
Whatever, when he hits town – if you can call Turnberry a town which, patently, you can’t – Greg will do so in his usual understated manner. My money is on him arriving by helicopter, which he will fly himself, landing it on the hotel roof and abseiling down to his suite with Chrissie peeping out of his backpack. What is certain, however, is that he will do so as a man reborn where golf is concerned and a player who looks at his birth certificate, shrugs his shoulders and says ‘oh, what the hell, let’s give it a bloody good go. I can win this’.
“You’re right about some of that mate,” he said when we spoke. “It’s going to be a totally different mindset to when I went into Birkdale last year. There’s no question about that. This year I’ve kept my playing and practice on a fairly decent schedule. Okay, not to the rigorous routine I had back in my heyday but, believe me, it has been substantial.
“So I do go into Turnberry with a different mindset. I love the place. I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked by Peter Dawson (chief exec of the R&A) to take a look at it, which I did over the winter months and I think everybody’s going to be pleased with it.”
His recommendations mostly concern the placement and type of bunkers. He adheres to the old thought that a links bunker should operate mostly by gravity, that balls should be sucked into these damn things as well as simply hit into them. He has this vision of a new par 3 out by the 10th. He says this could be one of the most spectacular short holes in the world and I suspect the lighthouse will be one of the hazards on offer if eventually he gets his way.
Meanwhile, what he loves about Turnberry is not just the course but the fact that – assuming you have the money to stay at the hotel overlooking the course – as a player you can book in, throw the car keys away for a week and stroll to work each day whistling a happy tune. This, he says, “makes it much more of a comfort zone for a player to go play”.
All of which got him thinking deeply about what he might achieve again this summer in Scotland. “A lot of people believe what I did at the Open last year was an anomaly in some ways. Well, to me it wasn’t. It just convinces me that anybody, no matter how old they are or their position in life, if they really want to focus their mind on something it’s very achievable.”
This, in turn, got him thinking about what he has achieved as a golfer. Dismissed by some as a ‘choker’ on too many occasions, supported by others, and led by me, that he only choked once – in the Masters, a blocked 4-iron up the last – but suffered more outrageous bad fortune, in the shape of others’ good luck, than any other pro in the modern era.
Plus he accepts with grace and often good humour the demands placed upon the famous. He can, to be fair, become irritable swiftly if he encounters someone he considers a fool or, worse, a pest but then life is too short to have to put up with many things. He can be abrupt, demanding and domineering. He can also be kind and genuinely sensitive. In other words, Greg Norman always has been a rounded human being, a bloke who came to the UK as a youngster with little in his pocket and big dreams in his head.