Sharkshooter Greg Norman Came from Aussie Surf to U.S. Turf to Terrorize the Men's Golf Tour
"We used to fish on Moreton Bay off Brisbane, which is supposed to be the largest breeding ground of Great Whites in the world," explains Norman, 29. "It takes a while to pull the fish up and when you do, the sharks have had them. You get frustrated. So I shot the sharks around my boat." It's no big deal, he insists. "For an Australian, sharks are like snakes. Dangerous. But you make allowances."
Dangerous too is Norman, who might as well be called Jaws by fellow pros who are still trying to figure out what allowances to make for him. A strapping 6'1", Norman has been tearing up major tournaments with élan. In 14 PGA outings this year the land shark—one of the longest hitters on the tour—has won $286,724, putting him sixth in overall earnings. He finished in the top 10 six times, including firsts at the June Kemper Open in Bethesda, Md. and the July Canadian Open in Ontario, where he outdueled childhood idol Jack Nicklaus, 44. Also in June in Mamaroneck, N.Y. he lost the U.S. Open in a play-off after tying Fuzzy Zoeller with a series of heart-stopping shots in the final regulation round.
This week Norman hopes to continue his feeding frenzy at the PGA championship in Birmingham, Ala. Although he has not played the 7,145-yard Shoal Creek course, "I would give myself a very good chance of winning," he says not immodestly. Shark alert.
If he does triumph, the victory may have had its genesis in the surf off Queensland. He was born in the copper mining town of Mount Isa in northeast Australia. His father, Merv, general manager of a mining company, was too caught up in the business to teach his son golf. So Norman turned to his mother, Toni, who had a three handicap. A late bloomer, he didn't start playing until he was 16, when he caddied for Mom. "I was enjoying surfing too much," he recalls. "I didn't care about golf. I was going to be a pilot in the air force." In the end he didn't care much about flying either. After high school he "laid around for 12 months, mostly doing nothing." It was during that time that he decided to become a professional golfer, though "I was never particularly good up to that point. There wasn't much to go on except I had confidence in myself."
After making the shift from surf to turf in 1971, Norman found a coach, Charlie Earp, who believed that the long ball off the tee was more important than control. The young golfer thrived on the unorthodox tutelage. Soon he was smacking 340-yard drives in all directions. "I would really clobber that ball," he says. "I used to hit drives 30 or 40 yards longer than now. But I reduced yardage to gain accuracy."
Satisfied with his aim, Norman joined the Australian pro tour in 1976, a year after finishing high school. His parents had mixed feelings about his choice of careers. "I hadn't given them a lot of reason to believe I could make it as a professional golfer," he says. "But I was just this big lump who hadn't been doing anything for a year." Their minds were eased when, on his third time out, he won a pro tournament in Adelaide and hauled in $7,000.
In 1977 he joined the international circuit and continued on it for six years, earning $240,000 in his best season. In 1983 he decided to go where the real money is, the American tour. His best finish was a second at the Bay Hill Classic in Orlando, Fla., but for the next 15 months he played erratically and remained a virtual unknown in the U.S. Discouraged, Norman last May called his former coach in Australia. "Earp told me to extend my backswing and to hold on until he got there," says Norman. But by the time Earp's plane landed, Norman had won the Kemper Open. His one weakness, golf observers say, is his putting.
His wins, grins, good looks, good sportsmanship and, yes, his nickname have made him a favorite with American galleries, who shout "Go Greg" and cheer exuberantly as he moves around the course. "Now, wherever I play in the United States, I feel at home," he says.
He should. For starters his wife, Laura, 26, is an American. A former stewardess from New Jersey, she met him at 39,000 feet in the first-class section of a Detroit-to-New York flight in 1979. (They married in 1982.) "He was shy and so was I, but we managed to get a conversation going," she says. "She sat down next to me" is how Norman tells it. Now he is applying for permanent resident status, although he plans to keep his Australian citizenship. He and Laura, along with 2-year-old daughter Morgan Leigh, are settling into a new five-bedroom house in Bay Hill close to the country club.
Although Florida is worlds away from their previous home on five acres of grassland and fairway on Australia's east coast, Norman insists there is no culture shock. "Australia is like mini-America," he says. "The only difference is that you blokes drive on the wrong side of the road." Take note. The White Shark knows all about driving.