I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Greg Norman. Because of him, I realized that golf could actually be fascinating melodrama. For most of my youth, the only golf match I had any interest in was the showdown between Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack. But on one fateful weekend in April, as I sipped beer with my father and watched the ’96 Masters — and a little drunk is the only way I can watch golf — I saw one of the most remarkable meltdowns in the history of professional sports.
It was a foregone conclusion that Greg “The Shark” Norman would win the Masters in 1996, in much the same way that it was a foregone conclusion that Michael Jordan would lead the ’96 Bulls to an NBA Championship. The only way he could lose was by dropping dead at Augusta, and even then it’d be a photo finish. But he found a way to blow it anyway. He choked at every opportunity, shooting into the water like he was aiming for it, and performing so badly that even the crowd avoided eye contact with him. It was thrilling for me, because I’d never seen my dad get so personally offended by a sporting event. He screamed obscenities at the TV, threw his loafers at the screen and on several occasions stormed out of the room. And this was from a man who loved the Chicago Cubs, so he was no stranger to athletic failure. “That was horrible,” he declared after Norman’s final sad shot. “That’s the last fucking time I watch fucking golf, I can fucking promise you that.”
I called Norman for several reasons. One, the U.S. Open is happening this week, and he seems as qualified as anybody to talk about it. And two, this Sunday is Father’s Day, and watching Norman lose spectacularly remains one of my fondest memories of my late father. This one is for you, Dad.
Eric Spitznagel: You and your daughter went on a “Father’s Day Media Tour” this week, grilling Greg Norman-brand steaks and drinking Greg Norman-brand wine on the Today show and a bunch of other news shows from Salt Lake City to Washington, D.C. Why the Father’s Day theme?
Greg Norman: For me, every time Father’s Day came around during my professional golf career, I was always playing the U.S. Open. But now I’ve got more and more time to spend with my children because I’m away from the golf course. Even though one of them lives in LA and the other has a house in south Florida, Father’s Day has a lot more meaning for me because it’s not just another Sunday afternoon on a golf course. I can actually be with my family.
I didn’t know you sold your own steaks. Have you been doing this for awhile?
Quite a few years now.
My dad died of a massive heart attack, so maybe a steak isn’t the best way to honor his memory. Do you have a tofu version?
Morgan Norman: Hi Eric, this is Morgan, Greg’s daughter. Our steaks are all Wagyu, and they’re actually a very healthy cut of red meat. They have the good types of fat. So for the health conscious eater, Wagyu is a very good way to go. And then of course when you pair it with wine…
And there’s a Greg Norman wine, right?
Morgan Norman: That’s right! Wine is so heart healthy. It’s perfect. A glass of day is like eating an apple a day. You’ve gotta have one.
Greg Norman: And if you’ve got a big heart like yours, Eric, you can have two glasses a day.
How about drinking the whole bottle? Is my heart big enough for that?
I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s about moderation and balancing things out properly.
In addition to meat and wine, you’re involved in a surprising number of commercial enterprises. You’ve created your own line of clothes and real estate and eyewear and GPS technology and golf courses and so on. If somebody buys all of it — the house and the clothes and everything else — are they essentially living the total Greg Norman existence?
Hmm. (Long pause.) I guess not when you’re scuba diving.
It’s a lot of responsibility to create such an all-inclusive brand. You’re like Ed Harris in Truman Show.
It definitely is a lot of responsibility. And I’m more sensitive to it, and more aware of being a living brand today than I was when I was the number one golfer in the world. When I was the number one golfer in the world, I was the only guy out there, walking the greens and taking my own shots. Even though I was under a microscope, I was doing what I loved to do on my terms. But building a brand, you represent a lot of other people, a lot of other corporations, not just myself. The expansion of all these brands around the world, it becomes a totally different lifestyle. You have to be very cognizant of the fact that consumers, when they come out to see you, they might be buying your shirt, they might be buying your wine, they might be buying your beef, they might be buying your house. It’s a totally different world that I live in now.
With the meat and wine tour this week, do you have time or interest in watching the U.S. Open?
Oh I have interest. But I pick my time to watch. I think the lead up to the Open is too much crap as far as I’m concerned. But the Golf Channel or whoever, they need content. And sometimes that content gets in the way of what professional golf is really all about. When the tournament starts, I’ll keep tabs on the scores. But I won’t watch anything till the weekend, probably Saturday afternoon and definitely Sunday afternoon. I normally like to watch the last nine holes.
How do you watch golf when it’s just you and a TV? Are you the quiet type, or are you screaming expletives at the screen?
Well, at the Masters this year, I was very relaxed while watching most of it. I was texting back and forth with my son. But all of a sudden a friend of ours, Adam Scott, was in the fray. Then another friend of mine, Geoff Ogilvy, was in the fray. Then another friend of mine, Jason Day, was in the fray. With five holes to go, I’m on the edge of my seat. And I’m never on the edge of my seat, I don’t care who’s playing. I have a picture on my iPhone that I took of the TV of four Australian flags in the top five positions. I was really proud of my boys. And when I say my boys, I mean Aussie boys.
How does the Open compare to the Masters in terms of drama and watchability? Besides green jackets and Pimento cheese sandwiches, what does the Masters have that the Open doesn’t?
I think more people can relate to the Open, because more of them have had an opportunity to play on the same courses that the Open is played on. But I prefer the Masters, because it’s so steeped in history. You’re playing the same golf course that the other great players have played. But the Open is definitely more challenging. When you go to a U.S. Open, you know it’s going to be set up on the edge of being impossible.
Wouldn’t the game in general be more interesting if it was a full-contact sport?
Like if it was an arm wrestling competition?
No, I mean the same game of golf, except tackling is permitted.
[Laughs.] I don’t know about that.
You’re out there, trying to concentrate on your shot, and BOOM, your opponent has you by the waist and you’re going down hard.
I might do O.K. with that actually. If I’d been in the NFL, I would’ve loved to be a strong safety. I would’ve been the guy to come in and hit the wide receiver.
That’s what I’m talking about. If the golf rankings were decided by physical mass, you’d still be on top. You’ve always been a big guy, bigger than most golf players. Forget Tiger Woods. He’d crumble like tissue paper.
For me, playing golf has always been against my nature. My nature tends to be a heads-on guy, who needs to release a lot of tension in a lot of ways. So golf really went against my grain. I actually think I would’ve made a better tennis player. If I took up tennis at the same age I took up golf, I think I would’ve been amazing at it. Tennis just suits me better.
You’ve got one of the best nicknames in golf, the Shark. Have you seen what players are calling themselves these days?
I haven’t, no.
Look at the top three contenders at the U.S. Open. Martin Kaymer goes by “The Germanator,” Lee Westwood is “Westy,” and Luke Donald is just “Plod” for some reason. Do you approve?
[Laughs.] If you could see the reaction on my face as you read those names, I think you’d have your answer.
Can you help these guys out? Come up for a nickname for Martin “The Germanator” Kaymer that doesn’t sound like a bad Rob Schneider joke.
If I had a bit of time to think about it, absolutely I would. I’d suggest that those three guys talk to their PR agents and find a way to get some better names out there. You don’t want to be remembered for a nickname like that.
At the ‘84 U.S. Open, the top two players were you and “Fuzzy” Zoeller. I don’t remember the final score, but I remember it was Fuzzy versus the Shark. It sounds like the title of the best Japanese manga ever.
[Laughs.] You’re right, the world of golf is different now than it was back in the 80s and 90s, back in my world. There were a lot more characters, and players weren’t as stoic as they are today. They wore their heart on their sleeve a little bit more. They weren’t so protective and they engaged with the gallery a lot more. It’s a totally different game nowadays. I’m not saying it’s worse, it’s just different. When I played, I didn’t have an entourage, and I was the number one player in the world. Now, these guys go around with six, eight people in their entourage, and you can’t get anywhere near them. I think Tiger really started that. You’re representing the game of golf, and the game of golf is supported by 26 million people here in the United States. They have to feel like they can reach out to you in some way.
Everybody talks about your famous losses. Do they still sting? When you’re in bed at night, are you replaying the 1996 Masters over and over in your head?
I don’t think about it. The only time I remember it at all is when I get asked questions about it by people like you.
Aw, come on! Now I feel like a monster.
[Laughs.] No, no. I do think about. Of course I do. It’s the same as if I had a shitty business deal. I’ll think, “O.K., what would I have done differently that wouldn’t have cost me so much money?” You look at your mistakes and you try to learn from them. If you don’t do that, then you’re not a smart human being. I don’t have a problem talking about it. If I screwed up, I screwed up. If somebody beat me, I’ll admit it. It’s not something I bury deep inside. I think it can be cathartic to talk about it.
Well let’s talk about it then. Do you have any hindsight about what the hell happened at the ‘96 Masters?
Well, I know a lot more now about myself than I did back then. At certain times, you just make the wrong decisions. The day before the final round, I wasn’t feeling great. My back wasn’t in the best shape, but I was hanging on the best I could. The next morning, I went for a long walk, just trying to loosen up my back, but it didn’t work. I didn’t talk about it at the time, because really it was nobody’s business. But I was fighting against my own game.
Around that same time in the late 90s, Bill Clinton fell down some stairs while he was staying at your house. What happened exactly? Was he just drinking too much Greg Norman Wine?
No, not at all.
But you see what I did there, right? I brought it back to the wine. That’s called interview product placement. I’m looking out for you, Greg.
Yes, thank you. But Bill doesn’t drink. He was visiting for the weekend to play a golf event with me. The President is a guy who likes to sit down and have a fireside chat no matter how late it is. We did that at my house, and it got to be 1:30, 2 o’clock in the morning, I don’t remember the exact time. Eventually it was time to go to bed and he was walking down the stairs and his heel caught on the bottom step and he tripped forward. I caught him but he tore the right quadricep on his kneecap. It was very painful, but it had nothing to do with alcohol, nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky.
Wait, what? Why would it have anything to do with Monica Lewinsky? Was he having oral sex at the time?
Everybody was speculating that it had something to do with Monica. When it happened, I refused to give any interviews about it, out of respect for the office of the President of the United States.
Have you been visited by a President since? Have Bush or Obama ever stopped by?
I know all of them. Golf if the great common denominator. Everybody loves golf, whether you’re the President of the United States or the guy who’s selling hot dogs on the corner in New York.
Is it just socializing, or do you play golf with them? Have you hit the links with Bush?
Oh yeah, numerous times.
It must be hard to avoid teasing him. If he hits one into a sand trap, do you ever want to shout “Mission Accomplished” just to see the look on his face? Or do you keep it sophisticated?
Hell no! He’s a human being, he puts his pants on the same way you or I do every morning.
So you can mess with him? He shanks it and you wouldn’t be afraid to say, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me… won’t get fooled again?”
He likes the jokes. He likes to be jabbed and get jabbed back. These are guys who need to let their guard down occasionally, and they do it when they’re surrounded by people they trust. If you get within the circle, they trust you. I had a conversation with Clinton a few weeks ago, and we talked about life and Tiger Woods and China and everything else.
Whether they’re Republican or Democrat, Presidents get criticized for playing golf. Do you think that’s unfair?
I think it’s absolute bullshit, to tell you the truth. Even if you’re the President, you can’t live, eat, shit and sleep your job, 24/7, fifty-two weeks in the year. A human being needs his or her down time. Golf is just an avenue for escape, and I wouldn’t trust a President if he didn’t travel down that avenue occasionally.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)