News & Opinion

Norman makes good on second chance with Nicklaus

DUBLIN, Ohio – On Tuesday, I asked Jack Nicklaus if he remembers the first time he met Greg Norman. 

"You mean, the time Greg cold-topped his drive?" Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus smiled and promised I'd hear all about it Wednesday when Norman would be feted as one of this year's four Memorial Tournament honorees.

Good to his word, Nicklaus began his introduction to the crowd of several hundred by telling the story of their first encounter, at the 1976 Australian Open, when they were paired together in the first two rounds. Nicklaus had heard great things about the dashing blond-haired 21-year-old Australian. Norman recalled "being as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.”

And why not? Norman was paired with his idol, and the man who indirectly had shaped his powerful swing. Norman recounted how 46 years ago his dad entered his son’s bedroom, where the teen was supposed to be studying physics and chemistry, and found his nose buried instead in copies of "Golf My Way" and "My 55 Ways to Lower Your Golf Score," two golf instruction bibles authored by Nicklaus. 

Norman said he failed physics and chemistry, but within 18 months of taking up golf at age 16, he improved from a 27 handicap to scratch.

"Doesn't it just make you cry?" said Charlie Mechem, the master of ceremonies. 

Given the opportunity to play in the same group with Nicklaus, Norman remembers being lucky to place the ball on the tee, and the result was unforgettable.

"As embarrassed as I've ever been on a golf course," Norman said. "I hit it 40 yards, not even 40 yards."

The story is all the more remarkable considering that Norman went on to become arguably the best driver of the golf ball of the past 40 years. He rebounded from that inauspicious start and impressed Nicklaus, the eventual champion, with his skill.

"I do believe you get a second chance at a first impression," Nicklaus said. 

Changing their spikes after playing 36 holes, Nicklaus put his hand on Norman's knee and said, "You've got the game to do well in America."

Armed with his idol’s approval, Norman went on to spend 331 weeks at No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. As Mechem put it, "There are kids here that aren't that old." 

Norman wanted to be like Nicklaus and recalled how the Golden Bear's influence was just beginning. "I kind of invited myself under his wing," Norman said.

In the 1980s, Norman moved into Nicklaus' neighborhood in North Palm Beach, Fla. Nicklaus informed him that he lived only a driver and 3-wood away. Norman replied, "You're only a driver-wedge from me."

"He was spunky, and I liked that," Nicklaus said. 

Nicklaus is 15 years older, so Norman missed competing against Nicklaus during his prime, as he shifted his focus to other pursuits. "He got me, but I got him once," Nicklaus said. 

After a long pregnant pause, he added, "In 1986."

Enough said. The audience cheered Nicklaus' sixth Masters victory. Norman still rues his decision to hit a soft, cut 4-iron into the 18th green at Augusta National. He blocked the shot to the right and gift-wrapped the 18th and final major title to Nicklaus at age 46.

"Did I get everything out of my career on the golf course? I can honestly say probably not," said Norman, 62, whose 89 worldwide victories included 20 on the PGA Tour, two of which were British Opens. "But putting that all aside, I maximized everything that I did. My priority was the game of golf first, my country second, myself third. That's the way I was."

When the snake-bitten Norman finally enjoyed major-championship glory at the 1986 British Open at Turnberry, Nicklaus played an important role in the triumph. On Saturday night, with Norman holding the 54-hole lead, Nicklaus interrupted Norman's dinner to give him a swing tip. 

"I was squeezing,” said Norman, recalling the advice. “I was holding on too long, wasn't releasing the golf club.” 

Nicklaus suggested that Norman relax his grip pressure. Norman took the tip to heart and put it to good use.

"I started a little saying within myself to make love with your hands,” Norman said. “And if you make love with your hands, you're actually caressing it."

When Norman won, Nicklaus stepped out of the broadcast booth and was the first person to congratulate him. It meant the world to Norman.

"I could probably write a book in its own right just on that with Jack, about the moments we've had, practice rounds and the moments we've had in conversations during those practice rounds," Norman said. 

The ceremony at Muirfield Village served as a wonderful reminder of how two competitors, two friends, and two lives have continued to be intertwined for 46 years.

 

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak