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The Shark in Conversation

Dermot Gilleece talks to golfing Legend, Greg Norman

Posted Aug 16, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

greg norman


During a fateful final 18 holes of the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in 2008, Greg Norman had a first-hand view of what was to become an Irish golfing revolution.  Now, three years on from watching Padraig Harrington retain the coveted claret jug, the Shark was studying a key member of that revolution, who also happens to be a prospective, new neighbour in West Palm Beach, Florida.

In his capacity as captain of the International team for the President’s Cup matches at Royal Melbourne in November, Norman was a keen observer last week at the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club.  And when Rory McIlroy came into his eyeline on the practice range, he took the opportunity of an impromptu chat.  

 “Global golf is the healthiest I’ve ever seen it at professional level,” said the Shark. “And I don’t think the players outside the United States are getting the absolute recognition they should get, and that includes Rory.  Too much emphasis, in my view, has been put on Tiger Woods returning to the scene after a short period of time being away.  We should be focusing more on what’s really happening out there with the game’s great young players.

“Throw a dart at anywhere on the world map right now and you’re likely to hit a country with emerging talent. I haven’t seen anything quite like this.  Look at stats.  If you take the top-15 of my potential International candidates and the top-15 of the European Ryder Cup table and the top-15 of the United States, you will find that the Americans are pretty much last.  That’s a testament to the strength of the international players which should be emphasised.”

Back in 1981, I remember covering the Dunlop Masters Tournament at Woburn, which was won by a brash, blond Australian who, in a post-tournament interview, proclaimed with due immodesty: “I intend to become the best golfer in the world.” That was a time when the emerging Norman looked up to Jack Nicklaus as a role model. “Even today, Jack’s easy to approach,” he said.  “When I first moved down to south Florida he was the first one to call and welcome me to his neck of the woods.  Now it looks like Rory is going to be a new neighbour and I want to offer him the same welcome.”

At a time when he was developing his formidable skills, Norman was a regular challenger in the early stagings of the revived Irish Open.  In fact he competed on six occasions from 1977 to 1984, by which stage he had become seriously committed to the US PGA Tour.   And he made distinguished contributions with no fewer than five, top-seven finishes, including a share of third place in 1977, 1982 and 1984.
Then, when we enquired in the early 1990s as to when he might be making a return visit, his stock answer was when the event returned to Portmarnock.   But tournament golfers don’t always stick to such plans.  So it was that Norman’s return happened on the splendid parkland of Mount Juliet, rather than the shallow duneland of North Dublin.

More recently, he has made his own contribution to Irish golf terrain as designer of the Doonbeg links in West Clare.
“The current success of Irish golfers is the culmination of a number of things,” he said.  “These undoubtedly include the quality of the courses has to be included, especially your renowned links. Yet you look at Rory and his biggest win so far has come at Congressional which obviously doesn’t fit that model.”

He went on: “Over the years, I have known a lot of exceptional Irish players and I think what’s happened over the last few years is that the country has eventually got its just desserts, with phenomenal achievements by Paddy, Graeme, Rory and Darren.  Harrington’s wins obviously created a lot of hype with the result that people began to sit up and take notice.  And other players found themselves saying ‘I want to do that; I want to get some of that limelight.’  A certain energy level developes around these achievements.

 “But of course at the end of the day, it’s the players who do it.  What I love about it is the way the same thing has happened in Australia and South Africa, Japan and other places.  And other players have been prompted to come together as sort of support groups for these emerging stars.  I think that’s fantastic for the global game.”

And what about McIlroy?  “I think he’s fantastic,” Norman replied.  “He’s got all the ingredients and I’d put him up there in the top five swingers I’ve seen, no question about that.”  And would the Shark include himself in that group? “That’s for others to judge,” he said with a half-smile. “Rory’s now on the world stage but I’d like to see a situation in 15 years’ time when people will be able to say that his talent continued all the way through.”

The Shark concluded: “The key thing is that he remains balanced, which I believe he will.  He strikes me as someone who is pretty much in touch with reality.”

- Dermot Gilleece

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