Welcome Break From The Norm
Two-time Open Champion Greg Norman believes modern stars’ rivalry is a throwback to the halcyon days of the 80s and explains how his mental approach at Turnberry can help McIlroy to seize the initiative amid increasing pressure of expectation
Every sporting generation has those executants blessed with a charisma to electrify the stage and so it was when Greg Norman swaggered on to the first tee and thundered another drive down the fairway.
An Open champion in 1986 and 1993 with a tally of 88 Tour victories allied to 331 weeks as World number one point to the force of Norman during a special period for golf when he crossed swords with such fellow greats as Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Tom Watson and Nick Faldo.
The Aussie’s flashing blonde hair, swash- buckling persona and potent skills knitted perfectly into a golfing landscape that many still fondly remember.
As the 148th Open Championship looms at Royal Portrush, Norman revealed how his interest in the sport has been heightened by those who now stride the upper echelons.
“I think right now there is a lot about the game that has the feel of the 1980s and ’90s,” said Norman, speaking exclusively to Sunday Life.
“We had a 15-year cycle when there were about a dozen guys who could easily have had the chance to win a Major and I think it’s the same today. It feels like we’re entering a golden age for the sport and, for the first time in 10 to 15 years, I now turn on the TV to watch the tournaments from Thursday to Sunday. Even when I’m in the gym I’ll put it on while I workout.
“I enjoyed some great rivalries with Seve, Faldo, Nick Price... there were so many different personalities and I would say the toughest competitor I ever faced was Curtis Strange. Then you had someone like Seve who you never knew what he was going to do. You beat him by just a stroke when you thought he should have been beaten by 10 strokes.
“In fact, my favourite practice rounds were with Seve. We had a bit of a funny friendship. I was a great driver of the ball and he had an amazing short game so when we would practice together he would teach me how to play out of bunkers and I’d give him advice on his driving.
“We may have been number one and two in the world but here we were with no ani- mosity between us, just two guys trying to make each other better golfers. That was the coolest experience of my life and something I’ll never forget.
“With Faldo, it was different. He was tough to play against because he never said a word the entire round and I was different. If Nick hit a great iron shot or a good putt, I’d say ‘great shot’ but he never gave anything back. But I wasn’t going to change, I was always myself.”
While Norman had a natural game for the generally benign conditions of the US PGA Tour, the 64-year-old admits that it was the challenge of the links which fuelled his competitive edge the most.
This came into stark focus in 1986 when he arrived at Turn- berry, having led the previous two Major championships of the year going into the final round only to miss out on glory.
Finding himself in the same position once again ahead of the the final 18 holes, Norman knew he had to win the mental battle — in the same way he believes Rory McIlroy will have to en- gage with the Portrush environment if he is to lift the Claret Jug for a second time.
“I love watching Rory,” added Norman, who can see a comparison between the intensity surrounding his first Open success and the challenge facing the Holywood maestro.
“From a talent perspective, he’s one of the top two in the world, his driving skills are incredible but you know he came out of the box like a rocket at the start of his career and, while he has had a pretty good year, he has levelled off a bit. He seems to stumble out of nowhere. As I say, I’m a huge fan of his but he does seem to have inconsistencies with his putting stroke which show up over 72 holes.
“Rory has to be so strong in the mind — you can just imagine all the white noise that is going to be around him.
“He has to make sure he does not get swept up in all that. I think that may have happened a little to Brooks Koepka when he was going for the US Open three-peat. Rory can do it, he can win it because he has all the capabilities of doing it but there will be enormous pressure.
“I know what that’s like because I went into the Open Championship with people doubting me because I had led the first two Major Championships in the final round and missed out. So, 1986 was very important for me. I had to block out all the white noise.
“It sounds weird but I did it by touching my finger tips, feeling and thinking about what was under my feet, feeling a pebble as I stepped on it, just shutting everything else out of my mind, and it worked.
“Of course every so often I would have looked around and embraced the support because that was pretty cool, but only in dribs and drabs so I didn’t lose focus. That’s what it takes.”
Just like Norman, who faced down the critics that questioned his ability to cross the line in Major championships by winning a second Open seven years later, so McIlroy has some who point a doubting finger at a five-year Major drought.
“It’s just golf, sport, a game... I never got swept up in the whole euphoria of having to do something special. I’m a pretty humble guy who just loved to play golf and that humility wasn’t just the key to my golf but to my humanity.
“Whether it’s the golf course or life, you have to understand an experience and then move on. The past is the past, you can’t allow it to influence your future.” McIlroy could probably do worse than to engage such a philosophical perspective over the next seven days.