It is one of sport’s greatest guessing games, wondering what would happen if today’s superstars could go toe to toe with the legends of yesterday.
There is not a bar stool, schoolyard or dinner table that has not been privy to such speculation.
Would Muhammad Ali have wiped the floor with Jack Dempsey? Was Schumacher a better driver than Fangio? Does Messi have the game that would have outfoxed Pele or Maradona?
Similar questions get asked in golfing clubhouses across the world on a regular basis but it was refreshing to read an actual star of the game ponder the same “what ifs” that lesser mortals engage in.
For Greg Norman there are fewer imponderables, though. The Great White Shark from Australia won two Majors and topped the world rankings before Tiger Woods turned the golfing world upside down.
Though the bulk of their respective careers never co-existed, Norman is of the firm opinion he would have “probably beat” 14-time Major champion Woods, the current No 1.
Ben Hogan and Sam Snead would not have given him any cause for fear either.
“A lot of people ask how I’d stack up against today’s players if I had use of modern equipment,” Norman tells this month’s Golf Magazine.
“Listen, it’s not about the gear. Winning is about what’s in your heart and in your head. Equipment dictates how to play the game in an era, but the physical and mental skills are the same.
“And I had them. I never feared anything or anyone on the course, and I wasn’t afraid to fail. So I think I’d do pretty well against Snead, Hogan, Tiger and Phil [Mickelson] — whoever.
“Tiger’s a tough guy, but I was a tough guy on the course, too. I probably would have beat him.”
In a revealing interview, Norman reflects on what made him a success, first on the golf course and then in the boardroom, converting 20 PGA Tour victories into a flourishing business career and a fortune worth an estimated €290m.
Norman even managed to lose half his assets in a divorce to first wife, Laura Andrassy, that cost him almost €75m in 2006 and it is not without experience that the 58-year-old said: “Failure makes you stronger.”
Now happily married for three years to third wife, interior designer Kirsten Kutner, who is 13 years his junior, Norman’s Great White Shark Enterprises is a group of businesses that operates in a variety of niches from golf course design and turf research to property development, restaurants, wines and prime beef sales.
And what’s more, Norman believes he is only scraping the tip of the iceberg in terms of his multinational’s potential.
“I became a good businessman because I was a good golfer,” he said. “Golf taught me how to practice, formulate a strategy and then execute it — a due-diligence process that also fuels good business decisions.
“Some people are naturals at business. I’m not, but I had a great education through golf.”
That education began when he signed his first contract with Reebok, a quarter of a century ago next year.
“Paul Fireman, Reebok’s chief executive, had a dream for me, but eventually structured the deal so I could function as my own brand. That was huge. But since I didn’t have a lot of marketing or branding knowledge at the time, I was patient. I didn’t go for the quick buck. “I’m lucky in that I have pretty good long-term vision. Why do I have it? I don’t know. But here we are decades later and I’ve only reached 20% of what this company is capable of achieving.”
While golf success begat business sense, Norman admitted his on-course personality was in marked contrast to his commercial instincts.
“I was a different person on the course. I wasn’t as patient, because I didn’t have to be. I knew everything about the game and was super-confident in my abilities.
“I played by the sword and died by it. Would I have changed some things about my game knowing what success in business has taught me? It’s something I’d consider. But don’t get me wrong — I have zero regrets.”
Norman, though, was still calculating enough with his approach to golf to make sure he was as well equipped as he could be, mentally, physically and in terms of the equipment he used.
“The biggest difference between weekend players and pros? Let’s say we’re both 100 yards from the pin — a sand wedge for me and a gap wedge for you. I’ll use my pitching wedge and swing at 70%. You’ll hit your gap wedge at 100%. And you’ll lose. Weekend players go for broke while pros look for a way to play the minimum.”
At the elite level, Norman believes the right equipment is no substitute for talent and for Rory McIlroy, his problems of the past 12 months have nothing to do with his multi-million euro switch from Titleist to Nike clubs and ball.
“The best are always going to be the best, no matter what you chuck in their bag. Send five guys out on Augusta National with hickory-shafted clubs and gutta-percha balls, and the guy with the most talent will always win.
“Technology allows you to extract certain things from your equipment, but how you extract it is dependent upon your ability to swing the club. Science can only take you so far.
“When I was young I read a lot of articles by Ben Hogan. He wrote pages on the stiffness and torque he used in his shafts. I remember thinking, ‘Shit! I need to figure this out’.
“I spent a lot of time trying different shafts and, when I found a good match, making sure the spine was set in the same place on every club. I got it right, so I can’t figure out why today’s pros can’t do likewise.
“Take Rory. It’s absurd to say he has gear issues. It’s so easy to recreate the same specs and feel from one set to the next. Something else is going on [with him].”
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