Greg Norman stood alone on the practice range at Sandals Emerald Bay Club and effortlessly hit practice balls into the setting sun. One after the other – the big shoulder turn, the hands held high, then whoosh! – another perfect shot arced to the end of the range and disappeared into the shadows.
The swing looked exactly like it did thirty years ago when the Great White Shark was the No 1 golfer in the world. In fact, the Shark himself looked like he hadn’t aged a day – still lean and muscular, with his trademark deep tan and blond hair. Hard to believe that he had turned 60 earlier in the year.
“Anybody lose any balls today?” Norman asked with a big smile on his face.
Our group of golf journalists and travel professionals chuckled and muttered numbers ranging form a few to a lot.
“It’s tough the first time,” said Norman “but I guarantee it will be different tomorrow.”
We were at the Emerald Bay Club on Great Exuma in the Bahamas as guests of Sandals, the upscale resort company that has properties all over the Caribbean. Greg Norman had flown over earlier in the day from his home in Florida and like most days on his hectic agenda, he was multi-tasking on the trip – dealing with some golf course items for his course design company, playing nine holes with the winners of a contest arranged by one of his sponsors, dining and playing golf with an international group of journalists (us) and being a gracious ambassador for Sandals, another sponsor.
If that wasn’t enough, he was also managing the wide ranging business affairs of Great White Shark Enterprises by phone, and in person with a couple of aides that had accompanied him on the trip. Norman the businessman brought the same intensity and commitment to his commercial career that he always demonstrated during his playing days.
“When was the last time you hit balls?” someone beside me asked him.
Norman turned and looked at us with that steely blue stare.
“I can’t remember,” he replied. “But when I play with you guys tomorrow, it will be my seventh game this year.”
This was near the end of October and one of the all time greats in golf, a World Golf Hall of Famer, a player revered all over the world for his accomplishments on the golf course, had only teed it up seven times this year!
“I’ll always love the game,” explained the Shark. “But my business is my priority these days. I get the same thrill from designing a new golf course or negotiating a tough deal or launching a new product that I used to get from competing on Tour.”
Perhaps that helps explain why Norman never played much on the Senior circuit.
“What kind of a relationship did you have with Seve?” someone else asked. Norman stopped hitting balls, kind of paused and looked into the distance.
“Actually, when I first started playing in Europe, before I came to America, Seve and I were pretty good friends”, said Norman. “We used to play practice rounds together and help each other. Seve had an incredible short game but he was a terrible driver of the ball. Maybe one of the worst ever.”
“My game was the opposite and Seve taught me a few things that helped me become a much better all round player. I tried to teach him how to straighten out his drives but I think he helped me way more than I did him.”
“One day we were playing a practice round at Wentworth in England and I hit a shot into a bunker. It was half buried on a downhill slope and I thought I had no chance to get the ball close to the hole. Seve came over and showed me a shot I’d never seen before. Instead of trying to blast the ball out using the sand, he hit almost straight down on the back of the ball. It sort of rolled up the face of the club and popped out with a lot of back spin and stopped near the pin. I couldn’t believe it.”
“I practiced that shot for years but never really had a chance to use it in competition until one year at the Masters. My tee shot on 12 was buried in the back of the back bunker. Downhill slope with Rae’s Creek on the other side of the green. The announcers were probably thinking I’d have to play out sideways.”
“I decided to try Seve’s shot and pulled it off perfectly. The ball stopped a few feet from the stick. I was playing with Hale Irwin and looked over at him after I hit the ball. He had this weird look on his face and walked over to look in the bunker. Then he looked at me and said, “What the f*ck was that?”
“I just laughed. Seve would have been pleased.”
Someone announced it was time for dinner.
Our venue this evening was one of the small banquet rooms adjacent to the main ball room where we would have an exclusive dining experience with Greg. If there’s one thing Emerald Bay knows how to do really well, it’s food. Whether it’s Dino’s Pizzeria, the Barefoot-by-the-Sea seafood restaurant or the Drunken Duck Pub, the all-inclusive resort has something to satisfy every craving and whim.
The previous night, Sandals had welcomed us at La Parisienne, an elegant French style restaurant where we were feted with a special tasting menu that provided lots of interesting hors d’oeuvres, plus samplings of beef tenderloin topped with a wonderful mushroom sauce, roast duck, lobster, Parisian style vegetables and several excellent red wines.
For dinner with Greg, the menu included New York strip or the catch of the day. Our group was an eclectic mix of media people and Sandals reps brought together from around the world: France, England, Germany, Italy, Japan, U.S and Canada. After our first day of golf and the session on the range with Greg, the wine flowed freely again and Norman held court on a variety of issues.
My tee time the next morning was 7:30 and I thought perhaps I should hit a few balls on the range before displaying my still rusty game to a former World No 1. But first a coffee and a little something to get the day started.
The resort has no end of places to eat and drink but the best spot was a little French pastry shop called Café de Paris tucked in a thicket of trees just off the main path near the pool area. It was open from six in the morning until midnight and offered a delectable choice of fresh baked pastries all day long. At an all-inclusive resort, that’s a dangerous option for someone with a sweet tooth.
It was 6:30 when I popped into the pastry shop to grab a coffee and there was a gorgeous sunrise just starting over the bay. A young couple was coming out, talking excitedly.
“That was Greg Norman!” the young guy said to his wife “Greg Norman!”
Sure enough, Norman was the only customer in the shop, getting what I assumed was his first coffee of the day. Now, I consider myself a morning person and have no trouble being wide awake first thing but Norman was way ahead of me.
He looked at me with those sparkling blue eyes and that infectious grin and said, “How ya doing this morning?”
It was almost a challenge. Like don’t even think about saying anything except, “I’m doing great! The day is going to be great! Ain’t life wonderful!” Whew!
We chatted for a few minutes about the golf course, then his phone rang. Who gets calls at 6:30 in the morning? Well, apparently Greg Norman does and it didn’t seem to faze him one bit. Probably some business associate from Europe where it’s almost noon or maybe one of his course designers calling from China where it’s already tomorrow. Such is the life of a global business tycoon.
With a quick wave, he was off.
With coffee in hand I sauntered past the magnificent pool, through the reception area and over to the golf shop to get started. The course is right across the driveway from the main building and the range is just beyond. My first exposure to Norman’s design had been the day before and I had mixed feelings.
There are really two distinct nines at Emerald Bay. The front winds amongst the islands and mangrove and the vegetation is oppressive. From the tee, the fairways look impossibly thin and the landing areas non-existent. Water is everywhere. In some cases, 8-10 foot reeds block not only your shot but your line of sight if you happen to stray to the wrong spot. I think I lost eight balls on that first nine and that was about average for our group.
I’d only brought two dozen balls to the island for my two planned rounds and I was starting to think it wouldn’t be enough. Then came the back nine. It was routed entirely along a peninsula that jutted into the beautiful turquoise waters of the Gulf Stream. Unlike the front nine, the back was more open with ribbons of emerald green fairways that hugged the shoreline and greens set against the backdrop of the Atlantic. The wind was more of a factor on the exposed spit of land and the waves crashed on the rocks below, but what a gorgeous setting. (Also: just one ball lost to a watery grave on the tricky 15th.)
The plan for Round 2 was for Norman to play nine holes with a couple from Chicago who had won a contest held by one of his sponsors, then play a few holes with each of the media groups. We began the front nine with all the dread we had built up the day before but Norman was correct, it was different the second time around. Armed with some hard won knowledge, landing areas mysteriously appeared where they didn’t exist the day before and fairways were infinitely wider. Scores improved, fewer balls were lost (1 in my case) and consequently I had a much better appreciation for the complexities of the course and its raw natural beauty.
Norman had described some of the difficulties of building Emerald Bay at dinner the night before and admitted it wasn’t a pushover. But when have you ever played a Norman design that is?
By the time we putted out on 12, our Aussie host had pulled up in a cart to join us. Nattily dressed in a navy blue shirt and a pair of white shorts, and sporting his traditional Panama hat with the colourful Shark logo, Norman looked like any other resort guest – at least until that distinctive swing hoisted a wedge shot onto the 13th green.
We played a total of three holes with Greg. He talked a bit about the course, answered questions, chirped us occasionally and then it was time to say goodbye. Off to another interview, then back to Florida. A great memory for each of us; another item stroked off the agenda for him.
It made me think about the life of an elite professional golfer and all the people they interact with during pro-ams and sponsor outings. It’s a special experience for the amateurs who get to spend some time in the presence of greatness and it creates a lasting memory for them. I’m sure some pros do it better than others. Norman handled it the same way he does everything else. He was totally committed to it while he was there -funny, engaging, even charming at times – but when it was over, it was time to move on. We weren’t going to be lifelong buds.
I thought afterwards that it’s the same way he answers a question. He fixes you with a stare and looks at you like you’re the only person in the room. He pauses for a moment, then answers the question with a very direct answer. No bullshit. Then he gives you that grin and moves on to the next one. Done and done. Pretty easy to see why he’s so successful.
As we were putting out on the 18th hole someone pointed out the Sandals jet flying overhead, climbing away to the west, taking Norman to his next business meeting.
For the rest of us it was off to another sumptuous lunch at Bahama Bay, then some serious beach time.
For more information on Sandals Emerald Bay Club click HERE.