Shark: did the golfing gods really single out Greg Norman for misery?
lIn recent years, it has become fashionable for sports documentaries to contain a self-referential element in which the protagonist reviews images of their own triumphs and disasters. The facial reactions in these segments often say more than hours of talking head analysis ever could: the vision of Michael Jordan, tablet in his lap, choking with laughter as Gary Payton’s account of the 1996 NBA finals series plays to him remains the defining factor. image from 2020’s The Last Dance. For Shark, which premieres Tuesday night in the US, directors Jason Hehir (who also directed The Last Dance) and Thomas Odelfelt replaced the tablet with a laptop open on a small side table next to seated Greg Norman.
The Australian never revisited the infamous final round of the 1996 Masters, in which he gave up a six-shot lead to hand over the green jacket to arch-rival Nick Faldo: “No need to,” he says curtly in the opening minutes of the game. Shark. And when the footage of that legendary choke—still the biggest last-day lead ever in a PGA tour tournament—starts rolling onto the laptop, you quickly begin to understand why. The pain of every slice, hook, undercooked putt and moment of self-doubt is still very much with him 25 years later.
We see him three putts on the green on the 11th hole; we see him come up short with his approach shot on the 12th, find the water and end up with a double bogey; we watch Norman’s tortured collapse on the ground again after a chip for eagle on the 15th kisses the edge of the hole and then just rolls wide. And then we see Norman, watching in silence, shifting his weight in the chair, his eyes glazed, swallowing his sighs. “Would my life be different today if I had a green coat?” Norman asks rhetorically after the final round is over. “No. It would be nice to have in my trophy cabinet, but it wouldn’t have changed anything in my life.” It’s the least convincing line in the entire movie.
Norman’s collapse on the last day at Augusta may be the stuff of a sports legend, but what may be less well remembered is the rich history of last-lap failures that preceded the 1996 drama. at the 1981 Masters, his first round of Augusta’s sacred grounds. Norman’s Scandinavian mop, flashy trousers, upright stance, easy swing and commitment to attack made him instantly recognizable on the track. His blunt Australianness (“The Shark” was a nickname that stuck from early on, a tribute to a childhood spent in the raging waters of far north Queensland) made him highly marketable and attracted the envy of less charismatic golfers in a time when big money first started rolling in in sports and the commercial thirst for personality players was great. Norman wanted to take full control of the sport “on the golf course and off the golf course,” Faldo says.
In 1986 his goal was almost complete. Golf enthusiasts began to see the Australian as the natural heir to the greats of the previous generation, Jack Nicklaus in particular – and possibly even as the player who could climb the Everest of golf and win all four majors in one year. Norman led all four majors in 1986 after three rounds; All but one, the British Open, he collapsed on the final day, finishing second. That year established his reputation as a 54-hole maestro who couldn’t pull it off in the last 18, and the following year confirmed it: In a 1987 Masters playoff, Larry Mize sank an unlikely chip from the rough to take Norman leaving with a 45-foot putt to keep the match alive. It floated wide. “I went home and cried on the beach,” Norman says now. “All these questions go through your mind for months and months. Maybe I should have put it in the middle of the green and got a 20 footer instead of a 45 footer, maybe I got ahead of things thinking it was an impossible chip [for Mize]† Those things have been haunting me for a long time.”
A story has emerged that Norman was a “snake bite”, doomed by a uniquely evil fortune to lose in major tournaments to a series of improbable shots. In addition to the Mize chip, there was a bunker shot from Bob Tway at the 1986 PGA Championship, Robert Gomez’s fairway shot at the last hole of the Nestle Invitational at Bay Hill in 1990, and another bunker shot – this time from David Frost – on the final. . gap at the 1990 Zurich Classic in New Orleans. What Shark does well is put these wonder shots into context, with the three Normandy bogeys on the back nine that preceded the Mize chip, the 40 back nine he shot to put Tway for the win in 1986, and so on. Norman spent much of his playing days endorsing the fable of the snakebite: “I’m kind of a fatalist, I believe things happen for a reason,” he told former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke in a TV interview in 1993. Today he seems more optimistic: “You determine your own destiny, you do your own thing,” he reflects in Shark. “You have no control over what other people do. You cannot influence what other people do. The only influence you can exert is what you do, yourself, in your shoes, with your golf clubs, with your score.” And yet this hour in Norman’s presence never quite dispels the sense that to some degree he still feels that the golf gods chose him for a special category of misery.
The fun of a documentary like Shark isn’t just reliving, with Norman, the pain of all these breakdowns. He’s also eloquent about the highs, the moments during those final rounds of charging when everything clicked. Case in point: when on the final day of the 1986 Masters he netted four straight back-nine birdies to recover from a disastrous start and come within spitting distance of Nicklaus. “You just got this freedom of mind, you’re happy and you just want to go,” Norman says. “You trust yourself, your swing is free, your mind is free, you see these shots, you execute them. You could even hit a leaf off the end of a tree if you wanted to.”
Norman lost on the last hole that day to Nicklaus, 15 years his senior. But the bond between the two golfers – avatars of two adjacent generations – emerges as particularly influential in Shark. At Turnberry in 1986, Nicklaus Norman offered a “critical” last-day advice that helped the Australian overcome the nerves built up from two consecutive major tournament collapses and take his first major (“Greg, just think about grip pressure tomorrow.” . Just think about your gripping pressure.”) And he was there again to help Norman through a slump in the early 1990s, advising him to practice and play with “target”: “When you get to the driving range, do you just go there to hit balls and feel sorry for yourself? Or do you have a goal?” Norman flew to Canada the following week and broke a 27-month drought on the PGA tour by winning the Canadian Open.
“He was like my father, my brother, my mentor,” Norman says. Faldo – the more conservative, less charismatic rival who finished his career with six majors to Norman’s two – also looms in Shark, although the real contrast that emerges is not between the players of the past, but the two men like they look like now: Faldo has softened to a merry middle age, while Norman stays just as fit as he did during his playing days.
He has plenty to be thankful for: his post-playing career, having done everything from developing the golf course to winemaking and the recent effort to a much-criticized Saudi-backed Asian professional tour, has been extremely lucrative. But Shark leaves us with a sense that something is still missing, a void inside that propels Norman. Many of the film’s most memorable scenes show Norman in Augusta today, playing only 18 holes, reinforcing the sense that his biggest rival was not Faldo or Nicklaus, but himself. At 67 years old, Norman still looks as slender as in his splendor: the stance is just as firm, the swing so free. Under a gray sky, over a completely empty track, he repeats all the clutch shots of his 1986, 1987 and 1996 collapses and executes them perfectly. What if?