A Quick Round with Greg Norman
GREAT EXUMA ISLAND, Bahamas – With more than two dozen design projects currently ongoing around the world, Greg Norman has his finger on the pulse of the global golf design business – and lack thereof in the U.S.
We caught up with him in Great Exuma Island at his revamped Sandals Emerald Reef Golf Club, which is finishing up renovations after being acquired by Sandals Resorts in 2010.
With a sling around his left arm from shoulder surgery, the Shark shared his thoughts on why he's not buying a quick U.S. bounce-back, but is all-in with emerging markets. He also makes a pitch to build Brazil's Olympic golf course, and explains why he believes in lifting equipment restrictions for amateur golfers.
It’s all Shark, no bull.
Your Emerald Reef design is now a Sandals Resorts property. How have you found Sandals' commitment to the former Four Seasons resort and your golf design?
We came here 14-15 years ago and there was nothing here [on Great Exuma Island]. And we knew then the owner was going to be a little ahead of his time, because they didn't have the airlift.
But we knew this whole bay area would just take off because of the beauty of the land meeting the sea. As soon as I heard Sandals was looking at the property, I knew this should have always been a Sandals Resort. It was the perfect facility for them, with the sprinkling of a Four Seasons.
That having been said, the golf course needed a lot of TLC. As a designer and builder, we get down and out when we see a course of this quality get buried into the back piles of accountancy.
You've been coming to this part of the Caribbean long before you built the golf course. What do you do down around the Bahamas for a good time?
In 1983 I started coming down here for fishing and diving. My preference here is scuba diving. Whether you're a recreational scuba diver down to 60 feet, or if you're a little extreme and ballsy like I am there are some phenomenal dives. The diversity for scuba diving, fishing and the clarity of water is comparable to the Great Barrier Reef [off the coast of Australia].
Your team, with Lorena Ochoa, is a finalist to build Brazil's golf course for the 2016 Olympics. What do you think it will take to get the job?
Lorena and I put our hat in the ring. Whoever gets the job is not going to make any money out of it, I can tell you that. There is a responsibility on whoever gets the golf course design job, they have to be the spokesperson for golf in the Olympics, because golf is only in for 2016. It hasn't been voted in for 2020.
So whoever gets the job has to be beating the drum for the game of golf for the IOC for four years after that. They have to be a staunch proponent of the game of golf.
The IOC has a tough decision to make. It has to be a course built for the general public at the end of the day. It can't be a private golf club.
In October you announced a design partnership with Ochoa. How will you two work together?
I approached her about the Olympics. I've always been big fan of her demeanor on the golf course and how she's a people person, and I knew she was getting into the design business.
At 36-hole projects, on occasion we get asked to bring in somebody else. At Mayakoba [which just announced another 18 holes designed by Norman and Ochoa] we said 'Do you really need another Greg Norman golf course? How about a Norman and Lorena Ochoa?' And that was such an easy sell. It's a great marketing tool for them.
She's really in her infancy about the design business and she wants to be a sponge. So it's a symbiotic relationship in a lot of ways. If we see an opportunity for Lorena, even if it's not even involved with me, I'll say 'How about Lorena?'
Asia, and specifically China, continues to be a place of massive optimism for golf. How is the game's future shaping up out there?
The central government and head of tourism would like to see the game explode where they have more golfers playing than in the United States in the next 20 years. Will they get there? Who knows.
Everyone's talking about how there are three million golfers in China, but only 380,000 play golf 10 or more times a year. Only 50 courses in China are under construction right now, which is not a lot to say the least.
If they meet the growth they want, 25 million golfers, they have to build 3-to-5,000 golf courses. They're really going to be looking at sustainability where its handed down to the next generation where it's not in the problem America is in right now.
It sounds like they don't want to experience the boom and bust of the United States golf course industry.
I really focus on the word 'sustainability.' I blame our industry in a lot of ways for putting America in the position it’s in today.
America is in the hole they are now because they built 350-400 courses a year in the 1980s and 90s with unlimited budgets. People were building $25 million courses when they should have been $12 million. Here we are today, people can't afford to be members of those clubs.
So how do you fix it? You really can't. You have people with $50 million invested in a property and sell off for $5 million. So the next people coming in will do very well out of it because they don't have that debt over their head. But people get hurt along the way.
So take that model and plug it into China and make it sustainable golf. And in 25 years, China will be the dominant golfing nation in the world.
Where else do you see opportunity and excitement about golf?
There is a boom in South Korea because of Y.E. Yang and all the girls [on the LPGA]. A lot of Chinese money is in Vietnam and it's a great destination.
We have four projects in Vietnam. As small a country as it is, they've come out and said they'll allow 83 courses to be built in the next 100 years.
The next most densely populated area after Asia is South America. Twenty-sixteen is a big catalyst to stimulating the game of golf. We're seeing it from Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Columbia. Everywhere you look, people want to build golf courses.
How do you convince local authorities that the golf courses you are building are environmentally sound?
A great site we worked on was Doonbeg in Ireland. That site was the most sensitive I've ever worked on in my entire life. We encouraged the environmentalists to walk with us. Every step I took I had an environmentalist standing beside me. Every decision I made or Jason [McCoy, senior vice president of Norman Golf Design] made, we asked her.
And at the end of the day, we built a fantastic golf course, probably one of the best. And the environmentalists say, ‘Thumbs up to golf course designers.’
We work with them. You can get the job done if you don't fight the system.
What did you think of the player feedback from the first Valero Texas Open held at the TPC San Antonio AT&T Oaks course (which Norman designed with Sergio Garcia), and how closely do you monitor tour player comments on your golf courses?
Depends on the player! (Laughs) Quite honestly the feedback we got was across the board almost 100% positive. The [negative] feedback was more the setup, not the course.
In defense of the PGA Tour, it was a new golf course for them as well. They had to understand the weather conditions and the way we designed the golf course. It was wet when it should be running.
Sunday, they set it up great. Thursday and Friday we heard some grumbling about the way they set up a few of the holes which we would never have designed it the way they set it up.
But we'll take the input of others and analyze it. I'm not afraid of making a slight change if it's a positive change.
Would you like to see any equipment changes made to help the game?
The game needs to loosen up. I say, let’s lift the veil for the masses. Why give you the restrictions on equipment? If you can hit it 340 yards, go for it. You're still going to shoot 90! (Laughs)
Where are you off to next?
I'm headed to the Sony Ericsson Open [in Miami] to watch some tennis. I'll be headed back to Great Exuma Island in April and again in June.
Thomas vs. Rose could be Ryder Cup highlight
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – For those still digesting the end of 2017 – the European Tour did, after all, just wrap up its season in Dubai on Sunday – consider that the PGA Tour is already nearly one-fifth of the way into a new edition.
The Tour has already crowned eight champions as the game banks into the winter break, and there are some interesting trends that have emerged from the fall.
Dueling Justins: While Justin Thomas picked up where he left off last season, winning the inaugural CJ Cup in October just three weeks after claiming the FedExCup and wrapping up Player of the Year honors; Justin Rose seems poised to challenge for next year’s low Justin honors.
The Englishman hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since August and won back-to-back starts (WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open) before closing his year with a tie for fourth place in Dubai.
Note to U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk: Justin v. Justin next September in Paris could be fun.
Youth served. Just in case anyone was thinking the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of experience over youthful exuberance – 41-year-old Pat Perez did put the veterans on the board this season with his victory at the CIMB Classic – Patrick Cantlay solidified his spot as genuine phenom.
Following an injury-plagued start to his career, Cantlay got back on track this year, needing just a dozen starts to qualify for the Tour Championship. He went next level earlier this month with his playoff victory at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
They say these trends come and go in professional golf, but as the average age of winners continues to trend lower and lower it’s safe to say 25 is the new 35 on Tour.
A feel for it. For all the science that has become such a big part of the game – from TrackMan analysis to ShotLink statistics – it was refreshing to hear that Patton Kizzire’s breakthrough victory at the OHL Classic came down to a hunch.
With the tournament on the line and Rickie Fowler poised just a stroke back, Kizzire’s tee shot at the 72nd hole came to rest in an awkward spot that forced him to stand close to his approach shot to keep his feet out of the sand. His 8-iron approach shot sailed to 25 feet and he two-putted for par.
And how far did he have for that pivotal approach?
“I have no idea,” he laughed.
Fall facelift. Although the moving parts of the 2018-19 schedule appear to be still in flux, how the changes will impact the fall schedule is coming into focus.
The Tour’s goal is to end the season on Labor Day, which means the fall portion of the schedule will begin a month earlier than it does now. While many see that as a chance for the circuit to embrace a true offseason, it’s becoming increasingly clear that won’t be the case.
The more likely scenario is an earlier finish followed by a possible team competition, either the Ryder or Presidents cup, before the Tour kicks off a new season in mid-September, which means events currently played before the Tour Championship will slide to the fall schedule.
“So if you slide it back, somebody has to jump ahead. The mechanics of it,” said Davis Love III, host of the RSM Classic and a member of the Tour’s policy board. “I’m still going to go complain and beg for my day, but I also understand when they say, this is your date, make it work, then we'll make it work.”
While 2019 promises to bring plenty of change to the Tour, know that the wraparound season and fall golf are here to stay.
Product protection. Speaking of the fall schedule and the likely plan to expand the post-Tour Championship landscape, officials should also use the platform to embrace some protections for these events.
Consider that the RSM Classic featured the third-strongest field last week according to the Official World Golf Ranking, behind the season-ending tournament in Dubai on the European Tour and the Dunlop Phoenix on the Japan Golf Tour.
The winner in Dubai received 50 World Ranking points, a marquee event that has historically been deeper than that week’s Tour stop, while the Dunlop Phoenix winner, Brooks Koepka, won 32 points. Austin Cook collected 30 points for his victory at Sea Island Resort.
All told, the Japan event had four players in the field from the top 50 in the world, including world No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama; while the highest-ranked player at the RSM Classic was Matt Kuchar at 15th and there were seven players from the top 50 at Sea Island Resort.
Under Tour rules, Koepka, as well as any other Tour members who competed either in Japan or Dubai, had to be granted conflicting-event releases by the circuit.
Although keeping players from participating in tournaments overseas is not an option, it may be time for the circuit to reconsider the conflicting-event policy if the result is a scenario like last week that relegates a Tour event to third on the international dance card.
After Further Review: Whan deserves major credit
Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.
On Mike Whan's really, really good idea ...
If LPGA commissioner Mike Whan hasn’t earned a gold star yet for creating the Race to the CME Globe four years ago, he deserves one now. The race’s finish at the CME Group Tour Championship has become a spectacular fireworks show. Stacy Lewis said it best on Saturday. She said the pressure the top players feel at CME is the “worst” those players feel all year, and by that she meant the “most intense,” the kind that makes for the best weeks.
You can argue there’s more pressure on the top women at the CME than there is in a major. The Rolex Player of the Year Award, the Vare Trophy for low scoring, the Rolex world No. 1 ranking and the money-winning title all seem to come down to this final week, when there’s also the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot up for grabs. You have to think the weight of all that might have had something to do with Lexi Thompson missing that 2-footer at Sunday’s end. She came away with the Vare Trophy and $1 million jackpot as nice consolation prizes. We all came away thrilled by Ariya Jutanugarn’s birdie-birdie finish amid the gut-wrenching drama. - Randall Mell
On Austin Cook's improbable winner's journey ...
Despite becoming a Monday qualifying sensation on the PGA Tour in 2015, Austin Cook still had to head to Web.com Tour Q-School that winter. There he collapsed over his final four holes to blow a chance at full status, and one year later the cancellation of the Web.com Tour Championship because of Hurricane Matthew left him $425 short of a PGA Tour card.
But Cook put to rest all of his recent near-misses with four days of nearly flawless golf at Sea Island. Now he’s headed to Augusta National in April and exempt through 2020, afforded ample time to look back at how tough breaks in the past helped to shape his unique journey to the winner’s circle. - Will Gray
On what Cook's win says about PGA Tour depth ...
Players talk regularly about the depth of talent on the PGA Tour, claiming that anyone in a particular field can come away with a trophy on any given week.
To prove the point, Austin Cook, No. 306 in the Official World Golf Ranking, rolled over the field at the RSM Classic with rounds of 66-62-66-67 for a four-stroke victory. Before Sunday at Sea Island Resort, Cook’s only triumph in a professional event was at a mini-tour winter series tournament. That payday was $5,000.
His victory at the RSM Classic was worth considerably more and proved, yet again, the depth of the modern game. - Rex Hoggard
Snedeker feels close to 100 percent after RSM week
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Even if the result – a tie for 29th place – wasn't exactly what Brandt Snedeker is accustomed to, given his journey back from injury he’ll consider his final regular-season start of 2017 a success.
Snedeker had been sidelined with a sternum injury since June and overhauled his swing with the help of his coach John Tillery in an attempt to alleviate future injury. Needless to say, his expectations at the RSM Classic were low.
After starting the week with back-to-back rounds of 67 to move into contention, Snedeker wasn’t as sharp on the weekend, but he was still pleased with his week.
“It was great to see how my swing held up and the golf course toughen up today and the changes we made. Inevitably you kind of revert back to what’s comfortable and natural,” he said. “But now my body feels good. I was shocked. I thought I’d be close to 75 percent this week and felt closer to 100 [percent]. Hopefully it continues to stay that way.”
Snedeker said he has a busy schedule planned for early next season on the West Coast and also plans to play next month’s QBE Shootout.
“Every time I’ve come back from injury I’ve been kind of like, well I’m close but not quite there,” said Snedeker, who added that he was pain-free for the entire week. “This is the first time I’ve come back and been like it’s there.”
Cook hopes RSM win starts a ROY campaign
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Austin Cook cruised to his first PGA Tour victory on Sunday at the RSM Classic, a nearly flawless performance that included just two bogeys for the week and a 21-under total.
Earlier in the week, Cook’s caddie Kip Henley said Cook was playing the most effortless golf he’d ever witnessed. But as is so often the case, it can be tough to tell what is really going on inside a player's mind.
“A lot of stuff going on, especially up here,” Cook laughed pointing at his head. “A little tenseness. This week my ball-striking was great, and for the most part my putting was great as well. All around my game was just incredible this week.”
Following a bogey at the second hole on Sunday that cut his lead to two shots, the rookie responded with a birdie at the seventh hole and added three more over his final four holes to beat J.J. Spaun by four strokes.
It was a timely victory for a player who has set rather lofty goals for himself.
“My goal coming into the year was to win Rookie of the Year and I’ve gotten off to a good start. Now my goal is to make a long deep run into the FedExCup playoffs,” he said.
Cook became the second consecutive rookie winner of the RSM Classic following Mac Hughes’ victory last year.