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.