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Back in Business
Alan Shipnuck
November 23, 1998
Greg Norman ended a seven-month layoff in style by teaming with Steve Elkington to win the Shark Shootout
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November 23, 1998

Back In Business

Greg Norman ended a seven-month layoff in style by teaming with Steve Elkington to win the Shark Shootout

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In April, his arm in a sling, he had said, "I'm at the stage now where I can say, 'I've had a great time playing the game, but I've got other things to do. It's time to move on.' " In August, aglow from a summer of sun and fun with his wife and kids, he had said, "I feel like I finally got my life back again." On Wednesday of last week, two days before he was to play his first competitive round since the Masters, he said, "The time off was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn't miss the game one bit."

How, then, do you explain the maniacal grin Greg Norman wore while winning last week's eponymous Shark Shootout in Thousand Oaks, Calif.? What does one make of the way he glided around Sherwood Country Club, yukking it up with fellow players, tossing bouquets to fans and cracking wise with reporters? Norman, 43, has always been a walking contradiction, the best golfer in the world but a player likely to slip on a banana peel at the worst possible moment. Now, seven months removed from major surgery on his left shoulder, Norman has returned for one last go at clarifying his muddled legacy, and more than just his fickle fin seems to have been reconstructed. Norman's psyche, which has been written about so much it ought to have its own spot in the Tour media guide, appears to have been cleansed by his time away from golf. He came to the Shootout not caring if he won. So, of course, he did, rolling in one clutch putt after another as he and partner Steve Elkington defeated John Cook and Peter Jacobsen on Sunday on the third hole of a playoff.

"I don't feel an urgency anymore when it comes to playing golf," Norman said earlier in the week. "I want to go out there and enjoy it. I don't ever again want to get in a situation where I'm going through the motions. I'll get out for good before I'll just take up oxygen on a golf course."

Those comments only hint at how suffocated Norman felt in the year leading up to his surgery. "There was a good reason I was burnt out: I was frustrated because I didn't know what was going on with my swing," he says. "I didn't realize how much my shoulder was affecting it."

Norman has never been one for moderation, and this goes beyond his seven Ferraris. He claims to have hit 3,000 balls a week since he was 16, and as far back as two years ago the wear and tear began catching up with him. Though the pain would shoot from his shoulder all the way down to his wrist, he ignored it and soldiered on. Finally, at this year's Players Championship, in late March, Norman's shoulder was so stiff and painful that he was forced to withdraw. Still, he couldn't bring himself to sit out the Masters two weeks later. During the first round at Augusta, he says his shoulder locked up on the 18th tee, and he heeled a drive that came frightfully close to taking out some gallery members before it caromed off a tree and rolled back toward the tee, settling not 30 yards from an ashen-faced Norman. "I nearly killed somebody," he says. "Except for the cold top I had against Nicklaus the first time we played, at the Australian Open, in 1976, that was the most embarrassing shot I ever hit." Norman followed his opening-round 76 with a 78, missing the cut for the third time in his last five majors, and was duly convinced that he needed to see a doctor. After returning home to Florida, he had an MRI that revealed a series of bone spurs that had inflamed and destabilized the shoulder ligaments. "I was happy when the diagnosis came," Norman says. "I finally had an explanation."

Last April 22 in Vail, Colo., the Shark underwent a cutting-edge procedure known as Electro Thermal Arthroscopy, performed by the Hawk, a.k.a. Dr. Richard Hawkins, a shoulder savant who has cut on John Elway, Jim Kelly and Billie Jean King, among others. The spurs were shaved down and the loose ligaments shrunk using a heat probe. (A spokesman for Oratec Interventions, Inc., which holds the patent on ElectroThermal Arthroscopy, calls the procedure "real Buck Rodgers stuff.") It would be 147 days before Norman was allowed to swing so much as a pitching wedge. In the meantime he discovered some long-lost friends—his wife, Laura; his daughter, Morgan-Leigh, 16; and his son, Gregory, 13. This summer was the first in family history not built around Dad's golf schedule, and the Normans took full advantage. They did the tourist thing in New York City, shopping and catching Broadway shows; got lost for a week in the Colorado mountains, biking and fishing; and spent an unprecedented amount of time together at home. The sign on the front gate to the Norman house in Hobe Sound, has long read TRANQUILLITY, but for the first time Norman actually got to experience it.

At a pre-Shootout press conference he was asked what was the best part of being away from golf. "Being away from golf," he said archly. Turning serious, Norman asked the reporter, "Are you a father? What do you do with your kids? You go to the movies. Watch 'em play soccer. You go to the ice cream parlor together. You sit around the pool and chat, and you take them to the beach with the dogs. Well, I did all that this summer, and there were a lot of other firsts, too." Like the day Norman decided the palm fronds needed a trim, pulled out a chain saw and did it himself.

That was not, however, the only work that got done. Even before his forced layoff Norman's Great White Shark Enterprises was doing blockbuster business. Having the boss around on a regular basis "moved up our business plan by 18 months to two years," says Bart Collins, the company's president. Norman has 20 golf courses under contract (his fee for signature designs has risen to $1 million); his turfgrass business is growing like a weed (this season's Super Bowl will be played at Pro Player Stadium, where the grass is his patented GN-1 strain); he's working with General Motors on a Shark model Chevy S-10 Blazer (it has a ragtop and a jacked-up suspension for that manly Aussie look); and he has launched Medallist, a land-development company, with Sydney's Macquarie Bank (according to Collins, the joint venture has $350 million worth of gated golf course communities in the works, making it the second-largest private developer of residential real estate in Australia). He has also been busy fussing over color swatches for the $35 million Boeing 737 that he's taking delivery on early next year. Oh, and did we mention that Norman got into cycling this summer, squeezing in 100 miles a week? "I'd like to think I took advantage of the time off," he says with a straight face.

It wasn't until early September that Norman began hitting full shots, following a strict program prescribed by Hawkins that began with the shortest clubs and gradually worked up to the driver. (This led, inevitably, to breathless updates on Norman's progress in the golf press—he's now swinging an eight-iron!) By the time Norman arrived in Thousand Oaks, he was ready and then some. He's longer by half a club with his irons and by 10 to 15 yards with his driver. "My left shoulder is now stronger than my right," Norman says. "It's my 25-year-old shoulder, and my right is my 43-year-old shoulder." Still, even though the Shootout is the silliest of Silly Season events, Norman admitted he had a few butterflies. "I'd be disappointed if I wasn't nervous," he said on the eve of the tournament.

History will show that Norman's first ball back, hit at 9:13 on Friday morning, was a towering fade that split the fairway, the longest drive in a group that included noted long knocker Davis Love III. At the 202-yard 3rd hole, Norman sent a charge through the crowd when he covered the flag with a four-iron, stopping his ball five feet from the hole. He didn't quite maintain this standard the rest of the round—he pulled a few approach shots, his putting was iffy and on the 16th hole he left one in a bunker—but that wasn't the point. "It's good to have the old guy back," Elkington said after the round, a 67 in the modified alternate-shot format that left the Aussies only two strokes off the lead. On Saturday, in best-ball play, Norman made four birdies and showed an improved touch around the greens. With a team 64, he and Elk went into the final round only one shot off the lead. During Sunday's scramble, Norman got to play the hero with his hot putter. He made an eight-footer for birdie on the final hole of regulation to force the playoff and a 10-foot bird on the first extra hole to extend it. On the third playoff hole he drilled a tricky 2�-footer for the victory.

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