Despite the levity, the man adheres to a peculiarly straitlaced code. For example, he refuses to enter long-driving contests, even though he would be favored to win, because he thinks they are inequitable: Most players have no chance of winning. "The money should go into tournament purses," he says. He also refuses to employ the latest equipment rage on tour—"square grooves," irons with faces that allow a player to stop a shot on a dime. "They're not fair," says Norman, even though he knows he could lower his scores with them. And he refuses to renounce his Australian citizenship just to dodge the 62% tax bracket to which his country subjects him.
"That's just how I am," says Norman. "If I think it's wrong, I don't care, I won't do it. But it works the other way, too. If I think something is O.K., like driving my Ferrari fast, I'll do it."
Last year, after he built his Orlando house, he had a flagpole installed in front and ran up both the Australian and American flags. Soon he received a letter, unsigned, complaining that the Australian flag was flying above the Stars and Stripes.
Norman shrugged. He put in another flagpole. But inadvertently, the new staff, which held the Australian flag, was a few inches higher than the other. Another anonymous letter of complaint appeared in his mailbox. Now Norman dug in. "You'll notice," he says, "that I haven't changed the flagpole."
Judging from the cavalier, talent-blessed image he projects today, one might think that his rise to golfing stardom came easily for Norman. But he paid his dues. Eleven years ago he started working his way up through the Australian system of professional golf, in which a player, no matter how gifted, has to grovel before he can crawl. "It's not a difficult system, it's impossible," says David Graham, who labored for years as a "trainee" before he came to the U.S. in 1970. In Australia a golfer must still serve a three-year apprenticeship as an assistant pro, spending long hours in the shop, keeping his nose and the clubs clean, trying to live up to an archaic code written by a group of flinty men who believe that even the exceptional deserve no exception.
The Normans were a middle-class family. Greg's father, Merv, was a mining engineer. Greg's first handshake with golf was rather late. It came around his 15th birthday in Brisbane when—after a busy adolescence as a gifted athlete adept at everything from surfing and swimming to waterskiing, rugby, Australian Rules football, cricket and running races—he caddied for his mother, Toini, a three-handicapper, at a public course she frequented. Greg pulled his mother's golf trolley. Then, while Mum was taking tea in the clubhouse, he played two holes, the results of which he has forgotten. He does, however, remember his first regulation 18 holes: He shot a 108.
Enamored of a game he could attack with all of his considerable enthusiasm and energy, he slipped Nicklaus's instruction book, Golf My Way, inside his physics text, pretending to do his homework while secretly studying the game's rudiments. After graduating from high school, he took a job loading trucks. The work helped build up his strength, and the hours were right. After work he would hit balls until dark. While he was an amateur, no one could touch him. At 17 he was a scratch player; at 20 he turned pro. The Australian press got a look at his blond hair and sledgehammer drives and tagged him the next Nicklaus.
In one of his first tournaments, Norman arrived at the course to learn that the early leader had come in with a 67. "That's a pretty good score," he told himself. "I'll have to beat it." He went out and shot a 64.
"People say I'm a natural golfer," says Norman. "They have no idea of what went into it." Norman spent time as a pro trainee in Sydney, rising each day at 4 a.m. to get in a couple of hours of practice before work. Then, after a long day in the shop, he would go out and pick up several thousand balls from the practice range, finishing around 11 p.m. The work was hard, but more frustrating were the golf officials who would not give him the necessary waiver to play in national tournaments. It was as if he were in prison: three years as an apprentice.
In his frustration, Norman moved back to Brisbane, where he became the protégé of a crusty, jockey-sized fellow named Charlie Earp. Earp was the pro at the Royal Queensland Golf Club and he made a deal with Norman: Take a pay cut, from $38 to $32 a week, and every other day he could work half a day in the shop and practice in the afternoon. "But if I see you going out the club gate at noon, then keep going, because you're finished," Earp told him. To this day Norman keeps a golf diary in which he carefully records his practice time and progress, something Earp insisted on. During his days with Earp, Norman had another ledger to keep track of his gambling wins and losses. He would tee up in $100 Nassaus, sometimes playing for $1,000 in an afternoon. "Back then, I was like a wild dog on a leash," he says.