LONDON — They don’t have an Olympic sport for surfboard biting (yet), but the Great White Shark was in town Tuesday anyway.
The subject for Greg Norman was Olympic golf, and if you haven’t been paying attention, that phrase may be a stunner. But why not? Olympic Games that used to be a celebration of amateur athletics are now the Dream Team, the NHL in full force, the pro tennis tours and six-figure-income sprinters and swimmers. Why shouldn’t golf go with the flow?
It’s not as if this is a first. Every 112 years or so, the International Olympic Committee gives a thumbs up to grip it and rip it. Now, obviously capitalizing on the momentum from 1900 in Paris and 1904 in St. Louis, the IOC brought golf back. In 2016, they will tee it up in Rio de Janeiro, where golf currently is something you watch on TV. In the Olympic area of Rio, there are two courses, one of them with a highway running through it.
But no matter. The IOC has awarded the course-building project to U.S. designer Gil Hanse, who worked with Los Angeles’ own Amy Alcott to win the bid. The dirt is scheduled to begin moving in October. The IOC mandates that one women’s and one men’s test event be played there in 2015.
This is great news for U.S. fans who use the Olympic medal count as a sort of testimonial to our country’s superiority. We may be obese, but don’t mess with us on the balance beam.
Historically, we kick butt in golf. Going into Rio 2016, the U.S. leads all time with three gold medals, three silver and four bronze. The Chinese think they’re pretty hot stuff now, but wait until they have to knock in a 40-footer with Tiger standing nearby. In fairness, we might mention that only France, Britain, Greece and the USA competed in golf in Paris in 1900 and only the U.S. and Canada in St. Louis in 1904. Minor details.
Norman, 57, is a booster of Olympic golf on several fronts.
He was spurred on by his friend and playing rival Seve Ballesteros. Norman won two British Opens (his only major titles) and was No. 1 in the world for a total of 331 weeks in the 1980s and ‘90s. Ballesteros was a challenger to that throne.
But they practiced a lot together, and Norman says that some of Ballesteros’ passions became his. Ballesteros knew then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, also a Spaniard, and planted with him the idea of golf in the Olympics.
“I remember when it started,” Norman said. “It was a practice round, in 1984, here at Wentworth [England]. We were getting ready for a World Match Play . . . Seve mentioned the Olympics, and I was kind of taken aback. I hadn’t thought about it, didn’t know much about the concept.”
But Ballesteros wanted Norman on board, and Norman studied the concept thoroughly. After Ballesteros died of cancer last year at 54, Norman helped keep the campaign alive, while never forgetting Ballesteros’ role.
“I give Seve as much credit as anybody,” Norman said. “And here we are today, talking about golf in the Olympics.”
Norman could have easily lost his enthusiasm when Hanse’s course-design bid was chosen over one he made with Lorena Ochoa. Also losing were heavy hitters Jack Nicklaus (with Annika Sorenstam) and Gary Player.
But Norman said that although losing upset him, it remains too important to golf to take advantage of this opportunity for the international boost the Olympics can bring.
“If we don’t do this well,” he said, “and don’t get golf back in the 2020 Games, then shame on us.”
Certainly, there are business reasons that blend with his altruism. Norman is a leading spokesperson for Omega, which recently outbid incumbent Rolex to be the PGA Tour’s watch sponsor. Omega brought him to London.
Norman’s push for Olympic golf, even while the critics question why the Games need yet another sport in which Olympic achievement is not the sport’s highest, takes on additional sincerity when he says, “You know what I love about the Olympics? If you win a bronze medal, you are a hero. If you finish third in a golf tournament, you are a choker. That’s what we should all take away from the Olympics.”
This, of course, is coming from a man who may understand that better than any other. To go with his two British Open titles, his gold medals, Norman managed, in well-documented close calls in major championships, eight silver medals and two bronze.