TOLEDO — Greg Norman waltzed up to his golf ball and kicked it. It rolled past another ball that lay in the fairway. Norman turned and grinned, and the crowd laughed.
Well. We’ll see about that. Jack Nicklaus walked up to that other ball — his ball — and he kicked it. And it rolled past Norman’s ball. And Nicklaus grinned himself.
“So there,” he seemed to say.
“So there,” echoed Norman.
Here come ol’ gold tops, groovin’ up slowly. Jack Nicklaus. Greg Norman. Playing together, kidding around — although some would insist that, these days, they are passing a torch rather than a Titleist. For while Nicklaus is undisputably the golfer of glorious memory, Norman has become the golfer of the moment. And perhaps the future.
“Greg, would you sign this?” someone screamed from the crowd watching the practice round.
“Greg, my baby is named after you!”
“Greg, take no prisoners!”
“Greg! Over here!”
What a difference a major tournament makes. After capturing the British Open a few weeks ago — his first major title — Norman is being hailed as much as a taxi in a Manhattan rainstorm. Before the British, the talk was how Norman had choked in the Masters and U.S. Open this year — both of which he lost after leading on the final day.
But now, the same results are being viewed from a different angle. What other golfer has so consistently been near the top of the major tournaments in one year? That is the new golf question.
And Greg Norman is the new answer.
“Whatcha got to eat?” Nicklaus asked Norman on the fifth tee.
“Let’s see,” Norman said. He took a brown paper bag from his caddie.
“Peaches, plums, a can of nuts.”
“Hmm,” Nicklaus said, examining the jar. “Planters Assorted Peanuts. Extra oil . . . “
And you thought they’d be discussing woods and irons. Well. They do that, too. But what is interesting is the relaxed relationship between Nicklaus, 46, and Norman, 31, their camaraderie, and the combined adulation they received in just one afternoon of practice for the PGA Championship, which begins here today at Inverness.
It was as if Elvis had taken a young Mick Jagger under his arm. The crowd whispered and pointed and choked on their words when the two blond men walked past. When they teed off with two mighty whooshes, the weekend golfers swallowed in awe.
“If I could hit just one like that,” a fan mumbled, “I would die a happy man.”
“I’ve been a Nicklaus fan my whole life,” said another.
“Me, too,” groaned a third, “but my wife, all she does is talk about Norman.” Well, there are worse guys to envy. Norman, as Nicklaus put it, is “an outstanding player who amazes me with how hard and straight he shoots the ball.” He is easily No. 1 on the money list this year with a record $564,729. He is married to a beautiful woman, collects fast cars, has a waterfront home in Florida and still commands the cheers of his native Australia.
Combine all that, and you understand why the media have latched onto Norman like a hound locks its jaw around raw meat.
Let’s face it. Golf is hungry for personality. In recent years, it has become a sport where the pants are more colorful than the players. But enter Norman, platinum blond, Australian accent, nickname “The Shark” –having the year of his life — and you must admit, there are possibilities. “Greg could be the player we need,” Ray Floyd said. “It all depends on what he wants to accomplish.”
What he wants to accomplish, it seems, is everything. “It’s possible I could be going for the Grand Slam this week,” he said, alluding to something never before accomplished. “It’s certainly possible. I know it’s possible, because I had a chance this year to have three in my pocket already.”
Cocky? Well, consider his accomplishments in 1986 alone. Only Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen have won all four major tournaments in a career. But Norman so far has taken the British, was within one shot of taking the Masters (he lost it to Nicklaus), and was cruising in the U.S. Open until he hit a dead Sunday. And he has been on the tour only three years.
“He’s won something like 30 tournaments internationally,” Nicklaus said. “He just hasn’t won as many in the States, so people here haven’t really seen how very good he is.”
So is Norman the one? The new star animal of the golf circuit? The Shark that follows the Bear? Maybe. “That’s for other people to decide,” he said.
But if it comes to pass, it seems unlikely that Jack Nicklaus will object. Remember, it was Nicklaus who came over to Norman’s restaurant table the night before the final round of the British Open and gave him a few pointers. And told him, “Nobody wants you to win this more than I do.”
And when Norman came through, Nicklaus was the first person to greet him as he strode off the 18th green.
“I was rooting for him,” Nicklaus said Wednesday. “He had played so darn well the whole tournament. I thought it was his time.”
“Do you think he has the potential to be the next big star in golf?” someone asked Nicklaus.
“I think he already is,” Nicklaus said. And there they were Wednesday, polyester to polyester, the big star and the next big star. Hard to believe that Norman learned to play golf in Australia by reading Nicklaus’ books — “He was my idol,” Norman freely admits — and now they walked the Inverness course together, and traded jokes and peaches and plums.
“Hey Greg, look at Jack’s three-wood,” said Norman’s caddie at one point.
“It makes yours look brand new.”
Norman looked it over. He held it, stared at it, examined it as if examining destiny.
Nicklaus smirked. “That three-wood is older than you are.”
And they laughed.
On it goes. On they go. The legend and, perhaps, the legend to be. No wonder Norman didn’t object when Nicklaus kicked his ball ahead on that fairway. The important thing, he knows, is not which ball is where, but that they are finally on the same grass. Very close, and equally deserving.