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Exclusive interview: 'This isn't my first rodeo' - Australian Golf Digest Exclusive interview: 'This isn't my first rodeo' - Australian Golf Digest

Keeping an unusually low media profile during the opening events of his divisive LIV Golf Invitational Series, Greg Norman is finally ready to do the talking. In a wide-ranging interview with Australian Golf Digest, The Shark explains how golf found itself in conflict, what it all means for countries like Australia, and why his second attempt at globalising the pro circuit will end differently to the first.

It’s late… really late one evening in the United States. Greg Norman is looking forward to bed after another exhausting day putting the finishing touches on the LIV Golf Invitational Portland – his tour’s inaugural event on American soil. 

It’s a landmark occasion for professional golf, an institution still trying to comprehend an active breakaway from the norm. 

LIV Golf, fronted by Norman as its chief executive officer and commissioner, is marching on, seemingly undeterred by threats of fines and suspensions to its players from the PGA Tour and DP World Tour. Norman knows his tour’s quest for legitimacy hinges a lot on the first impressions it leaves in the star-spangled territory of its competition. The last thing he would want in this moment is another phone call, let alone one from a prying golf writer on the other side of the world. But I dial anyway.

He answers.

“So, you wanna do an interview? I don’t get paid overtime,” laughs the World Golf Hall of Famer.

I immediately relax. Golf’s most colourful and determined figure has given me the signal that he’s ready to talk. He’s had time to sit back and take in all the headlines and commentary. The vitriol and hostility thrown his way via social media and mainstream media outlets would be enough to break most people. 

Not Norman. The 67-year-old is only interested in setting the record straight and giving us an insight into how this all plays out. 

“I have seen this movie before,” says Norman, who famously tried to get a world tour up and running in 1994 before the PGA Tour knocked it on the head. “Most of the actors are the same and the storyline almost identical.”

He pauses momentarily.

“This time,” he warns, “it will end differently.” 

For the purpose of this extensive interview, I follow up later with another call after the Portland event. Norman’s jovial mood hadn’t shifted. 

Strap yourselves in, dim the lights and grab the popcorn, folks. The sequel has officially started.

Norman couldn’t hide his excitement at the welcome party for the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational event at centurion. Courtesy of LIV Golf

AUSTRALIAN GOLF DIGEST: “Pure greed”, “power struggle”, “blood money”. These are just a few of
the headlines that have been used to describe LIV Golf’s arrival on the scene. How did we arrive here? 

GREG NORMAN: The headline should read: A golden era for golf and its fans. When The PGA Tour, which has monopolised golf for more than half a century, was finally confronted by competition, they pulled out all stops to throw obstacles in our way. From verbal propaganda, to trying to convince the public that competition is bad for professional golf, to threatening the players with lifetime bans and other forms of intimidation. LIV has even experienced many vendors telling us that the PGA Tour has threatened them with loss of business if they get involved with us. With these heavy-handed tactics by the tour, these vendors have lost substantial revenues. This has been a disgraceful show of anti-competitive behaviour by the tour. These obstacles have only increased our resolve and determination that golf is a force for good and competition is healthy. I have seen this movie before. Most of the actors are the same and the storyline almost identical. This time, it will end differently. 

You had it all mapped out. You were preparing to come home to Australia to retire on a beach in sunny Queensland. Why are you putting yourself through this? 

LIV Golf is right for players and fans, and it’s right for expanding the game globally. LIV is the best thing that’s happened to the game I desperately love. And I felt if there was ever a final chance to truly reinvigorate the way professional golf is presented, it is now. I owe it to the fans, players, the game and to myself. I am standing by the courage of my convictions.

Drinks are on me: Norman took great delight in mingling with fans during the LIV Golf Invitational Portland event. Getty images: Joe Scarnici/Live Golf

The criticism thrown your way has been relentless from those who oppose LIV. How do you deal with the personal attacks? 

You cannot run through a brick wall without getting hurt. Most of the attacks come from those who are ignorant of the facts and our business model, or those who have vested interests in the status quo. Remember, this is not my first rodeo in trying to innovate and create opportunity for players. But, yes, it’s disappointing that some have had these strong reactions and levied personal attacks. 

Do you think there is a reason you have been personally targeted by the mainstream media? 

Probably because I have always stood for players’ rights and free agency and not for institutional rights.

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee even called for your World Golf Hall of Fame honour to be revoked and says you’re trying to “destroy the game”. What’s your response to that accusation? 

He is a paid talking head who has never bothered to understand the LIV business model and what it’s doing for the game. Nor does he comprehend golf diplomacy. The art of knowing is knowing what to ignore. I brush aside his drivel and focus on growing the game globally, as I have done as a player, in golf course design and in business. 

A big sticking point for LIV critics is the source of the money. Many believe the Saudi investment (LIV Golf is majority-funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund) is an attempt to “sports-wash”, a means to conceal the country’s humanitarian flaws. True?

My advice to all the pundits out there is take a trip to Saudi Arabia to see for yourself the cultural changes occurring within the country. They will see that if golf is good for the world, it is good for Saudi Arabia. They are investing in-country as well as globally in the game. LIV Golf Investments has invested more than $US300 million into the International Series in partnership with the Asian Tour. Why is it OK for the LET (Ladies European Tour) and LPGA Tour to have the backing from Aramco – the largest investor in women’s golf – but the men, who want to express their independent rights as free agents, cannot?

So, do you feel the media and social commentary around LIV Golf’s movements has been somewhat hypocritical by targeting you and not others?

The hypocrisy is deafening. The PGA Tour has 23 sponsors doing $US40-plus billion in business in Saudi Arabia. Will Jay Monahan cut ties with those companies from doing business with the tour? Why threaten LIV golfers with their livelihood by banning or suspending them? Their 501(c)6 charter is “to promote the interests of the tournament professional golfer”. The PGA is doing the opposite. 

What have the Saudis actually been like to do business with? 

From my standpoint, nothing but professional, committed, passionate, and they have a long view on golf and the force for good it delivers. Before taking the role as CEO and commissioner of LIV Golf, I was already in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) building golf courses, so I have seen first-hand the investment they are putting into golf. It is truly impressive. They have identified golf as a way through tourism, hospitality, jobs, education and internal growth to open their country to the world and to their citizens. It is an honour, as a golf course designer, to be part of this growth. 

LIV’s opening event at Centurion near London stole a lot of the headlines. What was your take on the launch and what can be improved? 

For our first event, which was executed within less than 10 weeks, it was a huge success. The surveys we conducted with the players, caddies, fans, volunteers and guests post-tournament were overwhelmingly high in approvals. Of course, we can improve though. We are a start-up and will continue to improve on every front. We are not going anywhere but forward and for a long, long time.

 Getty images: The Washington Post

Guaranteed paydays are clearly an attractive proposition for professional golfers. But are you at all concerned it could hinder the motivation and cut-throat nature among the playing group to perform at their best?  

Absolutely not and let me tell you why. When I was standing at the 18th green in Portland, watching Patrick Reed chip in for a birdie to take his team to the top of the leaderboard, you couldn’t believe the excitement from the team and spectators. It was a testament to what these guys love about the LIV format. Reed wasn’t going to win the individual tournament for himself, but he knew he could win it for his team. He was so jacked up and I was like, This is what it’s all about. Then, Carlos Ortiz holes a 40-foot putt to get his team into third place and secure one of the biggest-ever paydays his teammates have had – for finishing third. Watching them run out onto the green with such excitement, that to me is what LIV is all about: individual and team glory. The competitive spirit I witnessed first-hand in Portland was greater than any other tournament I’ve played in. Besides, top-to-bottom in LIV tournaments is a 40-1 range of winnings. You don’t think that doesn’t get players’ competitive juices going?

Speaking of juice, 15 minutes later you’re pouring beer down the throats of fans…

It’s what the fans want, right? They’ve got their music, they’ve got their great golf and some guy yells out “free beer”. I was trying to act commissioner-like, and they started cheering my name [laughs]. So, I told a friend of mine to go grab some beers. I was signing autographs and having fun with the crowd and when that fan asked for a drink, I thought, Why not? I like to walk around the first tee and for a few holes with the gallery. It’s so refreshing. When I go to tournaments these days, I don’t go with a focus on playing. I go with a focus on the fans and making sure they’re having a great time and that the players are enjoying themselves. I’m connecting with the fans and I love it. People were telling me they drove six hours to be there and how much they loved seeing 48 guys on the driving range at the same time, and then being able to watch all the players out on the course at once and finish off the day with a huge music concert. They love that they get to pack so much into four or five hours. I know Australians will embrace this, too, because they love this type of entertainment.

OK, let’s clear something up. Alan Shipnuck, author of Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar, was removed from Phil Mickelson’s opening press conference at Centurion. Images of you watching it all unfold went viral. Why was Shipnuck ejected and whose call was it? 

We did not have a press credential for him for the event. This was rectified.

In February, Shipnuck released explosive comments (Saudis are “scary mother——s to get involved with”) from Phil before that book went on sale. How close was this to bringing down the entire LIV Golf project, given that Phil was LIV’s marquee man? 

It was an obstacle, no doubt. That happened the week of the Genesis in LA in February and we had planned to launch the following week as we had secured our strength of field. Far more debilitating, however, was the PGA Tour’s threats to its players of lifetime bans. We had to regroup and regroup we did.

A few months on and you seem to be riding a wave of momentum with player signings. How vital is the support of the Majors and the Official World Golf Ranking to LIV Golf’s quest for legitimacy? 

The next, most important step outside of the players is getting OWGR points for our tournaments. We have worked hard to understand and meet the requirements to apply for OWGR points and have submitted our application. I am highly confident with our strength of field – which grows each week with player signings – and our individual format, that it puts us in a very good place to secure official OWGR points. When we officially have OWGR points for all of our individual events, everything else looks after itself, which includes the Majors.  

Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Phil were obviously huge scalps for LIV. What is your pitch to guys like Rory McIlroy who are PGA Tour loyal? 

Add Brooks Koepka and Abraham Ancer to that list. Others soon to follow. I respect whatever decision players make on where they want to play. As they, too, should respect the decisions other players make that might be contrary to theirs. And we will welcome those players anytime. We do not ask a player to make a choice on where to play. All players should be able to play wherever they choose. 

 Getty images: Vaughn Ridley

Rory took a not-so-subtle dig at you when he passed your 20 PGA Tour victories at the Canadian Open. What was your reaction to that? Do we sense some history there between you two during LIV’s recruitment process? 

I respect Rory, but I am somewhat confused by his approach. But then, he is paid to sit on the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council, so he is obviously going to support the tour. I do know he has asked for sizeable appearance fees to play in Saudi Arabia. His comments also show competition is a wonderful thing. So, I take it as a compliment that he wanted to beat my 20 PGA Tour wins. His next goal should be to win more than 91 tournaments globally or to maintain No.1 in the world for more than 331 weeks. 

You played extensively across both Europe and the United States. What did you make of the PGA Tour and DP World Tour’s recent announcement that they are working to further strengthen their alliance? 

The PGA Tour and DP World Tour certainly seem to be working together against LIV. My ultimate wish in all this is, I would just love to sit down with these guys and walk them through the LIV business model and explain to them what LIV is all about and how it’s ultimately good for the game. Let them see it and understand it instead of making all these decisions in a vacuum. As I’ve said previously, we’ve purposely built our whole business model around working within the current ecosystem of golf, not against it.

 Getty images: Jonathan Ferrey/LIV Golf

Why do you think PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan won’t sit down with you?

I don’t know. It absolutely perplexes me. Even now, if he did reach out, you’d have to ask yourself, Why is he only doing this now? But look, I’d love to sit down with Jay. I hope it happens.

What would you say to him? 

Listen to the opportunities LIV presents to understand that LIV is in the best interest of the game, the fans and the players. 

Can both tours ever truly co-exist? Can Greg Norman and Jay Monahan sit down for a coffee and actually collaborate on a new ecosystem for the sport? 

Of course. I would gladly sit down and have a coffee with Jay or Keith Pelley to explain our concept. Their reactions are based on LIV being a threat, a breakaway tour. On the contrary, we built our business model from the ground up to work within the game. Frankly, we ask ourselves, “What are they scared of?” Competition is what makes business, sport and the world a better place.

Norman has a clear ally in the head of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, Yasir bin Othman Al-Rumayyan. Getty images: Aitor Alcalde/LIV Golf; Luke Walker/WME IMG

Australia has been one of the big losers from the PGA Tour’s wraparound schedule, as incentivising marquee players to come Down Under is now next to impossible. What’s your pitch to the head honchos of Australian golf? 

Sadly, the leaders of Australian golf have hitched their wagon to the PGA Tour. They have committed to the Presidents Cup, which is once every now and then. What they have completely overlooked is Australia can do both. LIV will be looking to Australia to host an event in the future. And we can do it independently. The Australian public will love it.

There are rumours flying around that LIV is eyeing off a tournament in Sydney next year. Any truth to that? 

Rumours fly around like flies in Australia. Australia will know if and when a LIV event will come to its shores.

There have been multiple reports LIV Golf will become a proper league from 2023 onwards, and that the 12 four-man teams will be locked in for the entire season with private ownership and transfer markets added into the mix. Can you confirm or deny? 

The rumours are true. We’ve closed up shop, as far as our players are concerned. We’re in the process of kicking the league off next year and we’re a full year ahead of schedule. They’ll be more player announcements before then, but we’re set on the maximum amount of players. It’s interesting, we’re still getting calls from agents of top-40 players in the world wanting to join LIV but it’s too late now. I mean, we’d love to have them all but we can’t get them in. What it tells me, though, is what we’re doing is very appealing to the world’s best players.

 Getty images: Aitor Alcalde/LIV Golf; Luke Walker/WME IMG

Have other Australian-based players reached out to play in the LIV series after seeing the likes of Travis Smyth and Kevin Yuan cash in at Centurion and Portland? 

We are in conversations with a few of the Australian players’ agents. 

Looking ahead, where do you see LIV Golf in five years? 

Bigger, stronger and embraced globally.

What about yourself – where do you see Greg Norman in five years? 

Great question. Right now, I am focused on LIV’s business model, growth and other opportunities that will come from it. This change has been a long time coming and it is an honour and a privilege to be at the forefront of this change. LIV is here to stay. 

Feature image:  Montana Pritchard/LIV Golf