When Greg Norman and Tiger Woods were pitted against each other in the singles matches of the 1998 Presidents Cup, pride and their place in golf history went on the line.
This was Ali vs Tyson; Messi one-on-one with Pele.
Careers of icons spanning separate generations rarely intersect but when two of golf’s most revered figures conspired to pit the game’s most dominant No.1 against his heir apparent, Royal Melbourne Golf Club witnessed a match of immense symbolism.
On home turf, the Great White Shark, Greg Norman, a marketing powerhouse rivalled perhaps only by Arnold Palmer, up against a veritable kid called Tiger Woods, the chosen one who would become sport’s first billion-dollar athlete.
When the clock struck one on the year 1998, it marked the 331st week of Norman’s extraordinary reign at the summit of the Official World Golf Ranking; by week two that mantle belonged to Woods, a mantle he has owned for 683 weeks at last count.
Comparisons in other sports are hard to come by.
Less than 12 months from when he last held the No.1 ranking, Pete Sampras faced off against a 19-year-old Roger Federer in the round of 16 at the 2001 Wimbledon championships. The pair engaged in an epic five-setter ultimately won by the Swiss up-and-comer, the only time they would face off on opposite sides of the net.
The most sustained cross-generational rivalry was between Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, who split their 18 matches 9-all and won 40 Grand Slam singles titles between them from 1978 to 1999.
Norman himself emerged in the twilight of Jack Nicklaus’s storied career so the Shark vs Tiger match-up of 21 years ago was arguably golf’s most compelling inter-generational contest.
Yet the exact reason Nicklaus, the US captain at the 1998 Presidents Cup, wanted the match to happen was why Norman, then ranked 18th in the world, was so reluctant.
“They felt it was the match-up everyone wanted to see, but my take on the whole thing was simple: I didn’t want it to be about me and I didn’t want it to be about Tiger,” Norman told Australian Golf Digest in the lead-up to the 2019 Presidents Cup.
“I wanted it to be about the team and I felt there was a real danger the showdown would come across too staged. Now, in the end it was a thrilling match – I think Tiger drained a 40-footer on the last to beat me – but if I’m honest, the whole thing did feel a bit orchestrated. But it was certainly enjoyable being a part of it all.
“I think it was the last time I ever played with Tiger.”
“If I’m honest, the whole thing did feel a bit orchestrated. But it was certainly enjoyable being a part of it all. I think it was the last time I ever played with Tiger.” – Greg Norman
Norman’s Loss, Golf’s Gain
It’s symptomatic of Norman’s legacy that we remember the one match he lost during the 1998 Presidents Cup matches rather than the four prior he contributed so significantly to the International team’s lone US conquest to date. Not long back from shoulder surgery that kept him out of competitive golf for six months after the Masters, Norman formed an unbeatable partnership with Steve Elkington, the pair taking full points against Jim Furyk and John Huston, Mark O’Meara and Jim Furyk and Fred Couples and Davis Love III, halving their match against Lee Janzen and Mark Calcavecchia.
By the time Nicklaus and Peter Thomson and their respective assistant captains sat down on the Saturday evening, the International team held a virtually unassailable 11.5 to 3.5 advantage, so Nicklaus engineered the match every golf fan was so eagerly anticipating.
“Norman did not want to play Tiger at Royal Melbourne,” Nicklaus told a captivated dinner crowd during the 2013 Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village in Ohio.
“I think he had been injured and had not been back very long, so he asked Peter Thomson not to [put him in against Tiger]. Word got back to me… Tiger said to me, ‘I want Norman,’ and my goal was to get Norman for him.
“Norman said to me, ‘Why did you do that to me?’ I said, ‘Hey, you’re not on my team.’ Norman didn’t like it to start, but he laughed about it later. That’s just part of the fun.”
“Playing against Greg in his home country, what more can you want as a player?” Woods said when asked in August to recall his memories of their match-up.
“Are you kidding me? As a competitor, as an athlete, that’s what you want. You want to go against the odds. They may have the home-field advantage with the crowds, but to go against that person head-to-head, one-on-one is something I thoroughly relished.
“It was a tough match. Greg played well. He was playing well at that time. It was fun that Jack and Peter were able to set that match up and allow that to happen.”
“Playing against Greg in his home country, what more can you want as a player?” – Tiger Woods
Confirming to Australian Golf Digest that Nicklaus and Thomson acting as co-conspirators was true, if Norman was reluctant to be pitted against Woods it didn’t show once the pairings were announced.
“We didn’t have to get Greg up for any matches as far as I remember,” recalled International team captain Ernie Els, at the time a 29-year-old, two-time Major champion.
“He was a very intense type of a personality. You know, whenever he played competitively, he took it very seriously. I could sense that there was a lot of… he was in the zone, so to speak. He was ready to play, and I think the intensity was there. We didn’t have to hype too much there. It was obviously the present playing against the future so it was a big deal, especially in Australia.
“Greg Norman, what he stands for in international golf, and especially in Australia he’s got an unbelievable record. And for Greg to have played their No.1 player, as Greg was our No.1 player, it was a big deal. Looking back, it was quite something.”
Clash Of The Titans
Even before the formality of the International team’s win was completed after singles wins by Craig Parry and Nick Price, attention had turned to the one-on-one clash that was to follow later that afternoon.
“Once they were drawn together and it was one of the last groups, the whole air of anticipation… You spent the whole of Sunday morning waiting for it to happen,” says legendary Channel Seven on-course commentator Pat Welsh.
Rivalled only by the pandemonium at Huntingdale more than a decade earlier when Norman and Nick Faldo went head-to-head at the 1990 Australian Masters as the top two-ranked golfers in the world, Welsh regards the Norman vs Woods match as among the most memorable of his 30-year career inside the ropes.
“I’d been to a lot of Majors by that stage but this was something very unique, two of the greats going head to head,” Welsh told Australian Golf Digest. “Greg was still the king, make no mistake about that. They loved him down there. They’d seen him do so many wonderful things, particularly at Huntingdale. We knew that maybe there was a slight advantage to Greg because of the location, but Tiger was right at the height of his powers. It was like a rock concert on the first tee. You couldn’t get anywhere near them.
“My memory is that apart from the usual pleasantries on the first tee, there was barely a word exchanged. During tournaments I’d normally exchange a few words with Greg throughout the round but there was none of that that day. You could just feel that something special, something really big was unfolding.
“They barely exchanged a word apart from the occasional, ‘Good shot,’ all afternoon. It was as close to that ‘in the zone’ they talk about that I’ve ever seen out on a golf course.”
And Welsh wasn’t the only one. Former European Ryder Cup player David Feherty was walking the fairways alongside Welsh for US broadcaster CBS and was in awe of the quality of golf being played out before them.
“I’m pretty sure the southerly was up on the back side and there was this cluster of holes in this new configuration that they were using of really long, tough par 4s,” Welsh recalled. “These two were striping 2 and 3-irons to five and six feet through the wind with their second shots.
“Feherty walked past me and in that glorious accent said, ‘Have a look at this, son. This is as good as it gets.’”
The match itself ebbed and flowed but never once did Woods trail. The pair halved the opening hole before Woods gained an early ascendancy with a birdie at the second.
A stretch of three consecutive halved holes was broken when Woods won the sixth with a birdie, Norman fighting back from 2 down to be all-square through 11 holes.
By this time, the Parry win had completed the International rout but the two heavyweights continued to trade punches, Woods salvaging a half from near a tent right of the 18th fairway to complete a 1-up victory.
“We got word on the front nine that ‘Paz’ or Nicky Price had won their match to win the Cup,” Welsh said. “I gave a quick indication to Greg that that was the case and you thought that perhaps the air would go out of the contest, but that certainly wasn’t the case. It mattered little to them in their contest. It was as if they were in their own little arena and puffing their chests out. It was fantastic to be a part of.
“It went down to the last and Tiger won it, 1 up. It was one of those rare occasions in sport that lived up to the hype and then gave you some more after that. They were both the rock stars of their time. There was not much bigger in sport than a meeting between those two.”