A shark’s tale

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CD Traveller speaks to Greg Norman – golf’s most successful off course businessman – about his quintet of quality courses in the Caribbean

Mention the Caribbean and the usual clichés spring to mind: powder soft sands, friendly locals and lashings of rum cocktails. It goes without saying that the white sand beaches are postcard perfect but arguably the Caribbean’s biggest draw is its genteel golf courses. Over the last decade, the region has matured into a bona fide golf destination whose beautifully manicured courses rival the likes of Florida, Cyprus and Spain.

There is a plethora of great greens to choose from but the jewel in the crown, for the moment at least, are those designed by Greg Norman aka the ‘Great White Shark’ (the moniker is a reference to the shark that inhabits Australian waters, as well as the Australian’s blindingly blonde hair, impressive size and aggressive style of golf).

Before Tiger, it was the Shark who dominated the game for well over a decade. Despite not having picked up a putter until the age of 16 (as a youngster, Norman played rugby and Australian Rules football while dreaming of becoming an Australian Air Force Pilot), Greg went on to have one of the greatest careers in golf history – not bad for a boy from the Outback. Certainly the Shark’s CV takes some reading; Norman won at least one tournament a year between 1976-1990 including 20 on the PGA Tour, 17 European Tour victories and two British Opens. The Shark spent a staggering 331 weeks as world number one and came close to many other majors – most notably in 1996 when he lost the Masters after starting the final day six shots ahead. Little wonder then, that in 1996 Greg became the first golfer to surpass $10 million in career winnings.

Furthermore, the Florida resident is the recipient of three Arnold Palmer Awards (1986, 1990, 1995) and a trio of Cardon Trophies (1988, 1989, 1994). Norman was also named PGA Tour Player of the Year for 1995, inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2001 and crowned ‘Sports Personality of the Year’ on two occasions – an achievement matched only by Bjorn Borg and Muhammad Ali. But Greg Norman is about far more than hitting golf balls. Having given up full time competitive golf, Greg has become one of the games most sought after architects.

The man from Mt Isa – a tiny Queensland outback town with a penchant for producing world-class sports stars (Australian tennis’ favourite son, Pat Rafter, was also born here) – began his design career under the tutelage of long time architect Ted Robinson. It was Robinson with whom Norman collaborated on The Experience at Koele on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai before starting his own design company, Greg Norman Golf Course Design, in 1987. Since then, the Shark has opened over 63 courses worldwide (with plenty more in the pipeline, natch) drawing inspiration from his three favourite courses “Augusta National, St Andrews and Royal Melbourne – they represent the type of timeless strategy requirements I strive for every time I design a course” as well as “Alister MacKenzie and A.W Tillinghurst – classic designers who didn’t push a lot of dirt.”

He elaborates: “In the old days, the architects whom we now consider the masters, only had a horse drawn plow. They didn’t have bulldozers to push dirt around, so their approach sometimes seems minimalist when we consider it today. But I love their philosophy and continue to put it into practice. I try to move the least amount of dirt, not only to keep costs down but also to keep the course as natural as possible. I like my courses to mimic nature. I am not a believer in making things artificial.”

Certainly the Australian takes the ecological responsibilities of golf courses seriously and his designs have been commended for addressing issues like water conservation, waste management, chemical spraying and cultural heritage and wildlife protection. “My design team is always conscious of environmentally sensitive areas and we focus on using the greatest number of existing features a site has to offer. Honestly, I believe golf courses can be a great gift back to Mother Nature; with each course that we design, my goal is to leave the property in better environmental condition than we found it.”

When it comes to constructing a course, Greg’s approach varies from fairway to fairway or as he puts it “I am not a cookie cutter type designer. I don’t have templates in my office.” He continues: “I never approach any job with a preconceived notion of what the course should be. We allow the land and the environment to dictate the design and the course evolves as it is constructed. Sometimes many visits to the site at different times of the year in different conditions are necessary until we can settle on a particular hole or routing. Often you can’t get a true feeling for what the ‘normal’ conditions will be until you’ve been there multiple times.”

A savage workaholic, the shark has worked on “projects around the world” from Australia to America, Ireland and of course the Caribbean – having overcome a few obstacles. “Building a course on an island can be a real challenge,” he confesses, “as most of the materials need to be barged in. Also a good irrigation water source is becoming harder to come by on islands and wind – while something you take into consideration for any design – is more of a factor on island courses.”

To read part two of A Shark’s Tale, don’t forget to log on to the CD Traveller website tomorrow

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