On its 40th anniversary, Michael McEwan reflects on Greg Norman’s maiden European Tour win at Blairgowrie
THERE IS A CERTAIN IRONY in Perthshire, one of Scotland’s few landlocked counties, being the original hunting ground for the Great White Shark. And yet it was there, in June 1977, that Greg Norman gave the first tantalising glimpse of the incredible career he would go on to have.
The Australian was just 22-years-old and had turned pro less than a year prior when he arrived at Blairgowrie Golf Club for the Martini International. It was only his second European Tour event but there was a huge amount of hype about him.
Little wonder. Norman’s was a legitimately remarkable story. Having harboured ambitions of becoming a fighter pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force, golf didn’t feature on Norman’s radar until his mid-teens when his mother, a single-figure handicapper, introduced him to the game. As well as teaching him the basics, she also allowed him to caddy for her at the Virginia Golf Club in Brisbane. Within 18 months, he went from a 27 handicap to scratch.
At the age of 20, he took his first job in golf as an assistant professional at Beverley Park Golf Club in Sydney, before moving on to become a trainee under the tutelage of Charlie Earp at Royal Queensland, earning $38 per week. In 1976, just six years after he took the sport up, he turned professional as a tournament golfer. He claimed his first victory the same year at the West Lakes Classic in Adelaide before joining the European Tour in 1977.
So, to say there was interest in him when he arrived in Perthshire for the Martini International would be a real understatement.
Writing in The Herald, the late Raymond Jacobs - a shrewd judge of a golfer - described him as a ‘prodigious and rare’ talent.
“If ever a player looks the part both physically and technically, he is Norman,” added Jacobs. “A head of hair as strikingly blond as [Jack] Nicklaus’s perches above a piratical-looking broken nose and a burly, broad-shouldered frame.”
His fellow pros were just as curious to see him at close quarters. Amongst them was Charles Dernie, at the time an assistant at Royal Lytham & St Annes but, for the last 20 years, as coincidence would have it, the professional at Blairgowrie.
“We all knew there was this fantastic player across from Australia,” explained Dernie. “He hit the ball sky high. So we all decided that would never work in Scotland! He certainly proved us wrong, he could hit the ball for miles.
“He came here with a reputation as an exciting, attacking golfer and of course even then had the persona, the looks, the physique and the big hat. He really stood out.”
Rounds of 70, 71 and 70 muscled him into contention for the title with one round of Blairgowrie’s notoriously tricky Rosemount Course to play.
“If you missed the fairway it was tough because the heather was much worse back then,” added Dernie. “But Greg was a very big hitter. He was easily one of the best drivers of the ball I ever saw, which no doubt helped him that week. With his combination of power and accuracy, he was always going to be tough to beat.”
And so it proved. On a bleak and cold afternoon in Perthshire, Norman - playing alongside home hero Bernard Gallacher - swept to victory in thrilling fashion. He had five birdies in six holes from the turn and required only 28 putts on his way to a new course record of 66 and an 11-under-par total. That was enough for a three-shot win over South Africa’s Simon Hobday and a cheque for £3,000.
It was to be the first of 14 European Tour wins for Norman, and a total of 91 as a professional. Within nine years, he was a major winner and a world No.1. Now? His place is firmly cemented amongst the greats of the game - he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2001 - and he has managed to turn his nickname into a multi-faceted business that reports hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year.
Even so, there is a special place reserved in his heart for Blairgowrie. “Being completely honest, I don’t recall all 18 holes on the course but I remember the week vividly,” Norman told our sister publication bunkered. “It was an important win and I’ll always remember it fondly because it made a statement, to myself as much as anyone else. It told me that I was good enough to compete and win at the highest level. It gave me a huge amount of confidence.
“I’d already won a few titles in Australia and Japan by that point and so the next logical step was to try to win in Europe. I came over with the simple goal of trying to learn different courses, different ways of playing and to improve my ball-striking.
“The turf on links courses in Scotland is totally different to the turf on some of the more lush parkland courses I’d largely been playing up until that point, and the best way to improve is to learn. That was my aim, to learn as much as I could - about double greens, summer greens, winter greens, narrow fairways, wide fairways, thick rough, wispy rough, you name it - with the ultimate goal of getting to the US.”
Jacobs’ report on his Martini victory noted that ‘doubtless that is where, before long, Norman will be plying his trade’.
“He is an aggressive shotmaker,” he added, “and his flighting of the ball, with a short measured backswing, substantial distances through the air is tailor made for American courses.”
Looking back, Dernie agrees. “I would say anyone who saw him play knew he was special,” he said. “Greg Norman was the type of player other pros would watch practice, although back then the driving range [at Blairgowrie] restricted you to a 7-iron. His caddie would be catching his shots while mine was sprinting here and there for my golf balls!
“I’m not surprised how fantastic a career he has gone on to have. He was a very special talent and if he ever wants to revisit the scene of that first win of his, he’d be welcome here any time.”