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Behind the Scenes With Greg Norman and Fox Sports at the US Open

June 22, 2015

About 200 turbocharged golf fans have gathered inside the USGA Members Clubhouse, a hospitality tent located near the entrance to the Chambers Bay fan village. The sky is a lush hue of blue, the atmosphere festive. The 115th U.S. Open is less than 24 hours away, which means the pregame blather has reached a rapid boil.

The buzz in the tent turns to applause as a woman and four men enter the room, take their seats and find their microphones. Three are major champions, the fourth one of the finest putters ever. Even the guy who didn’t play professionally is a 2 handicap. At Fox Sports, you go big and you don’t go quietly. On a Wednesday morning in the Pacific Northwest, it doesn’t get any bigger or louder than this.

The introductions go on way too long, considering the program is scheduled for just 30 minutes, but then, Fox’s on-air golf team brought a lot of brass to Chambers Bay. Juli Inkster owns the most major titles (seven) of the bunch. Corey Pavin won the Open in dramatic fashion 20 years ago, and though Brad Faxon is incorrectly credited with 21 PGA Tour victories by the emcee, he did rack up eight wins and play on a couple of U.S. Ryder Cup teams.

It is the man made famous for what he didn’t win, however, who accounts for the sizable audience and the current of excitement. At 60, Greg Norman still turns heads, still steals the majority of the attention, still brings a sense of significance to a half-hour Q&A. He gets the loudest ovation. He gets the biggest laughs, although Joe Buck, the anchor of Fox’s inaugural U.S. Open coverage, is funnier.

The guy in the blue-striped shirt wants to hear scores from each of the five on their last trip around Chambers Bay. Only Faxon gives an actual answer (“around 40”); Norman uses the question to reiterate his fondness for the course and what to expect from the best players in the world over the next four days.

“I call it crazy good,” he says of the layout. “The multi-dimensional players—guys who flight the ball, spin the ball, move it left to right or right to left, who can hit it high or low—are the ones who will do extremely well. If you’re a one-dimensional player, you have no chance here.”

Just as things start to get interesting, the party ends. There are golf carts positioned for the ride back to the compound and TV producers anxious about the next rehearsal. Fox spent $1.2 billion to televise the national championship and other USGA events over the next dozen years, and as a brash rookie barging into a game that isn’t all that crazy about change, the network feels an immense burden of proof—pressure to establish immediate and lasting credibility.

“We’re all heading back,” Buck tells the crowd, “but Greg’s gonna stick around and answer every one of your questions. Isn’t that right, Greg?”

Fox’s lead analyst, Norman responds to his partner’s quip with a gratuitous smile. When you should have won seven or eight majors but have only have two on your resume, you know how to take a mock punch. You keep moving because standing still doesn’t get you anywhere, and Greg Norman, whether he’s wearing a neon ’ 90s golf shirt or an emerald necktie, has spent his life quickly heading in one direction or another.

It was an easy call for those who care about such things: Shark + Fox = Outside the Box. In theory, without query, Norman’s outspoken nature and attack-life mantra were an ideal fit for the network’s golf model. His longtime friendship with fellow Australian David Hill, whose tenure as chairman of the sports division coincided with Fox’s leap into Americana, made the April 2014 hire a no-brainer, so to speak.

“I’m glad I turned down CBS [in 2006] ,” Norman says. “I was offered the job before [Nick] Faldo took it and knew why I turned it down—I didn’t want to be gone on weekends for another 12 or 14 weeks. This opportunity to stay connected with the game was perfect for me.”

Four weeks a year for the next four years. Given his variety of business interests and his distinct tendency not to overindulge in the game’s competitive arena, the Shark could sink his teeth into this commitment. And after tagging along with him throughout the week at Chambers Bay, upon observing him in this new role and reading the body language of a man with many dialects, no translator is needed.

Buck and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman are Fox’s lead tandem on NFL broadcasts. “Greg’s the same guy [as Aikman],” Buck says. “Both are focused beyond compare, and I say that acknowledging that I’m comparing the two. It’s like there’s 38 hours in their day. I’m lucky if I get six.”

A cart ride with Norman must bear a striking resemblance to going backstage at an Englebert Humperdinck concert. Middle-aged women have been known to lose themselves in the moment, a character deviation both amusing and telling. At Chambers Bay, it’s best to drive in the same direction as the patrons are walking—nobody notices the blond dude in the passenger seat until he has passed by. “I’ll be right here,” Greg!” a lady shrieks from a concession-stand line near the 17th tee. “I’m not going anywhere!”

But the Shark is. The Open is four hours into the second round—he’ll be doing a live hit on the 18th hole set right around noon, then take a short break. Then he’s back on the air for the better part of seven hours, although talking golf to a couple of million viewers is the easy part of the job. Dealing with the distractions and commotion indigenous to TV in general? That’s the challenge.

Norman arrived in Washington mentally prepared and eager to learn even more. He spent about five hours examining the grounds during each of the three practice days, following groups of golfers with differing styles of play. His ability to memorize holes and all their nuances, especially at a place such as Chambers Bay, is remarkable. To put it another way, he went about his work as if he were playing in the tournament, not analyzing it.

One shouldn’t expect anything less, of course, but then again, you’d be surprised. “He certainly goes about the job differently than some of the others,” says USGA executive director Mike Davis. “He’s very perceptive, very into the process behind what’s going on.”

The two men ran into each other on Wednesday morning while Davis was finalizing first-round pin positions. “He asked me what I thought about a couple of them,” Norman would say that afternoon, “and I gave him a tour player’s viewpoint.” Davis would not confirm or deny that he asked for Norman’s opinion, but an informed third party can easily envision the Shark’s volunteering his thoughts on such matters.

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A relevant point worth making: Norman doesn’t just design golf courses—he’s been known to design some very difficult ones. He spends his time in that area tiptoeing the line between fair and farcical, a requisite for architects who favor an extreme challenge. At the U.S. Open, that doesn’t necessarily make Norman an expert. It does, however, make him a valuable resource.

A live TV operation of this size and magnitude has a rhythmic chaos to it. Hundreds of people are moving in an equal number of directions, frequently at a swift pace—rarely do you see even a small group of people toiling over a particular task.

In that respect, Norman is ideally suited for the TV business. To call him a loner would be inaccurate, but he does his own work. He knows how to get information, and he knows what to do with it. For instance, he probably spent more time in his preparation talking to swing coaches than players—tour pros are often reluctant to speak candidly about the state of their game in the days leading into a major.

“To me, the buildup of information sent to me in the days and months leading up the tournament was all irrelevant,” Norman says. “A lot of it was historical stuff. My job is to talk about what’s in front of me, not the past. I know what’s in the past because I’ve played the game and I’ve seen a lot of that stuff.”

It’s lunchtime on Wednesday, the final rehearsal is about an hour away, and in the on-air talent trailer, Norman, Faxon, Pavin, Tom Weiskopf and Scott McCarron are shooting the bull. There’s a little bit of adult language and a lot of second-guessing, mostly about how an eight-year-old links course will hold up as a U.S. Open test. Weiskopf is by far the most entertaining of the bunch, not only colorful and opinionated, but astonishingly insightful. He’s one of a very few who can outperform Norman when it comes to carrying a room.

Time for another meeting, Coordinating producer Mark Loomis arrives and asks Norman to get with a graphics editor to review the topography of every hole. For the next 35 minutes, the Shark dissects Chambers Bay as if he’d operated one of the bulldozers when the course was under construction in the mid-2000s. Landing areas, bunker positions, all the tilted earth and danger zones—there isn’t much he hasn’t noticed in his three days on the property.

The 6th hole is “the best on the golf course,” followed by No. 10, and Norman believes that during practice rounds, many players aren’t putting to the proper spots (where pins are likely to be positioned). Bombers will have an advantage, he predicts, but not as big an edge as many think. He calls the 13th green the best-conditioned putting surface on the grounds and, like many of the contestants, is not a fan of the 18th green.

What’s interesting about this process is that Norman, armed only with a red Sharpie to illustrate his points on a course map, keeps switching hands with the pen. He’ll draw some parallel lines across the 7th fairway with his left hand, then use the right to scrawl a curved arrow on the 8th green. Left, right. Left, right. Clearly, this is not a one-dimensional player.

He spends 11 ½ hours in the chair on Thursday, and by 6 p.m., his Australian lilt has gone raspy, almost feeble. Maybe that’s why throat lozenges are sitting on the snack table come Friday morning. As second rounds go, this one is a lot more interesting than most. An intriguing leader board takes shape, prompting Norman to propose a friendly wager with McCarron.

“What leads at the end of the day? the Shark asks.

“I’ll say four under,” McCarron immediately replies.

“[Jordan] Spieth’s already in at five!”

He knows you may not care for his analysis, that you may long for the return of Johnny Miller and chagrin the notion that Fox got into the golf business. Reviews of Norman’s performance are decidedly mixed—any man behind a microphone is a sitting duck to criticism from a distance. That said, he isn’t one to look at the video or even assess the job he did. That would qualify as looking back, and Norman doesn’t do life in reverse.

“Don’t read any tweets, don’t look at any newspapers,” he says on Saturday evening after popping the top on a Miller longneck. “In that respect, it’s very much like playing golf. Some people hate you, some people like you. We walk out of here knowing we did the best we can do, and that the next one will be better. I guarantee you, when NBC or CBS did their first one, they were in the same boat we’re in now.” Almost 24 hours to the minute later, the 115th U.S. Open would be won by a kid who double-bogeyed the 71st hole—because another guy three-putted the 72nd  from 12 feet. Given the track record of the man sitting next to Joe Buck, some would call that irony. Others would just call it life. Greg Norman certainly has plenty of that.

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