As advisory coach to the China national golf team, former World No. 1 Greg Norman gives his thoughts on the country’s Olympic ambitions and how he’s enjoying passing on his vast experience, in the second part of an interview with the ‘Great White Shark’.
Your appointment as an advisory coach to the China national golf team through to the Rio Olympics was announced in March 2013. How did this role come about?
It really came about having a conversation with a principal from the country’s Multi-ball Sports Administration Center. It was really just a casual conversation that turned into a deeper conversation and they asked me to come on board as an advisory coach. That’s how it all evolved. It has actually been very interesting, because quite honestly, they need a little bit of direction.
However, there’s a lot of independence with a lot of players because there are some really good players and they have their own coaches and stuff. To get everybody as a team and talk about it is difficult. The team is massive. You’re talking about 30 girls and 30 guys, something like that, so to get them all together is a difficult task.
How would you describe your role?
It’s more of an advisory role. They have their coaches and I’ll have a conversation with their coaches to see what they see. There’s a big difference between being a teacher, which they have, and being a coach, which is kind of like what I am: a coach advisor for everything, including emotional, physical, their attitude and their expectations going forward. A teacher can’t really do that because they’re teaching the physicality of how to swing a golf club.
So for me it has been a lot of fun. Some of them are really bright‑eyed and very open‑minded, and some are very emotionally bound up because, quite honestly, they haven’t had a lot of good, open guidance and discussion.
For me it has been very cathartic in a lot of ways, because you actually give a lot and you actually pull out a lot from your experiences and what I’ve learned from my mistakes, travel, cultural changes, expectations within yourself, media and stuff like that.
And not only that, but also playing for your country, because they are a fiercely proud group and they want to represent China; be the first in golf to represent their nation [at the Olympics]. There are a lot of expectations heaped on them in other ways, too.
How often are you meeting up with the administration, coaches and players?
We did a session at Mission Hills Haikou before the World Celebrity Pro-Am (in late October) and we’ve done them in the United States. I’ve done them in Nanshan; I’ve done them in Shanghai; done them in Guangzhou.
So wherever I’m going, we try to coordinate it to get as many members of the team together. A couple of years ago we did a big one here at Mission Hills Haikou, which was probably the biggest one we’ve had yet. I’m guessing maybe a total of 30 boys and girls were here.
What are your impressions of the national training centre in Nanshan?
It’s like nothing else in the world, simple as that. It’s massive. From an educational standpoint, they have got classrooms and boarding facilities, while just the practice facility is incredible, with different type of grasses, different types of sands in the bunkers, indoors, outdoor, synthetic, whatever you want. It’s massive. It’s incredible the amount of money that has been invested in that facility
Which of the Chinese players have stood out?
I had three really good young girls here in Haikou that I looked at. Also, I went to Orlando when there was US Open qualifying, as there were probably half-a-dozen of them there, and I went up and walked around with them during a practice round.
There’s a lot of talent. It’s just a matter of they have to believe in it and then they have to get world ranking points. From the women’s side, they have got it covered. I think they have got one in the top 10 (Feng Shanshan) and Lin Xiyu, so from the women’s side, they will be in it (the Olympics).
The men’s side is where they have got to get out, get some world ranking points, and they have the capability of doing it. It’s just a matter of believing in yourself that you can go do it.
We’d probably like to get more of them coming to the United States. It’s a lot easier for me to get to my golf academy in Myrtle Beach or even get them down in South Florida where I can spend some time with them. So as time gets closer and it gets more defined in terms of which players, it will be a lot easier that way.
And then we’ve got to look into the future. You’ve got to look out into 2020 and beyond, so how do you do that? So you’ve got to have a really great grassroots programme. These kids are probably seven, eight, nine, 10 right now, looking out 12 years, so they’re going to be 22 and ready to go. That’s a programme you’ve really got to instil in the CGA (China Golf Association) to really reach down to these kids and give them great facilities and opportunities to bring them up.
And a lot of that’s got to do with the teachers, too. I don’t call them coaches. It’s a real fine line for me, because of the teaching mechanisms that they put in place.
In what sense?
Don’t teach everybody to swing the golf club exactly the same way because everybody can’t swing the golf club exactly the same way. So you’ve got to break it down a little bit, because you look at all the great players in the world, we all have individual swings, and you’ve got to get that message across loud and clear.
So I used to say this to my coaches, the Butch Harmons of the world: ‘Butch, I want to swing like me. I don’t want to swing like somebody else. This is what I like, this is how I like to feel and this is my feedback. I know what’s going to happen if I get it in the wrong position and I can self‑correct.’
But if you try and instil a certain way of teaching and the kid gets a little bit out, then natural ability can’t come through because they’re only taught one way. That has to be instilled here.
Also, you don’t have to be on top of them all the time. My coach wasn’t on top of me all the time. I would call him up after two weeks or a month and go work on it. Or I might not speak to him for six months because everything was feeling good. So you just don’t constantly teach. You’ve got to let that evolution of the natural self come through.
Do you think Chinese golf has a strong future?
I think the Chinese as a nation, as a culture, as a people, can adapt to golf probably as quickly as any other nation because they have got the cerebral skills. They have got the physical skills. They have got the aerobic skills and then they are really good on their balance and their rotation of their body. So they have a lot of the attributes that you need for golf. It’s just a matter of time and just putting all the right ingredients in there to start spitting them out on a regular basis.
Did you discuss golf in the Olympics in your playing days?
Back when Seve [Ballesteros] and I were like World No. 1 and 2, 2 and 3, 3 and 4, something like that, he was the one who came to me and said: ‘Greg, we’ve got to get golf back in the Olympics.’ That’s when [Juan Antonio] Samaranch was the head of the IOC, so Seve figured he would have some influence, as he was Spanish. Seve was really the one who came to me and said, ‘Let’s go and get golf back into the Olympics.’
So we talked a lot and he did most of the front work because of Samaranch and the Spaniard-on-Spaniard connection. So that got me tweaked. So as years go by and the more you pay attention that golf is not in there, and then you see a sport dropping out and some other sport coming in, you think, ‘Oh, my gosh, why isn’t golf in there?’
Then you think about the countries the Olympics was in. It was in the USA (Atlanta 1996) and Australia (Sydney 2000) when I really started paying attention to it and the capabilities of some of the great golf courses they could play on. And then we go to Brazil (2016), and from what I understand, it’s not the smoothest of sailing down there, the golf course.
Have there been discussions about your work with the China team beyond 2016? You talked earlier about looking ahead to 2020.
Nothing is really formalised beyond 2016. I would be very proud if they do put up a men’s team and a women’s team. I would be really proud of them if they can do that. But to be honest, they haven’t been around the golf course that long. The first golf course in China was built in 1984, so it’s not that long in the game. So when you think about the opportunities ahead, maybe a generation from now, it’s massive, massive opportunities for this country.