Sporting legacies are often defined by what is missing, no matter how bountiful the achievements. Dan Marino and Ken Griffey Jr. own many records, but not the rings that accompany the greatest prizes in their sports. Charles Barkley earned 11 All-Stars, but no championships. Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl combined for 15 Grand Slam titles, but found only disappointment at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, respectively.
Despite 80-odd victories worldwide, Greg Norman is destined to be among those athletes ultimately measured by what is absent. Sure, some fans will best remember his two sublime Open Championship wins, but more will think first of the near-misses, the other 18 top-fives in majors, the eight runner-ups, two consecutively owing to improbable hole-outs from off the green. Identifying exactly which missing piece of the career puzzle defines Norman should be a settled question since he’s 68 years old and long removed from factoring on a leaderboard. But his legacy is still being authored, which is why the tournaments that will eventually help explain Norman’s place in the sport are not the majors but the World Golf Championships, events in which he competed only a half-dozen times with no success.
The WGC era concludes this week with the Dell Technologies Match Play. The PGA Tour has made no formal announcement that the WGC umbrella is folding because several years remain on the contract for HSBC’s event in Shanghai, though it hasn’t been held since 2019. History will remember the WGCs as an experiment that fizzled, more noteworthy for contributing to the trophy case and bank account of Tiger Woods than to the goal of global comity. Woods’ 18 titles account for $22 million and almost a fifth of his total career victories.
The WGCs launched with the missionary notion of promoting a world tour, bringing together the best players more frequently outside the majors. In time, it became about as global as the World Series, at least in venues. Fields were based on a hodgepodge of box-ticking criteria designed to satisfy tours co-sanctioning the events — the European, Asian, Australasian, Japan and Sunshine circuits. The result was a talent pool that often featured competitors decidedly out of their depth.
It was the creation of the WGCs that fueled the grievance driving Norman now. It just took him a few decades to find a mark with a sufficiently robust checkbook to act on that resentment. In November of 1994,the flaxen-haired finger puppet tried to launch a world circuit that promised first-place prize money of $600,000, significantly more than the majors paid at the time. His bid was a dizzying exhibition of arrogance, entitlement and ineptitude that makes LIV Golf seem eerily familiar to seasoned observers. By December of that year, Norman’s dream had collapsed so thoroughly that it might have been mistaken for an April Sunday afternoon in Augusta, Georgia.
When the PGA Tour announced the World Golf Championships a few years later — with top prizes of $1 million — Norman was livid, claiming commissioner Tim Finchem had simply stolen his concept.
“It’s the end of the rope for me. He hung me out to dry,” Norman said.
A quarter-century later, only the names and numbers have changed. As Arnold Palmer took the floor against him then, Woods and Rory McIlroy do so now. As Finchem tweaked the Tour’s product in response, Jay Monahan does now. Norman remains as constant as his undiluted animus.
The WGCs served an obvious purpose for the PGA Tour in cutting off a commercial threat, as the designated events do now. But there exists a warning for Monahan in how Finchem’s baby eventually grew old and died. The WGCs proved that enormous purses — and noble sentiments about competing against the best — were not enough to guarantee the presence of top players. Eventually they all stay home when it suits. Already players have balked at participation being mandatory in designated events. Monahan and his sponsors will learn that when it’s convenient for elite stars to compete for $20 million, they will. When it isn’t, they won’t. The more money they earn, the easier it becomes to sit out even a lucrative week.
A through line exists from the creation of the World Golf Championships to where Greg Norman finds himself today, torching billions of MBS’s money on a lousy product while offering chickenhearted equivocations on the literal butchery and abuses of his employer. It’s rare that a sportsman’s career is conclusively defined in the winter years, but this episode has laid bare the missing attribute for which Norman’s legacy will be remembered: character.