Adventures along Australia's Great Barrier Reef
I was born in Mount Isa, a small outback mining town populated largely by Finnish immigrants who migrated to Australia after World War II. My mother was the daughter of a Finnish carpenter and my father was an electrical engineer. When I was still very young, we moved to Townsville on the Queensland coast. It was there, on the edge of the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef, that I spent the first fifteen years of my life. I took it for granted back then, but now I realize that I grew up in paradise: a pristine rain-forest area near the Tropic of Capricorn with white-sand beaches, clear coastal waters and year-round warm weather.
The Great Barrier Reef extends more than 1,200 miles and includes some 700 islands and nearly 3,000 individual coral reefs. It abounds in wildlife: dolphins, whales, sharks, green turtles, more than 1,500 species of fish, 4,000 varieties of mollusks and 200 bird species. It is a very popular destination for tourists, especially scuba divers. In fact, there are nearly two million visitors to the Great Barrier Reef every year. For me, it was a childhood playground: I grew up swimming, snorkeling, diving, fishing and boating there.
Not that it was without perils. One I remember well was a jellyfish, the Portuguese man-of-war that occasionally washes up on beaches in the States. In Australia we call it a “blue bottle” because of its color. It has tentacles over thirty feet long and a toxic sting. One day I was spearfishing with my sister, Janis, off Magnetic Island, where my parents owned a small house. Janis was diving at a depth of about twenty feet when one of these blue bottles wrapped its tentacles around her. I had just pulled myself into the boat when she broke the surface in obvious pain. I dived back in the water and dragged her to the boat, and seeing the welts on her legs I rowed back to the beach as fast as I could. My parents then rushed her to the local clinic where she was treated and, thankfully, made a quick recovery.
Another day my father announced to Janis and me that he was going to help us build a boat. For the next several months, our backyard looked like a construction site as we studied our plans, laid out materials and assembled our small sailboat, Peter Pan. We immersed ourselves in the engineering: crafting the ribs, overlaying the planks, making it watertight and, finally, varnishing it. Janis and I joined a sailing club where we learned how to read the wind and race the tiny boat. Little did I suspect that many years later I would help build a boat that was recognized for “highest technical achievement in a motor yacht” by ShowBoats International magazine.
My father taught me well.
Life for me as a kid was all about having fun. If I wasn’t spearfishing, then I was on horseback, galloping along the Queensland beaches with one of my black Labs running alongside. I would ride all day long, sometimes covering twenty miles from sunup to sundown. Occasionally I would camp out and fall asleep under the stars just waiting for the next day’s adventure. My attention was on everything but golf, as the water truly captivated my imagination. In fact, it wasn’t until my family moved from Townsville to Brisbane that I decided to give golf a try. There, it didn’t take long for me to be completely consumed by the game. In fact, I was hooked after my first few swings, and from that point forward I would spend every free moment practicing. And my effort paid dividends: After just eighteen months, I was playing off scratch!
In fact, it was during my youth that I became inextricably linked with what has become one of my trademarks: the straw hat. When I was young, the ubiquitous baseball cap of today was not so popular, so I wore a typical wide-brimmed surfer’s hat. The brim circled my entire head, even the back of my neck. It was perfect for keeping the pounding sun off my face and keeping me cool. When I played golf I was able to keep my eyes focused on the ball while it was sitting on the tee, in flight and after landing—all without getting a horrible shot of sunlight in my eyes. But my parents despised it, so much so that my mother used to hide it from me!
In the beginning of my career, I was sponsored by Akubra, an iconic Australian hat company—Australia’s equivalent of Stetson—known for its large, Aussie-meets-cowboy styling. On the course this hat was far too hot for me, so they created the same shape that I loved in my childhood but in straw instead of felt and rabbit fur. (Though rainy or windy days prevent me from wearing the straw hat because it doesn’t keep the rain out as well as a baseball cap and it blows off easier in the wind.) The straw hat happened to be one of the first things designed by Greg Norman Collection, and for years it was one of our best-selling items.
The reef, of course, also inspired my nickname, which was given to me at the 1981 Masters by an Augusta Chronicle headline writer. After opening with a sixty-nine and grabbing a share of the first-round lead in my debut appearance, I was ushered into the media center. Nobody knew who I was, so they probed to learn something about me, particularly my interests off the golf course. I told them I was an aggressive golfer with a fairly ?aggressive lifestyle, that I had grown up near the Great Barrier Reef, and that I enjoyed surfing, diving and spearfishing. One reporter asked if I liked sharks. As they often fed off the fish I caught, I was quick to respond, "No!" In fact I remember following that up with a comment about wanting to shoot one. Well the next thing I knew people were talking about how I used to shoot sharks when I was a kid. The following morning I picked up the paper, and on the front page of the sports section was a huge headline: GREAT WHITE SHARK LEADS MASTERS.
Australias coastal splendor will always attract me, and I appreciate every opportunity I have to return. In fact my most recent trip was one of the most special. Just a few months ago, at the tail end of a three-week business trip that took me to Dubai, South Korea and Australia, I extended the trip to take my son, Gregory, up to Queensland to visit all of my old surfing spots. I showed him where I used to light campfires on the beach. I showed him the pandanus tree I used to sleep under. I took him to the exact same rocks I used to walk on with my surfboard. We just stood there and watched the waves roll in. After a while, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Dad, this is cool!"