Watch after sharkthe latest installment in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, is an exercise in cognitive dissonance.
On the one hand, it’s a decent entry into canon, looking back on a sporting moment with decades of distance, interviews with all the great players, and plenty of insight into Greg Norman, one of the best players of his generation.
At that level, it works pretty well, playing as a kind of mirrored minor version of The last Dance (Which makes sense given the involvement of this document’s director, Jason Hehir, who is co-directing here with Thomas Odelfelt.) Instead of teasing out the kind of sociopathic competition that led to Michael Jordan’s unprecedented dominance of the court, we get a glimpse in Norman go a long way in revealing why the biggest moments have often come up short.
The rough cut watched for this review lasted about 76 minutes, and the film packs a lot into it, taking us back to the 1986 Masters (when Norman had a misguided shot into the visitors on the last hole en route to losing to Jack Nicklaus ) This is one of the most famous tournaments in golf history and when it’s talked about it’s usually almost always about Jack’s comeback win, with a slight mention of Norman’s approach that killed him shark, but we get a glimpse of how easily history could change. Everyone remembers the legendary “Yes Sir!” by Verne Lundquist. for Nicklaus.
Less memorable was the same line he delivered for Norman as he pocketed a putt himself on 17 to tie Nicklaus for the lead. There is a parallel universe where the same line from the same transmitter is remembered at the same hole for Norman’s description, a stark example of the history written by the victors.
From there, the documentary traverses the gamut of Norman’s tight encounters at various majors in the intervening decade, including a multi-year drought without tour wins from which Norman eventually recovered, and credits Nicklaus for helping him through it. We also take a look at Norman finally winning Majors, which he has managed to do twice in his career, both British Open. There’s an excerpt from a beer commercial that’s almost the perfect time capsule, as it spends all of its time listing every criticism anyone has ever thrown at it.
It’s crazy that back in 1986 Norman was considered a bit of a loser because he hadn’t made it big yet. He was only 31 at the time, and when even an ad starring him and celebrating his success spends most of its run time mocking him, that’s telling.
Aside from his own failures, Norman had a legacy of being defeated by miraculous gunfire. We get it all, too, from Larry Mize’s famous Masters chip-in to lesser-known moments like Robert Gamez heading to Bay Hill to beat him in 1990. All of this is a setup for an in-depth look at the 1996 Masters that makes up most of the film’s second half. We also see Norman in the present day in Augusta playing some of the shots alone that he had played under pressure and describing the feelings associated with them.
There is one more Last Dance Imagination where Norman being interviewed observes some of the key moments of that final round in 1996. These are some of the most fascinating moments in shark, because there’s really no way of knowing why Norman is exposing himself to this. (At one point Nick Faldo, Norman’s enemy, reacts in shock when the filmmakers tell him Norman has returned to Augusta to run a few holes.) It almost becomes a portrait of defiance in some ways; not letting the outside world paint him as a collar or a failure in going through this moment to moment breakdown.
The confusing aspect, however, is that Norman may be one of the least confident people in all of sports. It’s tempting to give the film credit for getting it out there with no real mercy. None of the many golfing luminaries taking part is critical of Norman (the next might be Tom Watson, who confidently and amusingly chimes in, “I always said Greg was a snakebite.” Otherwise so adamant about his truth that it’s clear he’s himself still not convinced.
In a vacuum, on these planes shark is definitely worth seeing. The problem for the documentary, however, is that it’s not being released in a vacuum. It is instead being released at a time when Greg Norman is currently at the helm of the same Saudi-backed golf league that Phil Mickelson was involved with. Mickelson’s current absence (it’s unclear if it’s his own choice or not) and the loss of sponsors over his admitted willingness to use Saudi money for PGA Tour concessions has been bad enough, but Norman is the CEO of the entire operation!
Just this week he went on record with Telegraph’s James Corrigan and released the exact same “What about?” Talking points that anyone who sees a massive unethical payday does in their position. It is striking to see that he was granted access to Augusta for the filming shark (presumably before his Saudi involvement really took off) and then admitting that he wasn’t even invited to the Masters this year, as he usually is.
“Look, I want to be honest with you, yes, the criticism hurt a bit, but I firmly believe that you can’t run through a wall without getting bloody,” he says. “I’m ready to run through this wall because I truly believe that the game of golf is growing around the world.”
“The PGA Tour doesn’t say ‘sportswashing’ directly, but they let people say it. But is it okay for them to go to China with the Uyghurs? Seriously? Step back and take a really good, honest, hard look at the facts, and then you’ll see, “Hey, Greg Norman isn’t some ogre after all. Greg Norman and his team of world-class individuals.”
Of course, no one would jump to defend the PGA Tour as purely good, but Norman totally misses the point. (And while combating whataboutism is nearly impossible, it should also be known that Norman compares working for a sportswashing golf company directly funded by the Saudi government to the PGA Tour, which holds an event in China.)
Norman’s control of the issues at hand is as shaky as his racquets for that finals in 1996.
shark never mentions any of these issues, which is perhaps not a surprise. (Again, this was a rough cut; there’s a chance something will be added.) But it’s really difficult to focus solely on Greg Norman the golfer when Norman is right now at the center of one of golf’s greatest stories stands for very different reasons. It’s not a complete picture, probably through no fault of the filmmakers; Norman was only appointed CEO of LIV Golf Investments at the end of October 2021.
shark still works, even with that outside knowledge, because there’s enough background and interaction with Norman that it’s obvious how he could be the face of this type of company in 2022.