In recent years, it has become fashionable for sports documentaries to incorporate a self-referential element in which the protagonists review footage of their own triumphs and disasters. The facial reactions in these segments often say more than hours of talking-head analysis ever could: the vision of Michael Jordan, tablet in his lap, choking with laughter as Gary Payton’s report on the 1996 NBA Finals series is played to him lingers the defining image of 2020’s The Last Dance. For Shark, which premieres Tuesday night in the US, directors Jason Hehir (who also directed The Last Dance) and Thomas Odelfelt replace the tablet with a laptop that’s open standing on a small side table next to seated Greg Norman.
The Aussie never saw the infamous finals of the 1996 Masters, in which he gave up a six-shot lead to cede the green jacket to arch-rival Nick Faldo: “It’s not necessary,” he says tersely in the opening minutes by shark. And with footage of that storied choke—still the biggest final-day lead ever lost in a PGA Tour tournament—playing on the laptop, you’ll quickly see why. The pain of every slice, hook, insufficient putt and moment of self-doubt is still very close to him even 25 years later.
We see him 3-putt the green on the 11th hole; we see him fall short on his approach shot on the 12th, finding the water and finishing with a double bogey; We again watch Norman’s agonizing collapse to the ground after a chip for Eagle kisses the edge of the hole on the 15th and then just rolls wide. And then we see Norman watching in silence, shifting his weight in the chair, glassy-eyed, choking back his sighs. “Would my life be different today if I had a green jacket?” Norman asks rhetorically after the last lap has finished playing. “No. It would be nice to have in my trophy cabinet, but it wouldn’t have changed my life one bit.” It’s the least convincing line in the entire film.
Norman’s final-day collapse at Augusta may have become a sporting legend, but perhaps less well remembered is the rich history of finals failure that preceded the 1996 drama. Norman burst onto the PGA Tour in the early 1980s, signaling his talent with a fourth-place finish at the 1981 Masters, his first spin on Augusta’s sacred turf. Norman’s Scandinavian mop, flashy pants, upright stance, easy swing and attacking drive made him instantly recognizable on the pitch. His outspoken Aussieness (“The Shark” was a nickname that caught on early and paid homage to a childhood spent in the wild waters of far north Queensland) made him highly marketable and drawing envy at the time Less Charismatic Golfer Rising For the first time, a lot of money was pouring into the sport and the commercial thirst for personality players was great. Norman wanted to get a complete grip on the sport “on and off the golf course,” says Faldo.
In 1986 his goal was almost reached. Golf observers had begun to see the Australian as the natural heir to the greats of the previous generation, most notably Jack Nicklaus – and possibly even the player who could climb golf’s Everest and win all four majors in a single year. Norman led all four majors in 1986 after three rounds; at all but one, the British Open, he collapsed on the final day and finished second. That year he established his reputation as a 54-hole maestro who failed to make the last 18, and the following year cemented it: In a 1987 Masters playoff, Larry Mize sank an unlikely chip from the rough to defeat Norman left with a 45-foot putt to keep the competition alive. It drifted far. “I went home and cried on the beach,” Norman says today. “All these questions go through your head for months. Maybe I should have put it in the middle of the green and had a 20ft chip instead of a 45ft, maybe I was ahead of myself and thought it was an impossible chip [for Mize]. These things have haunted me for a long time.”
A tale has emerged that Norman was a “snakebiter” possessed by a uniquely malevolent capacity to lose in major tournaments by a series of unlikely shots. In addition to the Mize chip, there was Bob Tway’s bunker shot at the 1986 PGA Championship, Robert Gomez’s fairway shot on the last hole at the 1990 Nestle Invitational in Bay Hill, and another bunker shot – this time by David Frost – on the final hole at the 1990 Zurich Classic in New Orleans. What Shark is good at is putting those miracle shots into context by showing the three Norman bogeys on the back nine that preceded Mize’s chip, the 40 back nine he shot to lead Tway to victory in 1986 help, and so on. Norman spent much of his playing days promoting the snakebite fable: “I’m kind of a fatalist, I believe things happen for a reason,” he told former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke in a 1993 television interview . Today he seems more confident: “You control your own destiny, you do your own thing,” he reflects in Shark. “You can’t control what other people do. You cannot influence what others do. The only influence you can have is what you do yourself, in your shoes, with your golf clubs, with your score.” And yet that hour in Norman’s presence never quite dispels the feeling that he still feels that the Gulf gods have singled him out for a special category of misery.
The joy of a documentary like Shark isn’t just reliving the agony of all those breakdowns alongside Norman. He’s also eloquent on the high points, the moments during those stormy final laps when everything clicks. Case in point, when he reeled off four consecutive back-nine birdies on the final day of the 1986 Masters to recover from a disastrous start and be in close proximity to Nicklaus. “You just have this mental freedom, you’re happy and you just want to go,” says Norman. “You trust yourself, your swing is free, your mind is free, you see those shots, you take them. You could even knock a leaf off the end of a tree if you wanted to.”
Norman lost on the last hole that day to Nicklaus, who was 15 years his senior. But the bond between the two golfers – avatars of two adjacent generations – proves particularly influential in Shark. At Turnberry in 1986, Nicklaus Norman gave “critical” advice for the last day, which helped the Australian overcome the nerves accumulated from two consecutive breakdowns at major tournaments and win his first Major (“Greg, just think about the grip pressure tomorrow. Just think about your grip pressure.”). And he was back to guide Norman through a crisis in the early 1990s, advising him to practice and play “single-mindedly”: “When you go to the driving range, you only go there to hit balls hit and feel sorry for yourself? Or do you have a goal?” Norman flew to Canada the next week and broke a 27-month drought on the PGA Tour by winning the Canadian Open.
“He was like my father, my brother, my mentor,” says Norman. Faldo – the more conservative, less charismatic rival who finished his career with six majors compared to Norman’s two – also makes an appearance at Shark, although the real contrast that emerges isn’t between the player’s past but the two men, like her appearing today is: Faldo has softened into a boisterous Middle Ages, while Norman remains as fit as he was in his active days.
He owes a lot: His post-play career, which has spanned everything from developing golf courses to winemaking and recent efforts to launch a much-criticised, Saudi-backed professional tour in Asia, has been particularly lucrative. But Shark leaves us with a feeling that something is still missing, an inner emptiness that drives Norman on. Many of the film’s most memorable scenes now see Norman back in Augusta playing 18 holes alone, reinforcing the sense that his greatest rival wasn’t Faldo or Nicklaus, but himself. At 67, Norman still looks as fit as he was in his glory: the stance is so firm, the swing so free. Under a gray sky, on a completely empty course, he plays all the clutch shots of his 1986, 1987 and 1996 meltdowns and executes them to perfection. What if?