A deeper understanding about life is driving South Africa’s third-highest ranked player Shaun Norris to ever greater heights, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS.
Philosophy is not readily associated with the game of golf.
Perhaps the closest it has come is Harvey Pennick’s Little Red Book and wisdom such as, ‘Take dead aim.’ For Pennick, this was the process of eliminating all negative thoughts and allowing yourself to swing freely and hit the target. Or, if we were being given a golf lesson from Socrates, he would say, ‘Know thyself.’
Shaun Norris has spent the past few years engaged in his own form of golf philosophy. Through life-changing events such as the birth of his first child and the death of his father, he has searched deep within himself. And he’s come out on the other side with a far greater understanding of who he is as a person, which in turn has led to the kind of golf that has seen him climb to just eight places outside the top 50 in the world (as at 10 February). He’s been as high as 54. Two years ago he wasn’t in the top 160.
Clearly, Norris has discovered more than just a new way to swing a golf club or hole putts.
‘I’m only now feeling like I’m starting to enjoy the game again and am coming into my own as a professional,’ he says.
‘I think I’ve matured a lot over the past couple of years and have started understanding myself and my abilities
a lot more. As a result of that process, I’m starting to enjoy the game more and it’s nice to see good results coming through.’
He finished second on the 2019 Japan Golf Tour Order of Merit with a win and nine top-10s. He is the third-highest ranked South African in the world after Erik van Rooyen and Louis Oosthuizen. He’s won four times on the Japan Golf Tour and once on the Asian Tour, to go with his two victories on the Sunshine Tour. The past few years in particular, and his decision to play in Asia, have indeed seen Norris’ career blossom.
But talent was never a question for him. As one of three golfing brothers – Alain and Kyle being the other two in the family – Norris grew up at Silver Lakes in Pretoria as something of a golf prodigy. At one stage in his amateur career he was a +9 handicap. He was a prodigious winner on the South African circuit, and played alongside Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel at the Eisenhower Trophy in 2002.
But it’s the great irony of golf, and what keeps it such a compelling game, that you can sometimes do something contraindicative and reap tremendous rewards. Like taking your eye off the ball.
For Norris, the biggest breakthrough in his golf came when he stopped focusing only on the sport. His realisation that there is more to life than golf has in turn made him a far better player.
‘With all that’s happened over the past couple of years, I’ve realised there are a lot more important things in life than just golf. So by going out there and enjoying it a bit more, the results are showing,’ he says.
‘Golf is a mental game, so I think that when you start understanding life and thinking of the right things and how to handle it all, you become stronger as a person. If you can find that peace inside you and understand life better, you start performing better.’
Family has been the foundation of this process of understanding for Norris. First his brothers and parents, and now his own family with his 15-month-old son.
But Norris has spoken passionately about how the greatest understanding of the complexities of life has come from his father Patrick’s death because of cancer. It’s the absence of his father in his life that is driving him to pursue the biggest goals of his career.
‘My dad was always my mentor. He started me and my brothers in golf. We’re all grateful for that. He gave us the opportunity and made so many sacrifices. We’ve always been a very close family, but after my father’s passing we became even closer as brothers and with my mom. It was his biggest dream for me to be able to do what I am doing today. So I keep trying to push forward and make him even more proud than he would’ve been.’
It is, quite literally, the single biggest motivating factor in his career.
‘That drives me. Every single day. There isn’t a day when I wake up and don’t think of him, and that I’m not grateful for what he’s done to give me this opportunity to do what I am doing as a career. So I push myself to be better every day, because it would’ve been what he wanted. I’m really trying to do the best I can and think of him always.
‘And then yes, fatherhood has also made me realise there are far more important things in life than a few bad shots. Coming home and seeing that smile on my boy’s face is incredible.’
Norris says he’s also trying to have more fun with his career, helped in no small part by having his brother Kyle as his caddie.
‘It was hard for me after my dad died. I felt I needed family around me. It felt like I was carrying so much on my shoulders, I couldn’t talk to anybody. When you lose a family member, it’s hard to talk about it with anybody else but family. It was nice
to have Kyle there and to have a shoulder to lean on. He was a pro at one stage. But he’s going to stay on the bag and says he’s enjoying it.
‘I’m also trying to enjoy life more. I’ve realised there is a lot more joy in life that we have to be grateful for. You know, to be able to wake up and do what I do – I need to enjoy that more and not think of it as a burden or job. There are so many things I can be grateful for, such as travelling the world and seeing all these new golf courses and places, and ultimately being able to do what I love.’
About seven years ago, Shaun Norris thought he was done with golf. This year, he’s dreaming the biggest dreams for his career.
‘Making it into the top 50 in the world is a real goal for me and hopefully I’ll be able to climb even higher than that. My goals are set high for the rest of this year. I still feel there is room for improvement in my game.
‘My playing schedule is also changing quickly with all the tournaments I’m being invited to, which is exciting. I’m looking forward to the Majors and the World Golf Championship tournaments, and playing at the big events and competing against the world’s best. I’ve always loved links golf so I’ve loved playing at The Open Championship and I’m looking forward
to that again this year.
‘I’ve won a couple of events in South Africa on the coast where it’s windy [East London Golf Club and the Wild Coast Sun Country Club]. I’ve always loved playing on the coast and on links-type courses where you have to use your imagination and the conditions and try to create shots. In Asia, a lot of the golf courses are coastal-type courses with Bermuda greens.
‘But I don’t want to stop here. I’d like to see how far I can go. I want to get into the top 20 in the world. It’s nice to see I am one of the top South Africans at the moment, but hopefully I can move higher up those rankings.’
And then there are the Olympic Games, which will be played in Tokyo this year, a venue that seems tailor-made for Norris.
‘I definitely want to try to qualify for South Africa’s Olympic golf team, especially with it being in Japan and me being comfortable with the travelling in that country and knowing the courses there. I’ve fallen in love with the culture
and the people in Asia. I really enjoy being out there and the good golf just follows from that. So one of my top goals for the year is to qualify for the Olympics.’
It all seems achievable for a man who has grown from being overawed playing practice rounds with some of the world’s best players, to believing he can compete with them, and beat them.
‘Of course at first you look up to those big-name players, but as you start growing and learning and seeing you can play golf just as well as they can, you start thinking about challenging them. You’ve made it all the way to play with them and there is a reason for that. But we all sell ourselves short at times by not having enough self-belief. When you start believing in yourself, you realise you can play and compete with these guys.
‘The Sunshine Tour’s always been good for me. It’s a strong Tour with so many good players. It’s been a massive stepping stone for me because it’s made me stronger as a person and a golfer. But once I started believing in myself and my abilities, it started showing when I won in Asia and then qualified for Japan. I started playing against guys who are inside the top 100 in the world, and I was competing with them and beating them. Once I started believing I can compete against them and beat them, things started changing for me.
‘I think the first time that happened was at the 2016 Myanmar Open, which I won. I went out there and shot six under on each of the first two days, and then 61 in the third round. That 61 is when I felt like I’m good enough to play out here. It showed me I am capable of shooting a low score anywhere in the world, and I won that event. It’s when you start believing and realising you can do it that things change.’
Gary Player has long declared the mind as the great frontier in golf. ‘The mind is what makes you a superstar, and what your mind feeds you with determines the outcome … I can tell you that golf is in its infancy concerning the power of the mind.’
Harvey Pennick wrote, ‘A golfer will be surprised at how often the mind will make the muscles hit the ball to the target, even with a less than perfect swing.’
Or as Socrates put it, ‘Let him who would move the world first move himself.’
Shaun Norris has moved himself, out of his own way. Now it’s time for the world.