13 Dec 2023

Lando Norris: Driving dual passions

Lando Norris might be pardoned for once dubbing golf the “most boring thing ever,” considering that this 24-year-old typically invests his weekends hurtling a McLaren F1 machine around the planet’s most legendary racetracks at velocities surpassing 200 miles per hour.

Despite the earlier statement on the game, all is forgiven, as Norris has transformed into a self-proclaimed “golf nut.” The Englishman now frequents fairways worldwide, playing off a handicap of nine, even boasting of playing 36 holes on the hallowed turf of Augusta National, where securing a tee time is as uncommon as witnessing snowfall in Dubai.

“I played, that was the main thing,” said Norris when I asked what had changed from his previous statement on the game.

“It’s true; I did say that many years ago. But then, once I played the game properly on a golf course—not just Topgolf with friends—and got into the competitive side of things, experiencing the feeling of hitting a good shot, I started thinking, ‘I can be a little bit better,’ and wanted to deliver better results.

“As soon as I kind of got that drug of competition and success in golf, then I fell in love with the game. You can connect a lot more with people who are playing because you understand what they’re going through.

“Once you understand it, the game makes sense. But before holding a golf club for the first time, I was thinking, ‘What is this?’ Now, I’m addicted to golf.”

That addiction, which started three years ago, is aided by the fact that Norris gets the unique opportunity to play golf all over the world on a regular basis, with F1 consistently visiting 20+ countries across the globe every year.

“I travel a lot, so I get to go to plenty of beautiful places where I try to play as much as I can,” he says.

Norris and Fleetwood took part in a golf-influenced driving challenge at the DP World Golf Performance Centre last month

“But it can be tough, especially when I’m in recovery after a race at certain times, and I struggled with my back quite a bit over the last year. So, I’ve had to almost cut down on my golf rather than ramp it up, which is what I would love to do.

“I used to take my clubs everywhere with me until my back problems. It got to a point where I’m watching golf every weekend, despite the annoying time zones when it’s based in America. I’d stay up quite late to watch competitions. I loved it so much and felt so connected to it that I would stay up until two, three, four in the morning and then wake up and race the next day!”

Despite the back problems and lack of sleep, Norris had a remarkable F1 season in 2023.

The Englishman only managed to bank 12 points in the initial eight rounds due to issues with his team’s car, but once McLaren addressed their hardware challenges, Norris delivered an impressive 193 points in the next 14 races, outperforming every driver except the dominant Max Verstappen and surpassing the next highest scorer by 34 points.

During this period, Norris secured seven podium finishes, a feat that eclipsed his former teammate and good friend Carlos Sainz by four podiums. Interestingly, Sainz, who now drives for Scuderia Ferrari, also happens to be Norris’ primary golf rival on the grid.

“There’s a bit of a battle between me and Calros, definitely,” he says.

“Lance Stroll plays quite a bit, maybe not so much now, but he’s pretty good. Alex Albon’s girlfriend is a professional golfer, so he plays when he can but me and Carlos are probably the most dedicated and have the most interest. I would say Carlos is the best, but he’s been playing the longest so that’s my excuse as to why he’s better!”

NETFLIX CUP

The duo, along with Albon and Pierre Gasly, took part in the inaugural Netflix Cup last month which saw the stars of the streaming service’s ‘Drive to Survive’ and ‘Full Swing’ go head-to-head in a match-play tournament at the Wynn Golf Club, kicking off the week of the first-ever Las Vegas Grand Prix.

The chaotic event which saw the drivers paired with one of Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Tony Finau and Max Homa, also saw racing infused into the matchups, with teams competing to finish a hole as fast as possible – regardless of strokes, with Norris disqualified on the first hole for picking up his ball.

“I don’t want to talk about that!” joked Norris when asked if he enjoyed the event.

“Netflix has helped grow both sports and bring in different audiences to each, which is positive. The Netflix Cup was a great event to be involved with. It was fun that we got to play with the pros, kind of put on the show, and trash talk and all that. I think it’s cool; I would have enjoyed watching it if I wasn’t playing, but I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed watching myself play as I would have said, ‘that guy sucks!’

Norris was paired with Rickie Folwer at last month’s Netflix Cup in Las Vegas

“I’m sure if they could do it again, they’ll do some things better and change it up a little bit, maybe have some more groups or something. It was good to bring both sports together. Now the golfers have got to drive some cars to see how good they really are, but that’s a lot more expensive!”

Rubbing shoulders with golf’s elite is no foreign terrain for Norris, as he effortlessly recites an impressive roster of top pros with whom he’s shared a casual round—names like Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Joaquín Niemann, and Mito Pereira. He then delves into the “fun” he had in the Hero Dubai Desert Classic Pro-Am with Bernd Wiesberger and the BMW PGA Championship Pro-Am alongside former champion Tyrrell Hatton.

One can’t help but wonder: what insights did Norris glean from these captivating encounters?

“Just the feel and detail in every step,” he says. “I’m just swinging a club, and that’s all I’ve got, but these guys’ knowledge of when it’s here or there, the feeling of the hands being slightly different or something affecting it. I’m sure when you give them a club and it’s slightly heavier or lighter, they would pick up on it straight away, and I probably wouldn’t. I didn’t know the difference between a crappy ball and a Pro V1; for me, it doesn’t make a difference!

“It’s the same for me in F1; I can think of every single detail, but most people will think ‘I’ve just got to turn.’ I’ll obviously be going into a lot more detail and know every single step of the process, so it’s good to know that it’s the same for pro golfers.

“The detail and accuracy that goes into every single thing is not something you are aware of in every sport; you don’t know what makes something so good. But when you’re with them and they talk about it, you understand why they are doing these things to create consistency and feeling. The thought process behind it all is what’s so interesting.”

MENTAL MATCHUP

While you’d be hard-pressed to uncover many parallels in the physical conditioning of F1 drivers compared to professional golfers — envision the contrast between chain-smoking, beer-loving John Daly and the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Norris, who undergo some of the most intense workouts on the planet to be race-ready — the mental aspects of the two sports share numerous similarities.

“It’s exactly the same,” says Norris.

“Messing up a corner on a track is the same as messing up a shot — the lap’s not over and the hole isn’t over, but it’s how you can recover and try to make that next shot even better, you know? Therefore, the mentality of it is exactly the same, and I get exactly the same amount of frustration by shanking it or doing something stupid.

“It’s exactly the same as locking your tire into turn one, and you run wide, which is the same as being off the fairway. The thought process is also the same; obviously, some things are different with a lot more fear within F1 than there is in golf, but the thought process of achieving success, overcoming obstacles, bad shots, and mistakes and not letting that affect you, before going on to win or doing whatever you can, the mentality through that process is exactly the same.”

Pete Cowen and Ian Poulter take a look at Norris’ swing during at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic

Due to his previously mentioned problems with his back, Norris didn’t have the opportunity to play golf in the UAE this time around, but that’s not to say he’s not familiar with the thriving golf scene in the Emirates, as he recalls playing every course in Dubai with Dubai Hills and Emirates Golf Club’s Majlis Course topping his list of favourites,

He did, however, seize the opportunity to learn from one of the best in the game in the form of Tommy Fleetwood, with the duo taking part in a golf-influenced driving challenge at the DP World Golf Performance Centre before practicing together at the Tommy Fleetwood Academy.

Would Norris class that as recovery of part of his fitness programme?

“That’s what I tell my trainer!” he jokes.

“For me, playing golf is definitely recovery as it takes my mind away from F1 and from overthinking certain things. That allows me to come back to the next race with a clearer head. Having said that, I still get very frustrated when playing golf, so it’s probably not as good as just sitting at home, but I love playing with friends on a sunny day. There are not many things better in life. It’s more mental recovery rather than physical recovery.”

From his candid admission of finding golf “the most boring thing ever” to the transformation into a self-proclaimed “golf nut,” Norris’s journey across fairways and racetracks mirrors the mental intricacies that link these seemingly disparate sports. Whether it’s the thrill of teeing off alongside some of the best in the game or overtaking a rival into turn one, the mental fortitude required remains a constant.

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