The Mysterious Genius of Golf

Golf Magazine 1989

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Moe Norman is the best ballstriker in the history of golf. And hardly anybody has heard of him

This man behind the mask has been described by Lee Trevino as “a genius when it comes to playing the game of golf.” Tom Watson once said he “can hit it better than anybody.” Peter Jacobsen claims this mysterious figure is the most talked-about golfer when conversation among Tour pros turns to the game’s greats.

Yet hardly anyone in the United States knows about him.

His name is Moe Norman, and above the 49th parallel, he’s a 60-year-old living legend. Although his appearances in major U.S. competition have been restricted to two Masters and a handful of Tour events in the winter of 1958, his Canadian record is voluminous. He owns 33 course records, has won two Canadian Amateurs, two Canadian PGA Championships and eight of the last 10 CPGA Senior titles. Above all, though, in his prime he was probably the most accurate ballstriker in the history of the game, better even, some say, than Ben Hogan.

But Norman has recorded little success, not because he did not have the game for the top tournaments, but because he could not bring himself to compete. All his life Norman has suffered from a severe lack of self-confidence. Gary Cowan, a former U.S. and Canadian amateur champion, says Norman has “an inferiority complex second to none.” According to the late George Knudson, Canada’s finest player ever and the winner of eight PGA Tour events, Norman was the most sensitive man he knew. After Norman won the 1955 Canadian Amateur in Calgary, for instance, he hid beside the Elbow River at the edge of the golf course rather than speak at the presentation ceremony. He is golf’s quintessential outsider.

Why Norman shies from the limelight is open to question. Some say it stems partly from his very early years in Kitchener, Ontario, about 70 miles east of Toronto. HIs family was of modest means, and his parents, considering golf a country club sport for the rich, discouraged him from playing. Norman claims his parents, both now dead, never saw him hit a single shot.

Those who have seen him marvel at his ballstriking. If you’re ever in east-central Florida, where Norman often winters (the Canadian Professional Golf Association owns a golf course in Titusville), you’ll hear a myriad of Moe Norman stories. Hey, how about the time Moe showed up in an early morning fog at the Tomoka Oaks course in Daytona Beach and hit six balls from the 10th tee? When they landed, two were touching; the rest were nearby.

Tour pro Paul Azinger was astonished when he first came across Norman. Then a freshman at Brevard Junior College in Cocoa, Azinger was with his teammates on the practice range, hitting balls, when his teacher John Redman told them to stop. “Boys,” Redman said, “here comes the best ballstriker that ever lived.”

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Azinger recalls. “I’ve hit balls for a couple of hours, it’s 100 degrees and here comes this guy in a long-sleeve turtleneck. I watched him hit drivers at the 250-yard sign and he never hit one more than 10 yards left or right of the marker.”

Azinger, along with other PGA Tour players, makes a habit of watching Norman whenever he can. Each year during the Canadian Open at the Glen Abbey Golf Club outside Toronto, for instance, the pros gather as Norman gives an impromptu clinic in his street shoes, using borrowed clubs. Keith Clearwater, who won twice on Tour in 1987, has studied stop-action photos of Norman’s swing. Gary Player also watched Norman carefully and has concluded that Norman’s swing has fewer moving parts than any he has ever seen. Norman once gave a private demonstration for a mesmerized Ben Crenshaw, in which Gentle Ben learned why Norman’s nickname is “Pipeline Moe.”

But nobody speaks more sensitively about Norman than Trevino. In an interview conducted last summer for “The Fifth Estate,” a program on Canadian television, Trevino was emphatic. “I do not know of any player,” he said, “who could strike a golf ball like Moe Norman, as far as hitting it solid, knowing where it’s going, knowing the mechanics of the game and knowing what he wanted to do with the golf ball.”

Like Trevino, Norman swings in a manner so idiosyncratic that it seems to defy all golfing convention. In fact, it makes Trevino’s swing seem more orthodox. Norman is also the fastest player ever, calling himself the “747 o golf — one look at the target and I swing.”

The eccentricity begins at address. Norman stands far from the ball, his feet wide apart. He sets the clubhead at least a foot behind the ball, thereby attending to the axiom, “take the club back low to the ground.” He then extends the club back so far and low that he can scrape a coin some 27 inches along the ground with the soleplate of his driver. Norman’s downswing and follow-through also are unique. From the top, he goes into a drastically vertical drop, slinging the club into a slot that rarely varies from swing to swing. He then holds the club firmly through the ball longer than anybody, thereby preventing his head from fluttering.

It is that extension that accounts in part for Norman’s uncanny precision. A few years ago, he was driving through North Carolina on his way north from Florida and stopped at the Pinchurst Country Club’s Advantage Golf School. There, he hit a few balls toward a canvas sheet that had the word “Advantage” on it. Norman hit the bottom left corner of the “A” several times.

Norman’s first encounter with major U.S. competition came when he won the 1955 Canadian Amateur and subsequently received an invitation to play the 1956 Masters. “I was setting up pins one night [in the Kitchener bowling alley where he worked when competing as an amateur] and it was 10 below outside,” Norman remembers, still awe-struck, “and when I got home, here was this invitation to the Masters. For Me! What a thrill.”

A thrill it might have been, but it didn’t mean Norman would travel to Augusta in style or anything approaching the extravagance one would think might accompany such an occasion. Norman’s customary mode of transportation was the bus, and that’s what he rode to Georgia.

By the time he arrived, he was quivering with anticipation, a reaction the depth of which even Norman could not appreciate until he took to the first tee surrounded by thousands of onlookers, all of whom were still wondering who he was. “I was shaking like a leaf,” Norman says. “But before they could say ‘Moe Norman’ — Bang! — I hit it down the middle.”

The style didn’t work for long. Norman shot a 75 in the opening round — not too bad a score for a first- timer — and a 78 in the second, whereupon he took a lesson from Sam Snead. Even though it was his own swing that had gotten him to Augusta, Norman took Snead’s tip to the practice range and hit 800 balls over four hours. By the time he was done, his hands were almost raw and in no shape to complete the tournament. He withdrew after nine holes of the third round.

Norman played at Augusta again the following year as a professional. This time he shot 77-74 for 151 (the same total as Hogan) and missed the cut.

In 1958, Norman qualified through a Canadian event to play 10 U.S. tournaments. There are stories of how Norman finished well in several events — in particular, it’s been said he led in the final round at New Orleans and finished fourth — but they are not confirmed by PGA record books. What is known is that Norman felt uncomfortable around the stellar American names and chose to stay on his own and take his meals alone. One pro told him to clean up his act, the implication being that there was no room on Tour for a fellow who wore the same clothes several days in a row, whose pants didn’t fit and whose shoes were torn.

Soon, Norman’s mannerisms drew more attention than his golf — no surprise, perhaps, considering he sometimes he hits balls off Coke bottles instead of tees. “I was putting on a show,” Norman says, “and making the crowd laugh. But the officials told me this was big business; this was the Tour in the world and they didn’t care how good I was. I had to tee it up the normal way.”

Unable to conform — or more to the point, change his personality — Norman chose not to return to the Tour after his 10-tournament stint, turning instead to a quiet, reclusive life far from the golfing mainstream. Today he lives alone in a motel room near Kitchener.

While it’s difficult to account for Norman’s withdrawal from major competition, it’s probably more productive to theorize about his quirks and their contribution to his golfing style. Norman speaks rapidly, often repeating his sentences. He walks so fast around a course that once, during a tournament, the Ontario Golf Association asked him to zig zag down the fairways to slow down the pace. He also has that rapid-fire swing.

Norman’s twin sister, Marie Kelly, also lives in Kitchener, and says that when her brother was 5, he was hit by a car while sleigh-riding and carried 100 yards under the vehicle. He ran home, apparently unhurt, but it’s possible, she theorizes, that his accident may have led to his rapid speech and movement. Norman’s mother always regretted that he wasn’t examined for possible damage, but without neuropsychological testing it’s impossible to know what, if any, were the effects of the accident.

Despite the respect he receives from his contemporaries, and his achievements in his native country, Norman is invariably the subject of derision from golf fans unable to relate to his style and mannerisms. During the 1981 CPGA Championship, for example, when Norman was paired with Jim Nelford, the Canadian pro who plays the PGA Tour, Nelson drove well down the fairway and Norman followed with an equally good shot. The crowd applauded Nelford, but snickered at Norman.

“See?” Nelford remembers Norman saying as they left the tee. “That’s how it’s been all my life. Other players hit good shots and the crowd cheers. I hit a good shot and they laugh. All my life. For years I’ve been Canada’s laughing stock.”

The Media have been no less scornful of Norman. The files in a major western Canadian newspaper refer to Knudson as “Canada’s finest golfer.” For Norman, it’s “Crazy Moe,” He’s been called the ‘Clown Prince of Canadian Golf’.”

The result is that Norman has spent much of his adult life in pursuit of sanctuary. He spends hours in his car, the trunk of which is full of clubs, clothes, golf balls, newspaper clippings and a few books on positive thinking. He roams from course to course, elusive as a hole-in-one. He likes to park at the side of a country road, sip soda and memorize a page or two from his books. He’s had but two dates in his life.

Not that he has any inclination to change. “I live one day at a time,” he says. “I always believe this is my last day, not that tomorrow is my first day. Live the best you can, that’s my idea. I still hit hundreds of balls a day, that’s what I do. I believe what Hogan said at the ’56 Masters on the putting green: ‘Every day you don’t hit balls is one day longer it takes you to get better.”

Better does not mean more interested in playing the U.S. Senior Tour, although Norman has said he would compete if he were sponsored. But his friends know Norman would feel as out of place as ever in the rarefied world of Arnold Palmer and Chi Chi Rodriguez.

Nobody knows how far Norman might have gone had he been more secure. Trevino pondered the question in his Canadian television interview, “Moe is a shy man,” Trevino said. “He likes to be around his friends. But when you play golf and you play internationally, you meet a lot of people who try to take advantage of you and ask you some questions that maybe you don’t want to answer. I don’t think Moe ever wanted to be in that situation.

“I think if Moe did want to be in that situation,” Trevino continued, “there is no telling what he could have won. I think he would have won the U.S Open. I think he would have won all the tournaments around the world.”

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