Different Strokes 1987 – Moe Norman Canadian Golfer

By Lorne Rubenstein 1987


Moe Norman is a golfing genius. He has mastered a cerebral sport with instinct and imagination, and with a method that causes observers to wonder what’s going on. Most players become fixated on the ball; they are prone to paralysis by analysis. Not Norman. His flick-of-a-switch speed neutralizes golf’s psychological complexities. One look at his target and he swings. He calls himself “the 747 of golf.”

Where most golfers arrange themselves loosely over the ball before swinging, Norman appears rigid. He stands far from the ball – arms outstretched and legs well apart – and places the clubhead a foot or so behind the ball rather than directly behind it. He swings his club in a straight line back from the ball and through it, extending his arms and club farther, perhaps, than any golfer in the history of the game. Every shot is straight, every swing a carbon copy of the one that came before.

He always contact the ball in the same spot. He’s so accurate that he’s worn a dark hole the size of a quarter in the middle of all his iron clubs. Indeed, his precision is legendary. He showed up one morning at the Tomoka Oaks course in Daytona Beach, where he spends his winter, and hit six balls from the tenth tee. When they landed two of them were actually touching; the rest were nearby.

“If they had a tournament in the dark,” he says,” I’d be the only one who could play, I’d know where to walk.” He can still recall the exact yardages and configurations of golf holes he hasn’t seen in years. Professional such as George Knudson, Lee Trevino, and Gary Player agree that nobody hits the ball straighter or more consistently than Norman. He never thinks of obstacles on the golf course.

“They’re not in my jurisdiction.” he explains, ” not in my vocabulary,’’

Norman has won forty-nine pro tournaments and holds thirty-three course records. In 1979 he turned fifty and won the next seven Canadian Professional Golfer Association Senior championships. Yet he has never succeeded on the U.S. PGA Tour, and today refuses to try to qualify for the rich PGA Senior Tour. He suffers from an inferiority complex so pervasive that it’s kept him out of the mainstream of golf. George Knudson once said in a dinner line that Norman was second to none in ball-striking. He didn’t know that Norman was behind him; Norman started cry, so much respect did he have for Knudson’s opinion, so little belief in himself. “He is,” says Knudson, “the sensitive man I know.”

After winning the 1955 Canadian Amateur in Calgary, Norman hid beside the Elbow River rather than speak at the presentation. And in 1958, after playing one winter on the U.S. Tour, he declared that he had had enough. “I didn’t feel at the home there. I always felt they were superior to me, that they were gods, that I was their servants. All of the sudden I’m talking to the best in the world. I had no money, they got money. I’m trying to make enough to go to the next Tournament, they’re leaving five-dollar tips.”

Now fifty-eight, he’s lived much of his adult life north of Toronto, in a room without a phone. His real home is his car – the trunk is filled with a dozen pairs of golf shoes, 300 practice golf balls, an assortment of clubs, Clothes take up the back seats, and his books, scraps of paper, tapes, and notes for speeches are spread over the front seat. He often sits for a few hours at the side of the country road and studies his books, When he eats, it’s usually in fast-food restaurant. He’s as elusive as a hole-in-one, wandering form course to course.

Last summer he won the Ontario PGA Senior at Toronto’s Bayview Country Club, shooting sixty-seven in the second and final round. Nobody was even close, He seemed to pilot the ball around the course: to watch him was to marvel at his expertise. Yet spectators laughed. They couldn’t accept his style, his dress, his chatter, his mannerisms. It’s the reaction he’s gotten his entire career, “If anybody’s been through it,” Norman says softly, “I have, I’ve been the laughing stock of Canada. But I’m not bitter, if that’s the way life is, I’m just a different type of golfer, fastest player in the world, take one look and whack. It doesn’t look like I’m trying,”

Professional golf involves more than hitting the ball. There are travels arrangements to be made, interviews and social obligations, standard of dress and conduct, Norman couldn’t stands this side of the game, but over the years he’s found it easier to accommodate himself to some of the requirements, Paradoxically, his overwhelming insecurity may also be the source of his remarkable talent. Without his desires to get out of everyone’s way, he might not be so speeded up. Without his offbeat setup and swing, there might be no mechanical precision. It’s possible that his vulnerability has produced behavior that meshes exactly with the demands of the game itself but render him unable to cope with the social and business part.

Moe and his twin sister, Marie, were the second-born of six children. Their father worked for a furniture company in Kitchener and, while the family was hardly well off, they lived comfortably. Murray – his original given name- was five years old when he was hit by a car while sleigh-riding and suffered head injury. He ran home, apparently unhurt. The accident may have led to his rapid speech and movement; his mother always regretted that he wasn’t examined for possible injury, but without neuropsychological testing it’s impossible to know what, if any, were the effects of the accident.

As a schoolboy, Norman was more interested in sports than studies. He did like math and by grade three could rattle off the answers to multiplication question without thinking. Marie Kelly, his twin, remembers him as a highstrung youngster, quick to retreat into himself if crossed. When he was in the ninth grade he left the school because he was spending more time at the Rockway Golf Club than in class. The course became his home, and Lloyd Tucker became his teacher. He hit up to 800 balls a day, transforming his hands into vise with the texture of sandpaper. Today black, calloused ridges run along the fingers of his left hand like furrows in a field. Scratch it all you want, “he says, “it doesn’t hurt.”

While competing as a young amateur he hitchhiked to events and slept in sand traps or on benches. He set pins in a Kitchener bowling alley to earn a few dollars, and became the fastest pin-boy around. a whirling dervish of the lanes.

Wherever he went, he drew attention.

Norman’s parents, however, did not understand his interest in golf. He says now they never saw him hit a shot in their lives. Golf, to them, was a rich man’s games but it was his one love. “It became his life, “Marie says.” He used to tell us that someday he would be the richest guy in the world because of golf.”

He certainly seemed on his way, winning both the 1955 and 1956 Canadian Amateur championships. After his first win he was greeted by members who led him back to course in a small motorcade. Norman sat in the corner at what was to be celebration, too shy to say a word. Yet even as he turned inward, golf was propelling him forward. He was invited to the 1956 Masters, “I was setting up pins one night when it was ten below,” he remembers, still awe-struck, “and when I got home, here’s this invitation to the Masters What a thrill.”

Surrounded by thousands of fans, Norman shook with nervousness on the tee. “I was shaking like a leaf. But before they could say Moe Norman, bang, I hit it down the middle. ” He conquered fear with speed, but he didn’t complete the Masters. After the first round Sam Snead gave him a lesson that so excited him-shy, small town Moe Norman, being attended by golf’s smoothest swinger – that he hit 800 ball that evening. But by taking the lesson at a critical time he betrayed his fundamental problem: he didn’t believe in his own ability to play against such competition.

Four hours later, as darkness fell over the range, his hands were raw, He could hardly grip the club the next day because he had split a thumb. He withdrew from the Masters after nine holes of the second round. It’s been said that he walked off because play was too slow, or because he felt uncomfortable. Irv Lightstone, a Toronto professional who was with him, says Norman was in too much pain to continue,

Later that year he again won the Canadian Golf Association selected him to represent the country in a match against the U.S. and Mexico. But he was dropped only a few days before the team was to leave for Mexico, The RCGA had heard that Norman had been asked by Revenue Canada to pay taxes on money he had earned passing the hat at golf contravened the amateur code but what could this have mattered to Norman? he needed the money and had proudly shown everyone the letter from the tax department. RCGA president Jim Anglin tried to reach Moe for an explanation. When he didn’t reply, Anglin cut him from the team. “I took him off, ” Anglin says, “not because he had taken the money, but because he hadn’t communicated, “Norman saw the incident as a sign that he didn’t belong in the upper echelons of amateur golf.

He turned pro for the 1957 season, and won money in his first tournament, a bursary event for Canadian pros under thirty. Unfortunately, the golf authorities – this time the Canadian PGA clobbered him again. He had no official status as a club pro and was deemed ineligible to win money, so he didn’t get the $1,500 that was to support him for ten events in U.S. tour. In limbo, a winner with no money to show for his effort, seemingly neither pro nor amateur, Norman was finally hired as an assistant pro at the De Haviland Golf Centre in Toronto. His job was simple: to entertain patrons with maximum- efficiency swing.

After placing in the next bursary event, Norman did get to keep his winnings. In his fourth event in the U.S. the New Orleans Open, he led the field at the seventh tee of the last round. But then he faltered and finished fourth. “I started trying a little too hard, “he explains, “to bring win back to Canada. “Norman had predicted his own decline. Asked to say why he had done so well as an amateur, and to comment on his prospect as a pro, he answered, “I don’t have anything to play for in amateur tournaments. If I turned pro and the bucks were on the line I’m sure it would be a different story.”

A different story indeed. Moe Norman felt even more an outsider in the U.S. than in Canada. a pro told him that if he were going to play on the tour he had better improve his grooming – his pants were often above his ankles, his toenails occasionally stuck through his shoes. and tour officials admonished him for his antics; he had hit balls off Coke bottle during the Los Angeles and New Orleans opens. “I was putting on a show,” he says, “making the crowd laugh. But they told me this was big business, this was the tour of the world, that they didn’t care how good I was, I had to tee it up in the normal way.”

After Moe played his ten U.S. events, he left the U.S. tour for good, abandoning his childhood vision of getting rich from golf. He hit the ball so well that it could make a person cry, but he was too scared to complete. Errors in the swing often begin in the mind; his mind was short through with fear.

It is to his studies that Norman credits the fact that he now feels more at ease around people. Ten years ago he met Irv Schloss and Paul Bertholy, U.S. teachers who emphasize the mental side of golf. Not surprisingly, Norman applies their idea – one’s attitude affects results on the course – in other areas of his life. I couldn’t mix with people when I was younger, “Norman says. “I couldn’t mix words. I couldn’t go to dinner, sit down with the people. They’d come up with these big words that I couldn’t understand. And I didn’t think it was important to mix with them. I knew I was never going to be an alderman or a mayor of a city. All I wanted was to become the straightest hitter the world has known and get that goddamn ball in the hole. I was hurt by people, and I was trying to kill them with figures on the scorecard. I would hurt them with figures and talent, they’d hurt me with words.”

Children, however, couldn’t hurt him. They were guileless and responded to his spontaneity. Last summer, while having lunch in a McDonald’s after the first round of the Ontario PGA Seniors, he rolled a golf ball back and forth with a three-year-old. The child was mesmerized. “I just love kids, “Norman said that afternoon. Oh, I just love them. if I ever won the Canadian Open I’d stay on the steps by the clubhouse and sign autographs. I’d hope there would be 10,000 kids, and I’d say, ‘Come on kids, come on, “I wouldn’t sign for grown-ups, but for kids I’d stay there all day. Kids still have a future. Hug your kid, don’t hit him. Encourage him.” When Toronto pro Ken Venning’s first child was born Norman handed him fifty dollars “from Ucle Moe. “The second child brought a hundred dollars.

Ironically, Norman has never met his thirteen nieces and nephews. He hasn’t seen any of his siblings in five or six years, though all live within a couple of hours of Toronto. “I’d like to know why Moe has been out of touch, “Marie says.

“When he was about twenty he started to shy away. I feel badly for him. He’s missing so much. The rest of us are close, but Moe is a stranger. We’d love to see him. We have a lot of affection for him.”

Norman spends most of his time alone or on the course. Every night in bed he memorizes a few pages from one of his self-help books, and reminds himself that somewhere that day people were talking about him. PGA Tour player Peter Jacobsen has said that Norman is the most talked-about player off the course, because he plays the game so exotically well. “It’s nice to have something people wanted, ” Norman says. “I’ve got something people wanted, to hit the ball in a repetitious way. The last thing I say in bed every night is ‘I wonder how many people said my name today?’ Even in countries where I’ve never been they’ve heard of this guy Moe Norman. He can hit the ball so straight. I can control my destiny from tee to green. I did it for thirty-five years and I’m still doing it. so how can I feel bad? Not when I get something everybody in the world wants. No sirree, I feel good, I feel good.”

He’s the Glenn Gould of golf, Just as critics and public were at first more taken with Gould’s mannerisms – his special chair, his habit of wearing gloves and an overcoat no matter the weather, his tendency to hum at the piano – so have observers often been more interested in Norman’s habits than in his golf. He wears turtlenecks in the heat of the summer. For years he drank between twenty and thirty Cokes a day. though he now drinks only diet sodas and has dropped some thirty pounds. But his face is always red and his head rather large for his five-foot-eight-inch body. And he still talks as quickly as he swings,

“There are no tight holes in golf the Moe Norman way, the ball will fit the Moe Norman way,”

Gould, who hated competition and argued brilliantly against it, left the concert stage in his thirties for the recording studio. Golf has no equivalent: Norman has to stay on the stage, fully exposed. He’s imprisoned in the every place he fells most at home: the crowd presses so close a golfer can fell he’s stuck on an elevator. His salvation is simply to immerse himself in the act of hitting the ball. “The feeling you want,” he says “is light and extremely powerful, and with an alert attitude of indifference.”

There’s no reason to believe Norman feels he belongs at golf stop levels today any more than he did years ago. He may be more comfortable around people off the course, but he’s shown no inclination to complete against those he ran from: Arnold Palmer, Don January, Gene Littler. Norman was nearby broke by the end of the 1986 season. Last fall his friends and fellow pros each paid a hundred dollars to Honour him with a banquet at the Westmount Golf and Country Club in Kitchener, where he was introduced to golf as a ten-year-old caddy. He was presented with a cheque for $12,000 to help him through the winter. Norman said the dinner was the most important episode of his life because he knew the people there respected him. “For years I couldn’t see the other side of the coin. It was just shoot sixty-two they’ll know Moe Norman. Put the ball in the hole, they’ll know Moe Norman. I was wrong. Now I know. They know me for more than golf,”

Still, there was an air of melancholy in the dining room that night. In some ways Norman seemed to have come a long way from the time in Calgary when he cowered by the river, but in other ways he seemed as isolated as ever-a man alone in a crowd of people who cared about him but couldn’t figure him out.

Lloyd Tucker, Norman’s first and only teacher, was close to tears as he spoke that evening about his mysterious protégé. “If you’ve seen Fred Astaire,” he said, “you’ve seen the best dancer; if you’ve seen Peggy Fleming, you’ve seen the best skater; and when you’ve seen Moe Norman hit a golf ball, you know you’ve seen the best that ever hit a golf ball.” Norman sat quietly, but when he was praised time after time, he stood and waved to his friends.

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