The Amazin’ Moe Norman (Inside the clown hides the best golfer in Canada) by Roy MacGregor
“I was paired with Moe Norman in the Quebec Open about four years ago. We had a good crowd with us, and when we teed off I told Moe I was going to play better than him. He said if I played better than him then I’d have more money than him, and then he pulls out that big wad of his, shows everybody and knocks me down, grabbing me by the ankles and shaking me upside down. “Let’s see what you got in your pockets!” he yells. “Let’s see what you got in your pockets.” – Gary Slatter, Canadian golf pro.
In W.C. Fields’ very first sound film, The Golf Specialist, made around 1930, there is a routine in which the famous eccentric shows up with an oversized golf bag, a driver with a rubber shaft, a shovel for the sandtraps, a wind velocity indicator, a caddy with squeaky shoes and a cocktail shaker. It is just the type of satire that is mildly sacrilegious to those who are close to the subject matter — something like telling a Watergate joke at the 1976 Republican Convention — but it is the type of satire that works best for golf has never been a sport much given to laughter, and a gentle tickle can sometimes leave a scar.
Satire, though, only verges on what is real. Moe Norman is very real. Not only does he look much like the late comedian, but he has the same gift for making people laugh. For every Fields’ rubber driver or shovel, Moe Norman has always had a foot-high tee, a trick bouncing a ball off his club, or some repetitive nonsense chatter. But where Fields could count on audience appreciation for his talents, all Moe Norman ever learned to count on was the next slap of his wrists. Norman’s problem has been with, unlike Fields, he wasn’t dealing with fantasy.
But if Fields was the best comedian of his generation, Norman must also stand as one of the greatest golfers of his time. Trouble is, he is known, and will be remembered, as the game’s court jester, not as one of the masters. His talent — which was at one time staggering and which even today, when he’s 44, is still immense — will be overshadowed by his great tragedy, the flaws in his character that seem to cast him forever in the role of buffoon and perennial loser of the Canadian Open.
There are really two Moe Normans, the golfer and the character, and the golfer deserved a better response than the character delivered. It was golfer Moe Norman who Arnold Palmer worried would play the American tour, saying openly he wondered how much money Norman might have won. It was golfer Moe Norman who Sam Snead nicknamed “Clothesline,” later refined to “Pipeline,” in honor of his deathly accurate drives. And it was Norman the golfer who American golf expert Irv Schloss pointed to when he was describing the one man who came close to hitting a golf ball as well as Ben Hogan in his prime.
Norman can still strike a ball with surveyor’s accuracy. To date, he owns more course records than Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus combined, some 22 in his country and nine in the United States. And while they still talk of Sam Snead’s great 59 score (par usually being around 72), there is little heard of Moe Norman’s two 59s, or his 12 holes-in-one, or his victories in every major Canadian tournament but one — the Canadian Open.
It is here that Moe Norman, the character begins to surface. To many, he should have been the great Canadian golf hope, the man who would win the one that mattered. One Open, he finished eight, his best, and that saddens some. That he might have won at all terrifies others, for itis a fear of what unexpected turmoil Moe Norman the character might crease that worries this group.
Moe Norman is not the same as you and me. He has a common flaw, mind you, insecurity, but his inferiority complex runs very deep indeed. He has never felt comfortable with his own emotions: sometimes, they come boiling out with great bursts of love, sometimes of anger, but when they come he never knows. Nor do others, which makes any relationship with him a little like roulette. His attempts to anchor down these great wellheads of feeling give Moe Norman a vast amount of nervous energy, and it is an energy he has learned to release through his eccentricities — the talking, balancing, laughing, the strobe-light manner of moving. And it is these very outlets that make him what he is to most people — lovable — as well as he is to the dour, slaid bodies that regulate golf — dangerous.
Moe Norman, golfer and character, is at the mercy of his feelings. Nothing deep down inside of him has ever whispered “I am the best,” even though a good many others have virtually shouted it at him. He once said of George Knudson, “I used to beat him all the time. Now I can’t even tie his shoelaces.” The mere mention of a Palmer or Nicklaus puts Normans putter into spasms.
“These people — the Hogans and Sneads, and now the others — they were Moe’s gods,” says Gary Cowan, one of Canada’s finest amateur golfers. “And Moe couldn’t put himself in their class even if he was. He couldn’t accept it.”
Cowan knows more than a little about Moe Norman, as both came from Kitchener, Ont. and both learned their golf basics very early in life from Lloyd Tucker at the Rockway golf club. But aside from golf ability, instructor and home town, there are no other similarities. Cowan is an outgoing, confident insurance executive, a man who is able to entertain thoughts other than golf.
Not so for Norman. He discovered around age 11 that a golf ball was something he could hit that wouldn’t hit back, something he could hang on to at last, and he hasn’t let go since. Coming from a poverty-stricken farm family of eight where one full meal a week was considered a treat, Norman was a skinny, awkward and shy boy who could barely say hello to a man, couldn’t even glance at a woman. He did poorly at school, finally being expelled in he says, Grade 9, though those close to him deny that there is even much formal education.
Not being good at school or people, he wasn’t about to give up on something he showed promise at. Moe would hide his clubs under the front stoop, attend morning classes then race home to sneak off with his clubs to the nearby course. After leaving school he worked nights in a tire factory, but he eventually got fired for taking off so much time for amateur golf tournaments. As he says, he hasn’t worked since.
Having no close friends to while away the hours with, Norman took his spare time to the practice range where he would hit balls for hours at a time. 500, maybe 600 golf balls, until his hands bled. He’d also work on his tricks, and he perfected things no one else in golf can do, like bouncing a ball on the end of a club for as long as he wishes. Today he still practices, but he is no longer obsessed with it: “I don’t keep fit like I used to. When I used to do fingertip pushups, then I was strong. But I’m 200 pounds now, and look like a goddamn Porky Pig. If I tried it now, my fingers’d break off. My fingers’d break off.”
All that practice brought him skills and the skills gave him what he really wanted — attention. As an amateur he dominated the country, winning back-to-back Canadian championships in 1955 and 1956, playing twice as Canada’s representative in the Masters tournament in Augusta, GA. and winning virtually every weekend tournament he cared to enter.
He had notice then, but no money. He’d lost his one job, hitchhiked to tournaments, became probably the only golfer in history to arrive on a Greyhound bus for the Masters, even slept out in the open to attend some tournaments. And in the back of his mind, as in the back of the mind of any poor and little-educated person, there was the Protestant belief that he was just as good as the next person, a belief that naturally translates as the ability to acquire money. The amateur people caught him selling his prizes. (“Hell, all I ever seemed to win were TV sets. One year I had six, so I sold them. They said I couldn’t, I said “What’m I supposed to do, watch all six?” They said yes. So I turned pro.”) That was when Moe Norman decided he would show himself and the rest of the golf that he not only stood above them in the game, but he stood amongst them when it came to showing how much one could afford.
“Right after I won my second straight Canadian amateur, down in New Brunswick at Edmundston, I flew back to Toronto with Jerry Magee, the guy I’d beaten. No one was there to meet me. No One. But people came out to meet Jerry. His parents were there with the keys to a brand new Oldsmobile. It was raining out, raining hard, and I had to go up to Jerry and ask him if I could hitch a ride with him out to Highway 7 so I could hitchhike back to Kitchener. Jerry took me out in the new car and dumped me off. I was standing there in the rain, standing there with my clubs and this great big trophy, and Jerry drives off in this new Olds. I was the champion. He was runner-up. I was champion. “- Moe Norman
Once Norman joined the pro tour he became somewhat of a cause celebre, bringing a little fun to a solemn game. He burned off his vast reserve of nervous energy by delighting the crowds that began to follow him. He’d set his ball up on a tripod of wooden matches rather than the regular tee, then stroke the ball off so cleanly he’d walk away from a minor blaze mumbling, “That’s how you set a course on fire. That’s how you set it on fire.” Once, when paired with Doug Ford in the Canadian Open, Norman astounded the gallery by sinking his putt between Ford’s legs as the American star bent down to retrieve his own ball. He sometimes drank 35 Cokes during a single round, from time to time teeing his ball off an empty bottle rather than the tee. But the real shocker was always his speed. Never a practice swing, never even a line-up for a difficult pull. Sometimes, he hit his ball without breaking stride, and one time, to emphasize how slow he thought his fellow tournament players were getting, he lay down on the green and pretended to fall fast asleep.
Moe was popular with the crowds and with the other pros, but to the old guard he seemed to signal the apocalypse of a noble game. The late Lou Cumming, one-time president of the Canadian Professional Golfers’ Association, even announced, “We can’t permit him to jeopardize the dignity of the profession.” He became the first golfer in history to be fined for his actions at the CPGA tour, and he was reprimanded continually.
All this had its effect. While other, less talented golfers easily became affiliated with the nobler country clubs, receiving annual stipends for saying they played out of specific courses, Moe Norman had no one come knocking. He was able only to strike deals with driving ranges; they liked Moe because he brought the people out. But they used him badly: one time Moe Norman stood on display for six hours and 51 minutes, hammering 1,540 drives in a row past the 225-yard marker. His hands began to bleed, but he never complained.
Little wonder Moe Norman snapped out a life that would make it appear he is better off than he really is. He picked up the habit of carrying sums up to $20,000 cash in his pockets, and flashed it at the slightest encouragement. Each year has meant a new Cadillac for himself and one for his elderly mother in Kitchener; he spends each winter playing golf in the Florida sunshine; and each summer he drifts from event to event in Canada, where he was consistently stood at or near the top of the money-winner’s list on the Peter Jackson tour.
What money he has is easily saved. Apart from the Cadillac and the other amenities Moe Norman allows himself around golf courses, there are no frills. He has never taken a drink, never smoked tobacco, and he lives by himself in a room in the house of an older couple in Richmond Hill, Ont. Not even those few who are closest to him know the address. He has no telephone.
One who doesn’t know this hidden address is his present employer, the small, semi-private golf club in Gilford, Ont. which in 1965 was the first club to take a chance on having Moe Norman as its “playing” professional, meaning the course gets to use his name in advertisements and Norman gets a small amount of money out of the deal as well as a course to call home.
He met the Membery family, owners of Gilford Golf Haven, in Florida in the early 1960s, and they became a stand-in for the family that he never really had. It was Verna Membery who finally got Moe Norman sitting at the same table as a woman, even talking to one, and it was Verna who managed to get across some of the social graces he’d previously lacked, simple things like showing a little politeness or not matching checkered shirts with checkered pants. Previously, he’d said he’d never trust a bank, and still refuses to open his own account.
The Memberys put up with a lot from Moe Norman. He talks freely of the $200,000 he has invested in their golf course and real estate enterprises, even though he really owns nothing. But Moe is allowed to fib because they consider him a part of their family, even if not a tried and true business partner.
Orm Membery and his son Ed, who operate the course, let Norman go his separate way for two reasons. One, they like him and want to protect him, as does anyone who spends much time in the amazing company of Moe Norman. The other reason is that he makes good copy, and whenever his name gets mentioned, so does that of Gilford Golf Haven.
“We were playing a practice round in MOntreal for the Canadian Open. A reporter came up to Moe on a par 3 and said, “Hey, Moe. How’re you putting today?” Moe didn’t say anything, just walked up, hit the ball. Then he turned and yelled, “I’m not putting today!” and the ball went straight into the cup. A hole in one.” -Garry Slatter
In two weeks’ time, when the 60th Canadian Open is winding up at the Royal Montreal Golf Club, Moe Norman will not likely be a name near the top. He may not even be playing in it, he says; the record of his achievements notwithstanding, Norman does not automatically get a place in the tournament, and as he says, “Why should the best golfer in Canada have to qualify?” So unless he gets an exemption from the qualifying round through a victory in Ontario, Quebec or Atlantic Opens (all played in June) he won’t even trouble himself with the only major pro tournament in the country he has never won.
“Why should I worry about it?” he says, not altogether convincingly. “I’m not hungry anymore. I got money. Golf is just a walk in the park for me now. Just a walk in the park. That’s all.”