Moe Norman

Moe Didn’t Play By the Rules – and it cost him

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Murray Norman is a master of a particular skill that any other person would have translated into millions. That Norman is next-to-broke is proof that when it comes to making it big, you not only have to be the best, you have to play by other people’s rules.

You Have To Play Both Games – Tim O’ Connor (Magazine Article)

Moe Norman is a master of a particular skill that any other person would have translated into millions. That Norman is next-to-broke is proof that when it comes to making it big, you not only have to be the best, you have to play by other people’s rules.

You can learn more about someone by watching him try to hit a golf ball out of a sandtrap than in a week of working together. He might take a mighty swing, curse at his failure, then flail away faster and faster, just digging himself further into trouble. Another might fail but laugh, step back and calmly try again. Because golfers are solely responsible for their own mis-hits, the spore lays bare our personalities and emotions for all to see. Perhaps, that’s one reason why golf is the game of business,. You really get to know the person you’re dealing with.

Entertaining a golfing client can cost you, though. After picking up lunch, the green fee, a motorized cart and the tab at the 19th hole, you might drop $200. That’s peanuts. Some businesses invite dozens of clients for a tournament and an exhibition with a famous golf pro. And the going rates are steep. Sam Snead usually gets $15,000, while fashion plate Payne Stewart rakes in $20,000. About $30,000 gets Chi Chi Rodriguez, $50,000 keeps swashbuckling Greg Norman in black hats and $75,000 gets Arnold Palmer.

Canadian golf legend Moe Norman gets about $700 and he hits a golf ball better than any of them.

I’ve just exchanged pleasantries with Norman and his buddy Mark Evershed, an Oakville golf instructor, at the first tee at Florida’s Royal Oak Golf Club when I look down briefly to grab my driver and… WHACK! Moe hits. It’s a bullet that surges into the sky and then floats down near the corner of the fairway which doglegs right beside a lake.

As I hustle awkwardly to keep up with him like a kid brother, I notice his trademark blue long-sleeved turtleneck hugs a powerful chest and a thick linebacker’s neck. His wide jaw is weathered from a lifetime exposed to sun. When he listens, his thick grey eyebrows arch upwards while his soft blue eyes widen like he’s surprised. His grey hair is clipped short, but some unnamed tufts stick out. At 63, he looks fit enough to give a Florida gator a good wrestle.

When we get to his ball, it’s just four feet from the water. Then it occurs to me; he aimed for this spot. He’s taken the shortest route to the hole by playing as close to the water as possible.

With his feet planted wide and his legs rigid, he reaches out and places his wedge about 12 inches behind the ball and pulls the trigger. The ball arcs in the air and lands softly six feet from the flag. He drops another ball and hits it. Four feet away. As Steve Martin might say: “This guy’s goooooood!”

On the par-three, 220-yard fifth hole, he lashes a four-wood. The ball locks on to the flag and lances into the green within two inches of the hole. “Ooh, missed again. Missed again. Tap-in two, tap-in two. Almost unplayable lie on the green” he says in a little sing-songy voice like Pooh Bear.

As we walk to the green, he spreads his arms and laments: “I hit it close every time and I get nothing, (PGA Tour star) Fred Couples can’t hit it this good and he gets $200,000.”

It seems cruel. A shame. That Moe Norman — a man gifted like Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan — couldn’t take advantage of his extraordinary skill and talent. That all Canadians don’t know Murray Norman. That he’s so misunderstood. His friends worry about his financial security, whether he’ll end up alone and forgotten. That he may never receive the official recognition he richly deserves. But as it turns out, they shouldn’t worry so much.

***

The golf world knows Moe Norman, He may be the most talked-about player in the history of the game. It seems everyone has a Moe Norman story. He’s the shy eccentric who also speaks rapdily and repeats himself, slept in sandtraps as an amateur, smacked balls off Coke bottles on the PGA Tour and hits the ball so straight his nickname is Pipeline Moe.

“I’m the best striker of the ball the world has ever known,” he says matter-of-factly in the Royal Oak clubhouse in Titusville near Cape Canaveral.

“That’s not me saying it. Ask all the pros who’s the best. Not the best player, the best striker of the ball. ben Hogan and I are in a different world that doesn’t exist for anyone else for hitting it pure — dead straight, every time. “

Superstar Lee Trevino Assessed Norman this way: “The public doesn’t know Moe Norman. But you ask any golf professional — Australian, or whether you’re in the U.S., or whether you’re in Great Britain — and you say that’s the Canadian guy that hits it so damn good, isn’t it. And I say that’s him. I mean, he is that good.”

Evershed says Norman’s greatness lies only partly in his efficient, simple swing that looks awkward at address but does everything right at impact. “Moe’s greatest gift is that he never remembers bad shots. Only the feeling of good shots. Therefore, all he does is repeat the feeling of good shots.”

In an annual ritual at Glen Abbey during the Canadian Open, Norman hits balls on the driving range in his street shoes and all the pros gather around to watch in awe.

Ken Venning remembers watching Gary Player seek out Norman for advice on the practice tee at the 1972 World Cup in West Plain Beach, Fl. Jack Nicklaus and Trevino soon wandered over. “There’s the three best players in the world at the same time and they’re asking him how he hits the ball,” says Venning, a teaching pro at Castlemore Country Club in Brampton.

Venning also recounts playing with Moe at Tomoka Oaks in Daytona Beach around 1970. They each hit three drives on the 10 hole. As they walked, Venning said he saw a big mushroom growing in the middle of the fairway. The mushroom turned out to be Norman’s three balls — touching. “You could see the lines in the dew where they rolled up against each other.”

Another Norman Legend takes place during a Canadian Open Practice round in 1969. On the 10th tee, reporters sarcastically asked Norman about a four-putt green that cost him the Quebec Open.

“He hit the shot, and while the ball was in the air, he turned around and said, ‘I’m not putting today.’ The ball went into the hole. He called it in the air!” said Gary Slatter, Norman’s playing partner that day.

What’s often forgotten, however, is his incredible record of 54 victories, which doesn’t include one-day tournaments. he won the Senior Canadian Professional Golf Association championship seven times in eight years, two CPGA championships and won some provincial PGA championships two and three times. At last count, he holds 33 course records and 17 or 18 holes-in-one. (Couples has none.)

The big but is that Norman played only one season on the U.S. PGA Tour, the traditional proving ground of pro golf, and he didn’t win.

***

In the winter, Norman rents a room in Daytona beach and drives 60 miles daily to CPGA-owned Royal Oak where he spends the day, hitting balls, talking and reading.

In the summer, he rents a room or lives in a motel somewhere around Kitchener. He doesn’t have a phone. They make him nervous. It’s not the life one would assume for the world’s best ball striker. For most of his life, Norman has suffered from severe shyness and a brutal inferiority complex.

Thus, he retreated into himself and golf, a solitary pursuit suited for loners. He didn’t learn social graces. He’s never smoked, had an alcoholic drink or a dare. He distrusts adult strangers and prefers kids. The idea of having to speak in front of people terrified him.

After he won the ’55 Canadian Amateur Championship in Calgary, he hid by the Bow River until the presentation was over. “I was too shy to attend. My whole life I felt out of place. I used to think everyone was smart but I wasn’t.”

He felt ridiculed by tournament audiences who laughed when they saw him hit brilliant shots, seemingly, with little effort or preparation. “The laughter was always in awe, not in amusement,” says Slatter, a professional golfer who oversees golf operations at Mad River Golf Club in Creemore. But Norman couldn’t make the distinction.

Trevino said: “If someone would have taken Moe under their wing… and said ‘Moe, look, we’re going to play here and don’t be afraid,’ there is no telling what Moe Norman would have won. I think he would have won the U.S. Open (considered pro golf’s toughest annual tournament). Many people did offer to manage and sponsor him on the PGA and the Senior PGA Tours, but Norman refused.

***

While he argues that people don’t understand him or that they’ve snubbed him, Moe Norman has at times given them good reason. He’s been known to be rude to exuberant strangers who approached him. He often didn’t seem to know the limits to horseplay, which could be dangerous — he has immensely powerful hands and arms. He once squeezed a man’s hand so hard in a handshake, the fellow had tears in his eyes.

Norman once held Slatter up by the ankles during a tournament and shook him to see much change he had in his pockets. “I can understand why people got upset at him,” said Gus Maue, a longtime friend and owner of Foxwood Golf Club in Waterloo. “He’s just shy. He didn’t get socialized.”

Maue says that if people approach him, politely, or with someone who knows him, he’s very pleasant. And most agree that Moe’s mellowed and grown more tolerant. “He’s a little different, but once you get to know him, he’s a great guy,” says Gary Menaul who runs the Canadian Academy of Pure Golf schools in which Norman and Evershed participate.

When his many friends, and those who appreciate Norman, talk about him, they do so passionately. They use words and phrases such as national treasure, honest, genius, bright, caring, unselfish, playful and helpful.

On the practice green at the 1972 Canadian Open, Norman asked Slatter if he was playing in Winnipeg the following week. When Slatter said he couldn’t afford to go, Norman threw a wad of money on the green and walked away.

Arnold Palmer picked up the wad. It was $4,000. Slatter gave it back to Norman the next day. “He never asked for it.” He says Norman always helped other pros when they struggled financially.

His friends helped about seven years ago when he fell on hard times. They held a Moe Norman day with a tournament and tribute dinner that raised $26,000 and helped him get back on his feet.

***

Irwin and Mary Norman had six children, including Murray and his twin sister Marie, who were born in 1929. They lived in a working-class area of Kitchener. When Norman was about 10, his toboggan slid on a road and a car ran him over, recalls his brother Ron, 64. “He was hit in the head. He got up and ran home,” Ron says it was the Depression, and his father, a furniture upholsterer, could not afford to take Moe to a hospital. “He was never properly treated. I always thought that had something to do with his troubles.”

Ron says the family was close, but “Moe didn’t bother much with the family. He was a loner.”

At his Roman Catholic elementary school, Norman excelled at math, but was poor in most everything elese. People still marvel at his photographic memory and ability with numbers. He can rhyme of yardages of every hole on courses he hasn’t played in 20 years.

He began his love affair with golf as a caddie at Westmount Golf and Country Club, where he earned money to buy equipment. Golf became everything and he dropped out of grade nine. He left home at 17 and worked in factories and as a speedy pin-setter in bowling alleys.

He played and practiced every day at Rockway Golf Club, hitting up to 800 balls daily. He perfected his unorthodox swing and learned to trust it completely. His hands became rough like sandpaper and black with thick calluses.

Ron says the family was puzzled at first by his obsession — golf was considered a rich man’s game at the time – but they became proud of his skills.

Norman remembers it differently, saying he hid his clubs so his father wouldn’t break them. He says his family has “never seen me hit a golf ball.”

But brother Rich, 12 years younger than Moe, says the siblings have cheered him on at tournaments, but their brother ignored them when they tried to talk to him. His brothers haven’t seen him in about 30 years.

As a cash-strapped amateur, he sometimes hitchhiked to tournaments and slept in sand traps. He would live on Coke and candy bars. The strange little man who played so quickly and cgattered constantly was a hit with galleries, hitting balls off eight-inch tees and calling his shots on the tee like a pool shark.

In 1955, he won the first of two consecutive Canadian Amateur championships. At that time, the championship earned the victor an invitation to the prestigious Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga.

he shot a decent 75 in the first round of the 1956 Masters, but that afternoon on the driving range, Sam Snead gave him a few tips. Norman was overwhelmed. “It was like Wayne Gretzky giving a kid a tip.” he says.

He hit balls solidly for about four hours. The next day, his hands were so blistered and bloodied, he could barely hold a club. Norman withdrew during the second round because of the pain.

Norman also ran into trouble with golf authorities. He passed the hat at clinics and sold many of his prizes, which broke the RCGA’s rule of amateur status. Moe needed cash, not another toaster. He was brazen about it, often selling his first-place prize before the tournament.

The RCGA stripped him of his amateur status in 1956. Maue says it was traumatic but it forced him to turn pro and finally test himself against the best on the U.S. PGA Tour.

But during the 1957-58 tour, he felt “out of place” in the opulent clubhouses among the big-name players, resplendent in fine clothes provided by sponsors. “I’d be eatinga hot dog and they’d leave half a steak,” he says. “I had socks with holes and I had to put tape around my shoes. Nobody would sponsor Moe Norman.”

He would dazzle the huge galleries that followed him with his antics and brilliant shot-making. However, Moe was devastated when tour officials demanded he dress better, take a caddie and hit the ball off a regular tee.

Maue said Norman gold him: “I’ll never play that tour again.”

Norman played the Florida mini-tour and the Canadian professional tour, and in his late 40s became obsessed with the mental side of the game. He began to study and memorize self-help books and sports psychology journals. He compiled a list of inspirational quotations that is still growing at 200-plus. He often spends up to seven hours a day studying.

“This doesn’t shoot 65,” he says, touching his chest. “This does,” he says, touching his temples.

Through his studies, he also learned to take pride in his uniqueness, to trust his feelings and think positively. “I feel more at home wherever I go. I don’t feel out of place anymore.”

Over the years, he’s grown more comfortable speaking to crowds. And now, giving clinics and preaching his swing theories are the driving force in his life and his major source of income.

He gave about 60 clinics at golf clubs throughout Ontario, the Prairies and the Maritimes last year at about $600 to $800 a pop. “Everyone wants to have him,” says David Colling, executive director of the CPGA, which books the exhibitions. “It’s amazing to see how good he is.”

So, despite the worries of many friends, he’s finally accumulating money in the bank, says Butch Martin, a Kitchener friend who handles his banking. Mau says Norman will receive pension benefits but still needs to earn more.

Evershed is producing an instructional video to be released this spring called The Total Golf System which features a 45-minute documentary on Norman. “I want people to understand the man,” he says. Norman will receive royalties from every video sold.

He also signed an endorsement deal last year with Bob Dale Gloves of Edmonton for a Moe Norman line of equipment, including golf balls, a bag and a wedge. Other companies are approaching him too.

And if there is any justice, Norman will soon get the official recognition he deserves — induction into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame.

Bob Weeks of Score, Canda’s national golf magazine, stirred up debate last year when he wrote that a relatively unknown Scottish-born woman who lived in Canada for only three years had been inducted in 1991 while Norman was overlooked again. he raised questions whether the RCGA was snubbing Norman because of his quirky personality and their previous run-ins.

But Karen Hewson, curator of the RCGA Museum, says Norman has never been nominated. She says the nominating process isn’t well-known, but anyone can send a nomination letter to the RCGA. It must detail the candidate’s accomplishments. I asked Moe Norman if it bothered him not to be inducted. “Ooh, no no.” but he went on, his voice raising. “I’ve done more for the game than anyone in terms of color and different things. Those RCGA guys can break rules and we-can’t. That’s what browns me off. They feel like they can control you. Why don’t they really say what the problem is? I won’t kiss their ass.”

***

After our round at Royal Oak, I told Evershed that Norman must be a lonely man living with teh constant frustration that people with far less talent and skill made millions and he didn’t.

But Evershed said: “Don’t feel sorry for Moe. He’s lived the life he wanted. He wanted to be the best ball striker who ever lived and he achieved that. He became a legend.”

And hell, Moe Norman does not feel sorry for himself.

“I’m on the tongues of 40 million people ‘You know, the guy who hits it dead straight.’ It’s a great feeling to have something people want — to hit it pure every time. but they can’t buy the talent or the knowledge.

“I’m probably the richest guy in the world in feelings.”

Comments

2 comments on “Moe Didn’t Play By the Rules – and it cost him”
  1. Dave says:

    Great artical!

    Like

  2. Doyle Burke says:

    Will a movie ever be made on Moe Normans life?

    Like

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