Moe Norman: Golf’s misunderstood genius

Moe Norman: Golf’s misunderstood genius

Unique Canadian was revered by golfing giants, mocked by others

By David Giddens, CBC Sports
April 10, 2019

Every April, the Masters rekindles fantasies in the hearts of otherwise sensible golfers.

Any hack who has enjoyed the quicksilver thrill of parring three holes in a row can daydream about strolling the famous Georgia fairways. The first time Canadian golf legend Moe Norman was invited to play the Masters, he managed to turn that clubbiest of all gatherings on its ear. Augusta was aghast because Norman carried his own bag — no caddy — during practise. There was more tension in Butler Cabin when the Canadian amateur started firing iron shots off the putting green. It’s true he did that, but Norman had such impeccable club control, not a blade of grass was damaged. Lorne Rubinstein knew Norman well, and the golf writer doubts a famous tale about why Norman abandoned his first Augusta early.

Tiger Woods studied every aspect of Moe Norman’s swing. (Warren Little/Getty Images) Tiger Woods studied every aspect of Moe Norman’s swing. (Warren Little/Getty Images)

He pokes holes in the story that Norman quit because he hit 800 practice drives and mangled his thumb after getting swing advice from his hero Sam Snead. We feel more confident retelling the story that on the first hole at Augusta, Norman was so anxious to tee off and be clear of the crowds that he hit while the announcer was literally in the midst of saying, “Fore please … Murray Nor – WHACK! — “man driving”… Another dead straight tee shot from Norman rifled down the middle of the fairway. The drive was a beauty, but people were so puzzled by his fast play they didn’t applaud. Norman noticed these things.

At the Masters and anywhere else he went, stories about Norman pile up so deep, it’s hard to tell fishing tales from reality. We are doing our boy scout best to stick to the facts here. Moe Norman was the most consistent ball striker in history. Golf Digest said that a generation ago, and no one has ever dissented. Vijay Singh called him “God’s gift to golf.” Tiger Woods said Moe Norman and Ben Hogan were the only two golfers to “own their swings.” When he was still a teen, Tiger studied Norman’s swing on microfiche at the library. He was that very rare player who other golfers would stop to watch in awe.


Nobody has ever been able to match what he could do with a golf ball. Day after day, Norman hit hundreds of 250-yard drives, one after the next, and absolutely every single one of them would fly dead straight. He was compared to Iron Byron, the driving machine that was engineered to put zero spin on a ball. Norman’s consecutive tee shots would land on top of each other. He could fill a green with dozens and dozens of identical five iron shots. A hundred long irons in a row would all land within a couple of yards of the flag. He could hit any target he could see, time after time after time. It really was the damndest thing, how accurate Norman was with a golf club. People would laugh, admiringly, when they saw his shots, but Norman seldom picked up on the admiration. He had been laughed at the other way too many times, and it’s possible that he couldn’t hear the difference. 

It is a fact that everything about Moe Norman was unusual. His swing, his clothing, his behaviour, his voice, his life choices, his signature (M-O-E, all caps) there was nothing typical about any of it. Many knowledgeable people believe that Norman lived within the autism spectrum. We can’t know for sure, because yet another unusual thing about Norman was that he never went to doctors. Not once, until he was 68 years old. They told him firmly to change his unusual eating habits: gallons of Coca-Cola, and fried snack bar stuff.


Image doesn’t match reality

To hear the tall tales about Norman, you might think he was the inspiration for Caddyshack. He dressed and acted like Rodney Dangerfield, and played like the golf-Jedi Chevy Chase. It’s a cute image, but it doesn’t line up with reality. Nobody is born a golf genius. Every win Norman notched was the product of incredibly hard work. He practised longer and with more intensity than anyone. People remarked on how rough and blackened his hands were from gripping his club through a million swings. Norman practised so relentlessly, he had to trim the callus off his palms, like a shoemaker’s excess leather. He worked at golf very much like a man possessed, carrying on non-stop muttering monologs with himself while he practised and played.

And that touches the mystery at the core of the Moe Norman legend. How did a guy with such unbelievable accuracy not end up winning more than his two Canadian amateurs, two CPGA titles and every other Canadian major except the Open? The quick and easy (and wrong) answer is that Norman couldn’t putt. Truth is, he wasn’t great on the greens, but he wasn’t awful. Nobody knows for sure what drove Norman to act in ways that made it impossible for him to fit in, but there were some watershed incidents.

When Murray Irwin Norman was five years old, he and a little pal were both on a sled that went down a snowy hill in Kitchener, Ont., and skidded into the path of traffic. Norman was dragged a distance under a car, but he was well enough to get up and run home. He hid there when police came to investigate. Norman had a bruised cheek, and his parents, like many families at the height of the depression, were in no position to take hospital visits lightly. It was not obvious immediately, but something serious had happened to Norman that day. The side of his face shifted, bones were moved, and from that point on, his mother said his personality was different. Shortly thereafter, schoolmates and teachers noticed that he was talking in a different voice, and he began to repeat himself a lot.


With the exception of math, at which Norman was uncommonly talented, school was an ordeal. He got bad report cards. Because he talked oddly, and was a funny looking boy, the teasing and bullying was merciless. Life is cruel, but kids are the cruellest. Murray Irwin Norman preferred solitude to the company of taunting kids. He preferred sports to academics. And he preferred golf’s solo effort to the team dynamics of hockey.

At the age of 11, the lonely, strange little boy got himself a gig caddying at Kitchener’s Westmount golf club. Without getting mystical about it, in many cultures a person’s status is murky until their final name has been chosen. In whatever spirit it was done, one of Murray Norman’s first clients at the golf course started greeting him with, “Moe the Schmoe, the pinochle pro.” It was a goofy handle, but it stuck. Moe Norman was named on a golf course.


Bent lump of wood

Norman started practising golf near his home, using a bent branch for a club. He actually — seriously — tried to become good at golf, armed only with a branch. For two years he practised golf, as often as he could, with this bent lump of wood. Thankfully, a caddying client eventually sold Norman an old five iron, which he paid for in 10-cent weekly installments. We should find that guy’s final resting place and lay a wreath on it, because the club was a game changer for Norman.


Much later in life, Norman told his old friend, sports writer Tim Wharnsby, “The only thing I ever wanted to do was be the best ball striker in the world.” He was true to those words from the age of 11 to the very end of his days. It really was the only thing he wanted to do. 

The golf course and the driving range were solitary oases for a solitary young man. Golf was pure joy for Norman. His fellow golfers, not so much. He probably would have kept his caddying job for many years, but he got fired when he was a teenager. One of the clients gave Norman a crappy tip at the end of a round, and he was so insulted that he chucked the guy’s golf clubs up into a tree. You have to love him for that. 

Moe Norman, armed only with a five iron at first, started hitting hundreds upon hundreds of golf balls each day. His swing was completely self-taught. Like the golfer himself, it was never going to win any beauty contests. Norman just addressed the ball the way he thought was best, and started to hit, and hit, and hit golf balls.

Moe Norman explains his swing technique.

Even to the untrained eye, it is a unique swing. Norman’s feet are much wider apart than the stance most other golfers take. Before his backswing, he puts the head of his driver about a foot behind the ball. That is unusual too. Most golfers line up the ball and club so they are almost touching. Coaches talk about gripping the club as though holding a bird … just firmly enough so it won’t twist away. Norman wanted none of that.

He clenched his palms around the club, strangling the thing like a python on a rat. It was beyond firm, the Norman grip. He liked a heavy club too. He wrapped lead tape on his driver to bulk up its weight. He took less time than almost any pro to size up his shots. He never ever took a practise swing. The backswing was clipped, and both his feet stayed firmly in place when it came time to follow through.  Everything about that was unusual, and entirely his own, and not a swing to be profitably copied by a less-physically powerful golfer.

Norman kept working away at his lonely pursuit of excellent ball striking. He was no child prodigy. He still hadn’t hit below 100 when he turned 16 years old. But consistency developed through constant effort, and by the time he was 19, Norman  said he had “trapped his swing.” He could land a golf ball wherever he wanted to, practically every time.


1st tournament win

In 1949, Moe Norman  travelled about 100 kilometres  from Kitchener, Ont., to a one-day event at the St. Thomas Golf and Country Club. He walked onto the course wearing a pair of sneakers, a total of seven clubs rattling around in his tatty old bag, which he carried himself. The field included some very good golfers, the amateur stars of the province. Norman played extremely quickly, as he did his entire career.

He worried that he was going to be penalized for playing too fast, but going slow on the course stressed him out. He used to lie on the fairway and pretend to be asleep if he had to wait too long for other golfers. Norman hit 67 that day. He won his first tournament easily, but he was too shy and nervous about rubbing shoulders with people at the awards dinner, so he ducked out as soon as his winning round was recorded. A friend had to collect Norman’s  prize and apologize on his behalf.

Norman, pictured in 1956 while defending his Canadian amateur golf crown, was a master ball striker. (Canadian Press) Norman, pictured in 1956 while defending his Canadian amateur golf crown, was a master ball striker. (Canadian Press)

Speaking of prizes, a person can only use so many colour TVs or wrist watches. In those early years, Norman did like some other golfers, and made ends meet by selling his tournament prizes. But what spooked the authorities was that Norman became so confident in his abilities that he would size up the prize list, find out what his friends wanted to buy from him, and then finish his round accordingly. If second prize was a kitchen set that a friend had agreed to buy, Norman would drop however many strokes he needed to finish second. No one could call it cheating, but organizers  were still freaked out by it.

Norman kept steadily finishing in the money, and kept perfecting his eccentric swing. In 1955 he walked away with the Canadian amateur title, which no Canadian had managed to do for a few years previous. This was a big win. But golf then, even more than now, was the preserve of Thurston Howell III lookalikes and country clubbers — so Norman  experienced some froideur. People said his attitude wasn’t what it should be. He wasn’t serious enough. His clothes always clashed. His teeth were a fright. He hitchhiked to tournaments. He buttoned his shirts up too high for Pete’s sake. And what is with that swing?!


Norman dealt with all the small-minded griping in the best possible way — by coming back to win the amateur title again in 1956. The Royal Canadian Golf Association was bent out of shape by Norman . His quirks on the golf course pricked their pride, but his habit of pre-selling prizes caused them to threaten to strip him of his amateur titles. To protect his two years of winnings, Norman  had to make the not so-easy-decision to turn pro.

The hard part for Norman was he literally had to be a paid golf worker to qualify as a professional. At that time in his life, Norman was far too ill at ease to get a gig as a club pro. He was always happy around kids, but he couldn’t relax enough in the company of adults to teach … and by now, some of Norman’s  odd habits had become entrenched. He started to store all his clothes in the back seat of his car. He lived in motels. He never kept a permanent home and never had a dating life, much less a regular companion. When he was playing tournaments, he sometimes slipped back out onto the courses at night to sleep in the bunkers. Even so, there were a handful of people who saw through  Norman’s peculiarities, and appreciate the talented, decent guy behind the quirks. One of them stepped up in 1958 and hired Norman  as an assistant at a driving range. With that gig, Norman could qualify, get his pro card, and sign up for his first professional golf tournament.


New Orleans broke Norman

The 1958 Ontario Open was a three-day affair. Norman shot 68 the first day, then 69, then 74, and walked away the winner by three strokes. Norman had the pro chops. With a game like his, there was only one place to be.  He started playing U.S. PGA events in 1959. Norman’s driving and irons were phenomenal on the American tour, though his putting was weaker. He was personally thrilled to be in tournaments alongside Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and his other heroes of the day. At first, while Norman was finishing toward the back or middle of the pack, he was able to endure the unfriendly ribbing from his fellow pros. As long as he wasn’t on the leader board, they mostly ignored him.


That changed at the New Orleans Open, where Norman put together four strong rounds, and was in the final pairing on Sunday. He was leading the entire event for a little while, and ended up fourth. His game was obviously sharpening. Norman was a serious threat to start winning PGA events. But a shameful thing happened after New Orleans. Some PGA members cornered him in the clubhouse and gave him a humiliating, bullying, scolding. The message was, “Quit talking so weirdly, Norman. Get some regular clothes. Quit clowning around on the course. Get your teeth straightened.” It went on and on, and it broke him.

The greatest Canadian golfer of his era was distraught. Norman left the clubhouse, got in his car, drove slowly out of the parking lot (he always drove slowly) and never had anything to do with the American tour again. Golf was his joy, but PGA members made it no fun for him. From that point on, Norman played and stayed close to home in Ontario, which is not to say he lost any of his killer game.

Norman strung together an incredible 65 Canadian tour wins. He was the Canadian PGA champion in 1966 and 1974. He won the Canadian Seniors PGA Championship every year but one between 1979 and 1987. He set course records by the bagful … he hit all-time lowest scores on 33 different golf courses. He notched 17 holes in one that we know about.


These were also prime years for Moe Norman — golf savante stories. The details vary, but countless fans repeat a story about Norman  approaching a hole, being told it was a long tee shot and then a nine iron to the green. To amuse himself and anyone watching, he hit his nine iron first, then stiffed his drive onto the putting surface. Maybe he did that a few times, for laughs.

This was also when a famous story began to circulate about Norman’s accuracy. He was told to lay up on a hole which a creek flowed across about 240 yards from the tee. He could see a narrow bridge over the water, so he drew driver, and intentionally one-hopped his shot in the middle of the bridge so it bounced onto the far side of the water hazard.


Seeing his target

Being able to see his target was key to Norman’s game. If he could stand over a ball and literally see where he wanted it to land, Norman was money in the bank. If his target was obscured by trees, the uncanny accuracy often deserted him. Rubenstein has a persuasive theory that whatever neurological changes Norman  endured when he was hit by that car as a kid, may also have damaged the part of his brain where short-term visual memories are held.

So if Norman  could not see his goal, he could not aim there. This also helps explain why he golfed so quickly, and took no practise swings. He was, by virtue of this changed brain, the ultimate “grip it and rip it” golfer. One unsung advantage of fast play? It leaves little time for the dreaded yips and second thoughts to sidle in to the golfer’s mind.


Norman was at home and relatively at ease playing Canadian tournaments. The crowds were friendlier, if the purses were tighter, and he was able to putt putt along his beloved backroads in his Cadillac stuffed full of clothes and golf gear, and indulge his only outside passion — listening to motivational tapes. The tapes helped him relax, and as he aged, he became more at ease around other people.

By the 1990s, Norman’s “single plane” swing, unusual though it was, had caught the attention of the Natural Golf company whose owner befriended and paid a modest sum to Norman to put on demonstrations for fans, and help explain how his approach could help golfers find their own version of happiness on the course.  Norman  bounced along, neither getting rich nor going flat broke, until he finally caught a break from the Titleist corporation. Wally Uihlein, the president, met with Norman  and his long-trusted friend Gus Maue, at a 1995 PGA Merchandise Show. Uihlein shook Norman’s hand and offered him $5,000 US a month for life. Norman  wanted to know what he had to do for the money. Titleist said by playing their balls his whole career, he had already earned it.

WATCH | CBC's Tom Alderman on the life of Moe Norman.

The monthly Titleist cheques took a load of worry off for Norman. He could do as he pleased from that point on, which meant living in the same motel, keeping all his stuff in the back of a newer Caddy, and slowly driving himself along back roads to wherever golf took him. The money made another difference too. Norman often taught younger golfers that a good way to take mental pressure off themselves was to keep a roll of cash in their pocket. If the competition got tense, they could count the money in their trousers, and keep the tournament in perspective.

In September 2004, congestive heart failure ended Norman’s life in a Kitchener hospital. Not long before the end, Norman was playing his last rounds of golf with a good friend. The buddy happened to get a good long gawk at the stack in Norman’s  hand that day. He had $30,000 in walking around money tucked into his notoriously loud golf pants.

(First four large photos by Canadian Press; final large photo by Reuters)

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