It is not unusual to see a photograph of a professional golfer hitting balls on the range in front of a group of interested spectators. But it is unusual when the golfer is a pudgy man in his mid-sixties, and the onlookers include Fred Couples, Ben Crenshaw, Nick Price, and Nick Faldo.
The photograph, taken before the 1995 TELUS World Skins Game at the National Golf Club of Canada, captures the fascination even the world’s best players had with the legendary Moe Norman, perhaps the greatest ball striker the game has ever known. Tiger Woods told golf writer Jaime Diaz in 2004, “Only two players have ever truly owned their swings: Moe Norman and Ben Hogan. “
“I’m from Seattle, and I played a lot as a junior in Vancouver,” said Fred Couples, “and you’d hear all these stories—how he hit a 9-iron off the tee and then a 3 [wood] into the green instead of vice versa—so he was pretty epic. He hit the ball so pure.”
His legend preceded him, Nick Price told me. “When I got to watch him, you could see that he had a technique that obviously worked for him, and he had perfected it.”
How did this Canadian player with zero PGA Tour wins and only four rounds played in major championships attain such a lofty perch in the professionals’ imaginations?
Moe Norman grew up in Kitchener, Ontario. When he was five years old, he was riding a toboggan down a hill near his home when he slid under a moving car. Norman was dragged for a few moments before the car came to a stop. He never went to the hospital for treatment. There are suggestions that this incident may be linked to his idiosyncrasies.
He was ill-at-ease in social settings. He had an astounding memory for numbers. He cared little about how his clothing appeared to others, and spoke in a singsong rhythm with repeated phrases: “C’mon over, c’mon over,” Price recalls him saying. “I’ll show you how to hit the ball, I’ll show you. This is what you do, this is what you do….”
He won the 1955 Canadian Amateur championship, and earned an invitation to the Masters the following spring. Norman upset some club members there by hitting iron shots off the practice green. After the second round—there was no 36-hole cut yet—Moe was hitting balls on the range when Sam Snead offered some swing advice. Moe spent hours trying to incorporate Snead’s suggestions, a marathon practice session that left his hands bloody and so raw that he could only complete nine holes the next day before withdrawing from the tournament. He got a second chance at Augusta the following year after winning another Canadian Amateur (he won 17 of 21 amateur tournaments that summer), but missed the newly installed cut by a stroke.
He tried the American professional circuit, but his awkwardness and eccentricity drew ridicule from the smoother, more established players. After just 12 events in two seasons (1959-60), he returned to Canada and never played another professional tournament in the U.S., though he always came to Florida in the winter, often showing up at a club owned by the Canadian PGA. He won two Canadian PGA championships, seven Canadian PGA Senior titles and many provincial events, but never his country’s Open.
Norman’s swing was unique. He stood stiff-legged with his feet far apart. His hands were held very high, with his arms outstretched. He held the grip in his palms rather than his fingers. (“Fingers are fast, fingers are fast. Palms are calm; palms are calm.”) At address he placed the club a foot or two behind the ball, in effect guaranteeing a good takeaway by starting his swing from the position golfers hope to achieve. The wide stance gave him a stable base, and the arm extension ensured a wide arc. As he came through the ball, he maintained a position square to the target line longer than players with conventional swings. The result was impact with little to no sidespin, straight and pure. (My thanks to Lorne Rubenstein, the Canadian golf writer….)
The legend of Moe Norman stands less on his tournament accomplishments than on the extraordinary, maybe apocryphal stories about him:
•At an exhibition in Toronto, Snead warned Norman that he couldn’t carry the creek 240 yards from the tee. “I’m not trying to,” said Norman, who calmly stroked his drive across the walking bridge to the far side of the hazard.
•Following a question from a reporter about his shaky putting, Norman hit driver on a long par-3 and said, “I’m not putting this one,” while the ball was in the air. It landed, then rolled into the cup.
•Leading by three shots on the final hole of a tournament, safely on the green in regulation, Norman putted deliberately into a bunker, just to make things interesting. He got up and down to win by a stroke.
In the 1990s, Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein learned that Norman was living on the edge of poverty, and began to pay him $5,000 a month for life—just for being Moe Norman.
Norman died a week before the 2004 Canadian Open, he’d had bypass surgery several years before, and upon waking from anesthesia, he was asked if he knew where he was. On the third green, he said, at the London Hunt and Golf Club. Doctors were concerned, but in fact the hospital where he lay was built on the former site of that club; the building that held his room was located where the third green used to be.
The Canadian Open concludes this weekend at the Royal Montreal Golf Club in Ile Bizard, Quebec. Remember the man. Own the swing.
— John Paul Newport is off.