My Close Personal Friend Moe Norman

Moe Norman Scorecard

Many golfers nowadays look blank when you mention Moe Norman, who died in 2004, but to those who were lucky enough to see him play he was a legend. Lee Trevino ranked him with Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson as one of the greatest ball-strikers of all time. Paul Azinger first saw him hit balls on a driving range in Florida in 1980, when Azinger was in college. “He started ripping these drivers right off the ground at the 250-yard marker,” Azinger told Tim O’Connor, a Canadian sportswriter, “and he never hit one more than 10 yards to either side of it, and he hit at least 50.” In 2005, Tiger Woods told Jaime Diaz, now the editor of Golf World, that Norman and Hogan were the only two golfers in history who had “owned” their swing, and that one day he hoped to own his, too.

Moe Norman Golf World 9-2-66

Despite such accolades, Norman spent much of his forty-year competitive career in obscurity and poverty. He played almost exclusively in Canada, where he was born, and made only a brief attempt, in 1959, to play on the American tour. He sometimes carried his own bag in tournaments, because he couldn’t afford a caddie, and he sometimes slept in bunkers on the courses where he competed. He often hitchhiked to and from tournaments, and he had to juggle his competitive schedule with a succession of dreary factory jobs, including one stitching rubber boots. He spent the winter before the 1956 Masters, to which he had been invited as the reigning Canadian Amateur champion, setting pins in a bowling alley for a few cents a line. For years, he supported himself partly by selling the prizes he won in amateur tournaments, and as his confidence increased he sometimes sold the prizes before the tournaments began. (According to friends, on at least five occasions he intentionally finished second because he hadn’t been able to find a taker for the first-place prize and had been forced to sell the second.) In the late nineteen-eighties, he was so broke that only the last-minute intervention of friends prevented a bank from repossessing his car.

Moe Norman, 1950s.

Moe Norman, 1950s.

I watched Norman hit golf balls on a practice tee at Foxwood Country Club, in Kitchener, Ontario, his hometown, in the fall of 1995, when he was sixty-six. He warmed up with a pitching wedge, although “warming up” doesn’t really describe any part of his routine: the first shot was perfect, the second was identical to the first, the third was identical to the second. Then he switched to his four-iron. His swing—to all appearances, an effortless half-swing—was the same as it had been with the wedge. “How far you hitting those?” a spectator asked. “One-eighty,” Norman said. The shots were within a couple degrees of dead straight, despite a stiff cross wind, unless he announced ahead of time that he was going to hit a draw or a fade. The divots were identical, and surreally shallow.)

Moe Norman, 1990s.

Moe Norman, 1990s.

He switched to his driver. If you had looked only at his arms and hands, you wouldn’t have known he wasn’t still swinging his wedge. He would watch each ball in the air a moment, then bend over and place another on the tee—and I mean place it. The tee never moved. “I hit balls, not tees,” he said. On a driving range once, he hit 131 drives in a row from the same tee without having to straighten it. In tournaments, he sometimes entertained galleries by hitting a drive from the mouth of the Coke bottle from which he had just been drinking.

Moe Coke Bottle.bmp

In December, 1995, I got to play a round with Norman and his friends Gus Maue and Todd Graves (who calls himself Little Moe and teaches Norman’s highly unorthodox swing) at Royal Oak Resort and Golf Club, in Titusville, Florida. Royal Oak may no longer be a going concern—its website has been shut down for lack of payment—but in 1995 it was a favorite winter hangout of the Canadian P.G.A. The first hole was a 400-yard par 4, dogleg to the right. Maue, Graves, and I hit tee shots up the middle, and then Norman hit his over a row of trees to the right, toward a lake that ran the length of the hole. I thought, Hmmm—this is one of the greatest ball-strikers of all time? But it turned out that Norman always played the hole that way. There was a strip of grass, maybe ten yards wide, between the trees and the water, and from there he had an easy 9-iron to the green, while those of us in the fairway needed four-irons or five-irons.

Norman won his first tournament in 1949. “I didn’t know anything then,” he told me that day. “I didn’t even have a full set of clubs. Only had a driver, three-wood, three-iron, five-iron, seven-iron, nine-iron, and a putter. Didn’t even have a wedge. But one day everything fell into place and I shot a sixty-seven—four under.”

I said I was amazed he had played with so few clubs.

“Oh, I couldn’t afford them. Heck, when I was a kid you were lucky to have one club. And if you had a club your friends were always saying, Hey, can I use yours? Can I use yours? If someone had a driver we would hand it around—three of four guys playing together. If somebody had a nice putter, we all took turns putting with it. Goodness, back in Moe Norman youngthose days, there wasn’t a golf shoe in the foursome. And if the grass was wet your right foot would do a whirlwind, like a twist. But back then golf wasn’t a sport. It was just an exercise game. In fact, I was called a sissy by my father and my brothers, right at dinner. They would make big ears at me and call me a sissy. ‘Come on, play a man’s game,’ my father used to say. ‘Play baseball, or hockey—do like your brothers.’ I said, ‘No, Dad, I’m too light.’ I was a little skinny kid then, not over a hundred and thirty pounds, and I couldn’t play any other sport and be good at it, so I kept playing golf. But I had to hide my clubs under the front porch. My father was fat and I was real skinny, so I could dig a hole that he couldn’t get his head through but I could get my body through, and if I would push my clubs in far enough he couldn’t reach them.”

I wrote about Moe Norman in Golf Digest in 1995, and you can read that story here. The date in the opening anecdote is wrong, since Porky Oliver died in 1961. But other than that. . . .

 

17 thoughts on “My Close Personal Friend Moe Norman

  1. Excellent article! I worked at a Par 3 in Daytona Beach, FL for many years and always looked forward to Moe’s arrival for the winter. He taught me many things about the game, but unfortunately I didn’t put them to use as a profession. His swing was so perfect he could hit a ball right off the concrete driving range blocks as perfectly as if it was off grass or a tee.
    Thanks for the memories.

  2. Very, very nice. We think of Canadians now as being so prosperous and Scandinavian compared to their scruffy southern neighbors (us) but Canadian literature and memoirs are filled with almost unbelievably hard tales. I remember reading Maureen Forrester’s autobiography, an opera star from the 1950s to 1980s, and her accounts of birth control while growing up in the very Catholic 1930s Montreal. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but it was something like “unwanted fetuses were disposed of during the winter by throwing them into snowbanks from tenement windows where they were discovered in the spring.”

  3. Those pictures show Moe using the overlapping grip and his teaching method uses the 10-finger grip, IIRC. When was the change made and who made it?

    • It was in the 90s when he signed a del with Natural Golf, who advocated a ten finger grip. Moe needed the money at that time and that’s why he switched. All his tournaments were won with an overlapping grip

  4. I am a believer of moe normans golf swing. It is a shame the world did’nt get to know him and witness his talents. I taught myself his swing back in the mid 90’s. Then natural golf and later Graves academy talked of teaching moe’s swing along with a few other instructors. It had gotten a bit confusing on some things. For example his grip. He did as you pointed out use an overlaping grip to win his tournaments. Then there is his equipment. He altered them to fit him and his game. I feel this is an area overlooked in his game. As a teaching pro and club builder I think his equipment played a large part in his distance control. But how? I know his grips were thicker. Some say not much thicker than standard. Heavier grips in some cases can increase swing speed. His shafts were xstiff. This would tend to slow swing speed and or create lower ball trajectory unless the club were longer than standard. Also he added weight to the heads this is a good way adjust your distance control but takes a lot of time to get each club just right. Can you tell me were moe’s irons all the same length. Some people have said they were. That being said that would make since why he made all of the alterations to his irons along with his swing technique resulting to what he has said is such an easy game.

    • I don’t think they were ever all the same length — an idea that’s been tried occasionally in golf-club history but doesn’t work well, especially for good players — but they were very heavy. And truly heavy, not just in swing weight. There were some oddities, too. He had used his sand wedge for so long that the head had become almost scoop-like. I made a go at swinging more like Moe for a few years, and I thought it was really, really interesting, but in order to really commit to it I would have needed a committed teacher nearby. One problem with Natural Golf was that the golf clubs it was selling were truly terrible. And one area in which I think all players might profitably copy Norman’s technique, maybe even without the guidance of a committed teacher, is in chipping and pitching.

  5. In 1971 I was a 15 year old kid…..my Dad, Dayton Olson, had won the 1963 Manitoba Open and he personally knew Moe. Anyway, I was with my Dad playing a practice round for the 1971 Manitoba Open…..we were on the 10th tee and I was playing with my Dad and it was about 5 in the evening and here comes this guy walking kind of fast, and he sees my Dad and said ” I Dayton….do you mind if I join you… ? ” And I thought to myself “who’s this weird nut….? ” I thought it was like a member of the club we were playing and was assuming he was just some old hacker. So my Dad introduces me to Moe and we hit our tee shots…..then Moe get’s up on the tee and tees his ball on a golf pencil…..and I whispered to my Dad…” who’s this idiot….? look at what he’s doing….” My Dad whispered back..” just watch him….” as he smiled. Moe striped it 260 right down the middle….and he was talking as he was swinging…! I just couldn’t believe it…..anyway, Moe was very friendly toward me and the few good shots I hit he would say ” there ya go , kid, good one….” He didn’t miss a shot and he was just messing around and shot 2 under…..he took ” zero” amount of time, especially when he was putting…half the time he didn’t even mark his ball….he just walked up to the putt and hit it…..anyway….it’s a 9 hole round I will always remember.

  6. In March 1979, Moe helped Bob Byman with a mini lesson two days before the inaugural Bayhill (orlando)…just a few ideas about a few things…Byman won the event 6 days later…; I saw it all up close..i was Byman’s caddie that week…thanks Moe for a great payday;

  7. Forgot: I myself finally got to see Moe hit some balls on my 29th birthday a few weeks after that bayhill…yep, just as predicted, Moe hit it pure ever time…late in June, at Glen Abbey, I saw Moe in the gallery on the range…Bob(Byman) had Moe enter inside the ropes to hit some balls(also hit perfect with no warmup and in street shoes)…which began the yearly tradition of Moe’s “clinics on the range” at that event; I just turned 65 yesterday but it all seems like yesterday;

  8. Well I start my golf season here in Winnipeg by rereading as much of David Owen’s stuff as possible. It doesn’t help my game that much but my enjoyment multiplies many fold – thanks!!
    Jack from Winnipeg

  9. Hey David….thank you for putting my story about Moe in your on-line column ……. I have tremendous memories with Moe…….. One year at the Manitoba Open it was VERY hot…….like close to 90 degrees…….. And I saw Moe come walking out of the clubhouse wearing bright red pants……and a black ” turtle-neck ” type sweater…….
    and drinking a coke……. LOL ——- couldn’t believe he was wearing a turtle-neck sweater in the heat——– Michael Olson Portland, Oregon

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