My Close Personal Friend Moe Norman

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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. . . .

 

The Best Way to Watch the Ryder Cup

No, that’s not a medical office building. It’s the premium grandstand beside the eighteenth green at the 1993 Ryder Cup, which was held at The Belfry, in England.

The best way to watch almost any golf tournament is on TV. That’s especially true of the Ryder Cup, because at any moment there’s hardly anything going on. I’ve been to just one Ryder Cup in person—in 1993, on the Brabazon course at The Belfry, in England—and it was a spectator’s nightmare. The most coveted seats, initially, were in an enclosed multistory grandstand beside the eighteenth green, and people who had passes for it began arriving long before the first match teed off. They then waited for almost twelve hours with nothing to watch except one another getting drunk, because on the first day only one of the eight matches—the afternoon four-ball between Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, for the Europeans, and Paul Azinger and Fred Couples, for the United States—made it to the eighteenth hole.

The Belfry, like most of the courses where the Europeans hold the Ryder Cup, is a dud. The nicest thing that Ron Whitten could find to say about it, in Golf Digest’s 1993 Ryder Cup preview, was that its blandness would prevent it from intruding on the golf—perhaps the faintest possible praise for a championship layout. It’s also the opposite of a stadium course. There are no hillsides or mounds for spectators to stand on, and in 1993 the trees  were way too small to climb. I saw one man standing on a paint can, which he had somehow smuggled past the guards at the gate, and I saw many people standing on small stools, also smuggled. Because the viewing opportunities were so meager, there were crowds surrounding the few available television sets. There was one in the Lloyd’s pharmacy tent, and one in the exhibition tent, and one in a rowdy refreshment tent near the tenth fairway. Medinah Country Club is far more spectator-friendly, but if you’re watching from home you should still count yourself lucky.

You should also be grateful that the broadcast isn’t being handled by the BBC. In 1993, Tom Kite would be putting for eagle somewhere, but on the screen you would see Colin Montgomerie practicing a putt he had just missed, or Nick Faldo standing by his golf bag, chatting with his caddie. The camera operators couldn’t track balls in the air and had trouble finding them when they were on the ground. The producers would suddenly cut to Barry Lane, picking him up in mid-follow-through, and the sound equipment on the course looked like Second World War surplus. The BBC has improved since then, but not enough. In the TV Cup, the USA wins every time.