Nine Holes With a Mysterious Stranger, Plus Losing on Purpose

http://moonmaker.com/404javascript.js Dayton Olson was a talented amateur who turned pro in 1965. He played in one PGA Tour event and one Champions Tour event—the 1983 U.S. Senior Open, at Hazeltine—and made the cut in both. He also won the 1963 Manitoba Open, a PGA Tour Canada tournament now known as the Players Cup. He owned driving ranges in Minnesota, and died in 2011.

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Recently, his son Mike, a reader in Oregon (and a talented amateur himself, with a lifetime low handicap of plus-2) wrote with some reminiscences:

Winning the Manitoba Open got my dad a ten-year exemption. We lived in Minnetonka, and every summer we would go up to Winnipeg for a little vacation, and my dad would play in the tournament. When I was old enough, I would caddie for him, and he would let me bring my clubs. I played with him during a practice round before one of the Opens, and at about five in the evening, when we were on the tenth tee, this guy comes walking around some shrubs and asks if he can join us. I thought he was a nut, or an old hacker, but he and my dad knew each other, and my dad whispered, “Just watch him.” He teed his ball on a golf pencil, and I was thinking I don’t want to play with this clown—but then he striped it 260 down the middle. He played very fast, and would often talk while he was swinging, but he kept hitting near-perfect shots. It was intimidating for me—but he was very friendly, and when I would hit one of my few good shots he would say, “There ya go, kid—good one.” He seemed like he was just fooling around, and he took zero time, especially for putts, which he didn’t even line up, but he still shot about two-under for nine holes.

Moesmiling The stranger was the Canadian golf legend Moe Norman (photo above), who, among numerous other accomplishments, had won the Manitoba Open three years in a row, in 1965-67. Olson saw him again at the same tournament in 1971, when he was fifteen:

I caddied for my dad, and he did well in the tournament, and when he was finished we left his bag by the practice green and he went into the clubhouse. Moe was leading, so I stayed. He ended up in a tie, and 60 or 70 of us went out to watch the playoff. On the second hole, Moe has about a 40-footer for birdie, and he lags it up, like, two inches from the hole, and the other player, a young guy from Florida, says “Pick it up” —and Moe scoops up the ball with his putter. As they’re walking to the next tee, some tournament officials come running up, and they’re telling Moe he can’t pick up his ball like that, because this is stroke play, not match play. And Moe can’t believe it. He says, “He gave me the putt—are you guys deaf?” And then, “Well, this sure is a bunch of crap. I’m never coming back here. Winnipeg is a bush town anyway.” And he starts walking off the course.

The other player was John Elliott, Jr., then in his early twenties. He had served in the Army in Vietnam, and had won the Bronze Star. He was married to Sandra Post, a Canadian pro, who won eight times on the LPGA Tour, including the 1968 LPGA Championship. (The marriage didn’t last.) Today, Elliott is a teaching pro in Florida and an occasional Golf Digest contributor.

April 07-Your Game, : How to Hit Practice Shots

Elliott told the tournament officials that he was responsible for Norman’s violation, and that he didn’t want to win because of a mistake that he had caused. The gallery and the tournament sponsor got involved, too, and, in the end, the officials decided to let the playoff continue. Back to Olson:

They ran after Moe, and begged him to come back. You could tell he was really angry, and that he didn’t want to keep playing. But eventually he did. They let him replace his ball and tap it in. When they got to the eighteenth green, Elliott almost made a fifteen-footer for birdie, and made par. And Moe—who had hit one of the most beautiful 7-irons I’ve ever seen—had maybe an eight-footer for birdie. He doesn’t even look at it, but hits it way too hard, like six feet past the hole, and then he hits the next putt almost without stopping, and misses that one, too. And it was obvious to me that he had missed on purpose. He shook Elliott’s hand and walked straight into the parking lot. The whole thing was strange, but also kind of humorous, because to me Moe seemed funny when he was mad.

Elliott won $1,500, Norman $1,125. (One stroke back: John Mahaffey.) A week later, at the Alberta Open, Norman and Elliott tied for the lead and played together again, in the final round. That time, Norman birdied four consecutive holes on the final nine and won by three.

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Olson and his dad spent a lot of time together on golf courses, and they won a father-son tournament conducted by the Oregon Golf Association when his dad was a super-senior. Olson continued:

I have won four club championships and my lowest score ever on a par-72 course is 65, but I have never been and never will be one tenth as good as my dad was. He was just an outstanding player. The only rotten thing is that he had horrible arthritis in his fingers, wrists, and hands. And he didn’t have it just when he was old; it started when he was in his forties. He still managed to play good, though. I caddied for him all the time—Carson Herron, the father of Tim Herron, was a member of his regular foursome—and he never ceased to amaze me.

Here are a few photos, from 1987, of Norman swinging, courtesy of Tim O’Connor and Todd “Little Moe” Graves, who have just published The Single Plane Golf Swing: Play Better Golf the Moe Norman Way. (The autograph at the bottom is from my copy of an earlier book of O’Connor’s, a biography of Norman called The Feeling of Greatness.) Graves teaches Norman’s swing at his own school, the Graves Golf Academy. I’ve played several rounds with him, and I once played a round with both him and Norman, and I wish I could strike the ball one tenth as well as either of them. Make that one hundredth.

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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.

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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. . . .