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The Best Golfer You May Not Have Heard Of

By: | Mon 05 Aug 2019 | Comments

Before the 1995 TELUS World Skins Game at the National Golf Club of Canada, one of the most famous professional golfers of the period, Fred Couples, paused his warmup to watch a fellow golfer hit balls. This isn’t uncommon – golfers stop and watch their mates make a few strikes a lot of the time. But then Ben Crenshaw, the Masters Champion, also stopped practicing and came over. Before long, Fred Couples, Ben Crenshaw, Nick Faldo and Nick Price were all stood watching one player hit balls on a lonely bay. They didn’t know the guy from Adam. The mystery golfer’s name, the golfer whose ball-striking had been so good that four of the world’s best players had cut their own sessions short just to catch a glimpse? His name was Moe Norman.

These days – unless you’re a rabid golf fan or a historian for the PGA of Canada – that name is unlikely to be familiar. But Moe Norman was once one of the best players in the world and is regarded as one of the best ball-strikers of all time. Famed for his accuracy, Moe was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame two years after his death in 2004, having earned his place by winning 55 times on the Canadian PGA Tour, including the Canadian PGA Championship twice and the Canadian Senior Open seven out of eight years between 1980 and 1987. He also shot 59 three times, had 17 holes in one, nine albatrosses and played twice in the Masters as an amateur.

But it’s the way he went about achieving them, rather than these records themselves, for which Moe was most notable. Although not a very long hitter, Moe was incredibly accurate and had a swing that, though eccentric, was one of the most efficient of all time. Tiger Woods listed Moe Norman alongside Ben Hogan as “the only two players” who “have ever truly owned their swings”. Sam Snead said that Norman was the greatest ball-striker of all time. Ken Venturi called him “Pipeline Moe” because he hit the ball so straight. Before the 1995 TELUS World Skins Game, Fred Couples, Ben Crenshaw, Nick Faldo and Nick Price all dropped tools and stood gaping as Norman fired shot after perfect shot into the azure of the Canadian sky.

Moe on the Range

What would these golfers have seen on the range? Laser-guided shots if the stories are anything to go by. Moe wasn’t just a brilliant ball-striker, he was an exhibitionist, and loved to wow spectators with his skills. Paul Azinger has talked about the first time he saw Moe Norman hitting balls on a driving range in Florida:

“He started ripping these drivers right off the ground at the 250-yard marker, and he never hit one more than 10 yards to either side of it, and he hit at least 50. It was an incredible sight. When he hit irons, he was calling how many times you would see it bounce after he hit it – sometimes before he hit it – and he´d do it. It was unbelievable.”

There are even stories about Moe doing clinics on a driving range which had a pylon line hanging across it about 50 meters high. He would amaze people by hitting drive after drive into the line. One time, when he was playing with Sam Snead and ‘Porky’ Oliver, Moe took out a driver and aimed at a hazard which was impossible to carry. When his partners told him to lay up, he told them he was aiming for the bridge. Inevitably, his drive found the small target and bounced safely to the other side.   

Moe’s Eccentric Swing

What makes Moe’s such a character, and his ball-striking prowess so incredible, is that this was achieved with a far from conventional swing. If you didn’t see where his shots actually went, you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a garden variety Sunday hacker, so graceless and spasmodic was his action. Everything about it was contra textbook. His stance was incredibly wide – wider than even a more conventional professional’s driver stance – and he kept this the same through all his clubs. Nor did he have much of a body turn (one of the key drivers of the modern swing). Instead, Moe relied on his arms and hands, which he kept as straight to the target as possible throughout the swing. The better, he said, to guide the ball to its destination. This philosophy culminated in a famously high follow-through, which would be more at home fly-fishing than on a golf course.

Rejection by the PGA Tour

If Moe was so good, why haven’t you heard of him? Like the stories of so many of history’s forgotten people, the short answer is that Moe Norman was punished for being different. If Norman’s eccentricities were restricted to unusual swing mechanics, his career might have been more successful. After all, the PGA Tour (at least in its current formulation) is chock full of odd swings – Jim Furyk, Bubba Watson and, in previous years, Paul Azinger and Lee Trevino, amongst others. Heck, Trevino was even on tour around the same time Norman was and he was one of their most popular and well-beloved players. Unfortunately, Moe’s non-standard swing was part of a wider package of idiosyncrasies that alienated PGA officials and other big names on the Tour. The origin of Norman’s quirks is unclear – they may have been caused by a sledding accident when young, or he may have had a form of autism or Asperger’s – however, the effects of them were painfully obvious.

Moe talked faster than most people and tended to repeat himself; his speech had a sing-song quality and he would often burst randomly into rhyme. Recounting his hardships in an interview he repeated ‘Moe’s a schmoe, gotta go’ over and over; the interviewer had to forcibly change the topic. Plus, he had an eccentric fashion sense. As you can tell from the garish outfits worn by the likes of Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter, the PGA Tour has grown to accept players who dress a bit differently, but when Norman was trying out the Tour was much stricter about appearances than it is now. He would wear long-sleeved turtleneck shirts in 85-degree weather and ill-fitting, pin-striped trousers which make the technicoloured pants now worn by pros such as that other famous non-conformist John Daly look tame. He also had bad teeth – they looked like someone had punched in the teeth of a shark – and a disregard for the tour’s decorum and authority. He would clip drives off of comically high tees and beer cans and, in the epitome of anti-traditional insouciance, almost got booted out of the Masters for hitting iron shots off a practice putting green. Moe’s swing didn’t take divots, so he barely nicked the turf, but the organisers were furious nonetheless.

Moe’s antics were enjoyed by the galleries, but were resented by many of his fellow players and the PGA Tour. One day, they decided something had to be done. What actually happened to Norman, like so much of his life, is shrouded in mystery, but one of his close friends, Audrey Maue, said that he was cornered by a group of the tour’s biggest players and ordered to sort out his dress sense, stop hitting balls off high tees and behave more like the other professionals. The incident affected Moe profoundly: before his career had even begun, he vowed never again to play on the PGA Tour.

Titleist, Wally Uihlein and a Happy Ending

Instead, Moe plied his trade in Canada where, though the purses and prestige were smaller, people were more accommodating of his differences. He would make the tour his playground until he retired. In redemption, Norman’s story had a happy ending. After decades of not being given the mainstream recognition that his skills and abilities deserved, Moe was contacted by the CEO of Titleist, Wally Uihlein, who offered to pay him $5,000 a month, $60,000 a year, for the rest of his life. The sum was unconditional. Norman, who had played Titleist balls throughout his career without so much as a penny, could now play golf without worries until he died. For those in the know, he takes his rightful place as one of the best ball-strikers, and most interesting golfing personalities, of all-time.

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