Moe Norman – A Canadian Golf Legend
When looking at Canadian sports icons, Moe Norman isn’t usually one that comes to mind. In fact, it is likely you haven’t even heard the name before. However, this man was considered one of the best ball strikers in the history of golf by many of its legends. Tiger Woods has even been quoted saying “only two men owned their golf swings, Ben Hogan (a PGA legend), and Moe Norman”. Norman had an unconventional swing, a single plane swing that allowed him to play with unbelievable consistency. He was so consistent, in fact, at one exhibition clinic he hit 1,540 drives that all ended up within a 30-yard marked zone 250 yards away. Despite all this talent and skill, Norman had a different reputation among the crowds and media. Moe Norman had a personality all his own. He was known for his unconventional outfits, high-pitched voice, and repetition of his words. Because his style was so different than the other golfers, a lot of people watching would be more concerned with laughing at his swing than where the ball ended up. Even with his undervalued reputation held by the viewers of the sport, Norman still had an incredible career with many accolades.
Moe Norman was born and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, and had humble beginnings. His father discouraged Moe from playing golf when he was young. In his own words “Our father was very strict. When I got a set of clubs together, he wouldn’t let me bring them in the house. I knew if he got his hands on them, he’d throw them out, so I left them under the back porch”. Moe would go on to say that his father never saw him hit a golf ball, even after he gained notoriety. Norman wasn’t getting any support from his family to pursue golf, but he didn’t really need it. Ball after ball, Norman would practice his swing in a field near his house, as golf ranges were scarce, and money was short. Moe developed a golf swing that was truly his own; gripping the club tighter in his palms, feet spread wider, and a much shorter backswing. None of these usually make the list for a “perfect” golf swing, but Moe found a way to combine them all to harmonious success. When Norman finally started his golf career, he won the Canadian Amateurs tournament 2 years in a row (1955/56) which led him to receive an early invitation to The Masters later that year. For almost any golfer, getting to play in this legendary tournament would be a giant deal, certainly an opportunity one wouldn’t want to miss. Yet Moe Norman only made it 9 holes into the tournament before walking off, Norman became the amateur who walked off The Masters. The story goes that he took a lesson with Sam Snead the night before and was so inspired from the lesson that he ended up hitting 800 golf balls in a relatively short amount of time and injured his thumbs to the point he could no longer put pressure on them! Shortly after this ‘stunt’ Moe had pulled, The Masters decided to no longer invite Canadian Amateurs to the tournament. Though they hadn’t said it was linked to Norman walking off, many assumed that to be the case.
“Pipeline Moe’s” (a nickname he earned due to how straight he would hit the ball) career clearly didn’t end there; Norman would go on to dominate the Canadian golf scene for a long time. His best year was 1966, as in this year he entered 12 Canadian tournaments and won 5 of them. While this is an impressive record on its own, further details show just how dominant this year was for Norman. Of the 7 tournaments he did not win; he recorded 2nd in 5 of them and finished no lower than 5th. On top of this placement dominance, he also ended up winning the CPGA scoring average award for that year by 2½ strokes, with a 69.8. Even in his older years, Moe was cleaning house. Starting in 1979 Norman won seven CPGA Senior events consecutively, tied for 5th in the eighth tournament, then came back to win the ninth event by 8 strokes! By the end of his career, Moe Norman had racked up a plethora of accolades and titles including 55 CPGA victories, 33 course records, and 17 hole-in-ones. Norman had even clocked in three rounds under 60, this is an incredible feat for any golfer as Tiger Wood’s only recorded 59 came from his home course in 1997 while practicing for The Masters. In a short response he gave to Golf Digest, Norman described an interesting situation at the Saskatchewan Open: “One year I was leading the Saskatchewan Open by three strokes. I was putting for birdie on the last hole, but just to see if I could handle the pressure, I deliberately put my ball into the bunker. I looked to the side of the green and saw two guys with the blood drained from their faces. After I got up and down for a bogey to win by two strokes, I walked over and asked them what was the matter.” It turns out these gentlemen had made a large bet on Moe to win the tournament when he heard their response he simply replied, “sorry, I needed the variety”.
All these wins and records show that Norman was in total control of his game, so much so in fact, he used to purposely come in 2nd or 3rd in many tournaments. Moe was known to sell his tournament prizes from time to time as he never had much money (until later with some help from friends and Titleist). That’s right, Moe Norman was so skilled that he would ask buyers which of the tournament prizes they desired, win that placement, and sell the prize to the buyer. He got so confident with this that he would sometimes even make the transaction for the desired prize before the tournament started! This information brings an interesting problem to light, if Norman hadn’t purposely lost tournaments, how many would he have won? Well Todd Graves, owner of Natural Golf and carrier of Moe Norman’s torch, said that he asked Norman once how many he intentionally lost. Moe said He had around 20 intentional 2nd place finishes…wow! With some simple math, we can see the potential winning of record of Norman isn’t 55 victories, but more like 75.
Now the obvious question is, if Moe Norman was one of the best ball strikers to ever play golf, why is he not a bigger deal? Well, selling prizes wasn’t the only reason Moe would purposely lose rounds and events. As mentioned, Moe was always a bit different. He had a nervous reputation, often not being able to look adults in the eyes and avoiding conversations. Close friends to Norman would recount watching the movie ‘Rain Man’ with Dustin Hoffman and saying it was like a light switched on in their brain; “everyone who knows (Moe) who saw the movie felt the same way.” explained Audrey Maue. Gus and Audrey Maue are very important to Moe Norman’s story. If it hadn’t been for these two, Moe Norman and his legacy might have faded into obscurity. Gus Maue was the head pro at the golf course that Moe caddied at when he was younger and knew Moe for a long time before his golf successes, subsequently, Audrey did too. She clarifies “Life has always been a struggle for him. Just being around people, period, made him feel uncomfortable. What he accomplished, he accomplished on his own.” This is why Norman would often falter on the last few holes and/or disappear for interviews. After the 1955 Canadian Amateur, Norman would recount the proceedings “As soon as I holed out, I ran and hid. I wasn’t even at the presentation. I couldn’t mix with people. I couldn’t mix words.” But the spotlight was never Moe’s goal anyway, he would go on to say “I didn’t think mixing with people was important. I knew I was never going to be an alderman or a mayor of a city. Just get the goddamn ball in the hole if it was the last thing you’re going to do and become the straightest hitter the world has ever known.” However, spectators weren’t usually watching how straight he was hitting the ball. Due to his different style of playing, Norman was often laughed off the tee box. With how quickly he would set up the tee and swing, he was accused of making a mockery of the sport. “See that’s how it’s been all my life. Other players hit a good shot and the crowd cheers. I hit a good shot and they laugh.” Norman sheepishly said to Jim Nelford, fellow pro. It wasn’t just the spectators that would put him down, but the pros too.
During his U.S. debut, Moe Norman had a couple of shaky rounds before playing lights out in the New Orleans stop of the tour. However, there was an incident Moe would tell Audrey Maue about, clearly upset. She retells it like this; “A few weeks later, a young tour player I knew came through Daytona, and I asked him what had happened to Moe in New Orleans. He said that some of the big names on the tour—and I’m not going to say who—was upset that Moe was hitting the ball off the big tee, and they were upset with the way he dressed, and they didn’t like his appearance. That’s the bottom line.” Moe would emotionally tell Audrey and Gus “I will never play that tour again.” And that was pretty much that. Norman would rarely return to the U.S. to play unless it was casual, just for fun. Though Moe hadn’t seen a doctor until 68 (evident by the 20-30 Coca-Colas he would drink a day), and his eccentricity was never diagnosed, it breaks my heart knowing that the greatest ball-striker in the history of the game was bullied out of playing the major tour because he was different. This heartbreak would be even stronger if Moe did have any sort of disability (note: Norman was also in a bad sledding accident at 5 years old where he recounts a tire running over the side of his head, which his mother worried had affected his personality). All this being said, the importance here is not what Norman was unable to accomplish due to his unconventional behavior, but rather how impressive it is that he accomplished what he did.
Moe Norman was a man who had developed his own style of golf and dominated with it. More than that, he developed a winning attitude to the sport that he tried to pass on to as many people as he could. Until later in life, when Titleist and Natural Golf supported him on the financial side, Moe would run clinics where he would display his skills and teach people how to play the game his way. I watched a few of these video recorded clinics and at first, was confused, there was very little technical instruction involved. It was mostly just a display of how incredibly consistent and accurate Norman was. He would periodically turn to the crowd with a joke or simply to say, “you see how easy it is?” which would also usually incite some giggles. But after hearing Todd Graves speak more on the mentality Norman had towards the game, it started to make more sense. Moe Norman used to recite a poem about golf that looked at the game less from the standpoint of a game, but more of a spiritual experience. The poem is aptly named ‘Golf is Happiness’ and I think has more to do with how Norman saw the game than his defined swing. Through golf, Moe Norman was able to accomplish incredible feats. He may not have dominated the PGA, the typical hallmark of a great player, but he wasn’t just a great player. Moe was the best ball-striker the world has ever seen. He is a Canadian legend that had a mentality for golf that could inspire countless others. After his last ever round with Todd Graves, Graves recounts Norman going around to his friends with a stack of papers. He handed out the papers to his friends one by one and said “here you go” as if they were waiting for it. Each paper had a simple message written out… “play golf from the heart”. Well, Moe Norman certainly put all his into the game he redefined.