Moe Norman was the best ball striker golf has ever seen.
The proud son of Kitchener, Ontario, Norman played on the Canadian Tour throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Ken Venturi dubbed him “Pipeline Moe” in reference to his pinpoint control. “When you talk about Moe Norman,” said Lee Trevino, “you are talking about a legend.” Norman won more than 50 events in Canada, including nine Canadian provincial open championships. He could hit the ball more accurately and better than Hogan or Palmer or Nicklaus or Snead. “Only two players have ever truly owned their swings,” observed Tiger Woods. “Moe Norman and Ben Hogan.” Norman knew exactly where the golf ball was going every time he hit it. He dominated the Canadian Tour, shooting 59 three times. Norman had 17 career holes-in-one, nine double-eagles and set 33 course records. “Every time I hit a shot,” Norman said, “I feel like I am shaking hands with the flag stick.”
Murray Irwin Norman was considered an odd duck. He dressed funny, had snaggled teeth that resembled a jack-o-lantern, and didn’t fit in. The “Rain Man” of golf, he was slightly autistic and repeated his words often. Canada’s greatest golf genius was a savant, displaying imagination, focus, concentration, feel and insight. Moe was different. He drank 25 Cokes a day – often teeing the ball during tournaments on the mouth of a bottle he had just finished — and played with dirty clubs that had no head covers. Norman was uncomfortable around people, but he was very comfortable hitting golf balls. It was his life; no one could do it better. Moe wanted to be the best golfer in the world and not have anyone notice. The press called him a golf clown, the Royal Canadian Golf Association thought he was an embarrassment, and PGA Tour pros shunned him.
Nothing about Norman was conventional. Purely self-taught, he never took a golf lesson in 75 years. His swing was unorthodox and unathletic. Employing an abbreviated backswing and shorter-than-normal follow through, he took an extremely wide stance and started the club a foot behind the ball. Rather than gripping the club in his fingers as all top-level players do, Norman held it in the palms of his huge hands. Feet firmly planted for greater stability, the “Norman Swing” is now taught to thousands of golfers through the Norman Golf Academy. “I’m the greatest ball-striker because I have the fewest moving parts,” said Norman.
Ben Hogan believed in curving the ball toward its target, saying the straight shot was an accident. Moe told Hogan, “Come with me and you will see a lot of accidents.” Norman was so consistent he once hit 356 consecutive drives off a standard wooden tee without disturbing it, much less breaking it. “I hit balls, not tees,” Moe quipped. He once went 11 years – playing about 230,000 golf shots – without hitting a ball out of bounds. Moe shot 61 four times in 1956. His finest year as a pro came ten years later, when he won five of 12 tournaments he entered, came in second five times and finished no lower than fifth. To amuse himself, he would sometimes play par fours “backwards,” hitting wedge off the tee and driver onto the green and still make par or better.
Norman loved to perform at golf clinics. At one event in 1995, he hit over 1,500 drives in a little over seven hours, all of which were within 15 feet of one another. “Hitting the ball pure and accurate is more rewarding than hitting it far,” Norman said. “Don’t ever forget that, ever.” A reporter covering a Canadian Tour event asked Moe, after his drive had drifted about five feet into the rough, when was the last time he missed a fairway. “About seven years ago,” replied Norman. During a round with Sam Snead, “Slammin’ Sammy” told Norman that, due to a strong headwind, the Canadian would be unable to clear the water with the club in hand. “I’m not trying to,” replied Norman, and proceeded to hit a bridge over the pond, carrying the ball to safety.
I don’t believe in taking much of a divot. You want to barely comb the grass through impact. It’s the only way to catch the ball on the second groove up from the bottom of the clubface. That’s where you want to make contact: on the second groove. Bacon strips, not pork chops.”
Born in the southern Ontario town of Kitchener July 10, 1929, Norman learned the game of golf as a caddy at the Rockway municipal course. At 26, he was making ten cents an hour setting pins at an Ontario bowling alley when he won the 1956 Canadian Amateur, earning him an invitation to the Masters. At Augusta in April, he opened with 75, then took advice from Snead following the round. Norman went straight to the practice range and hit 800 balls trying to perfect what Snead had told him. His hands were so sore the following day he could hardly grip the club, shot 78, and withdrew.
Moe joined the PGA Tour in 1957 and played in a dozen events. Bullied by certain pros, the painfully shy Norman was reprimanded during a tournament in New Orleans and returned to Canada. U.S. fans never saw him again. “I couldn’t do what I wanted to do,” lamented Norman. “Life ate me up.”
Norman never gave any credence to putting. “There’s no skill in that,” he said. “Hitting pins in regulation – that takes skill.” During a practice round at the Canadian Open, the media assembled around Moe as he stood at the tee on a 230-yard par 3 and teased him about his putting. Norman pulled a club from his bag, struck the ball perfectly, and turned to tell the reporters, “I’m not putting today,” as the ball rolled in for an ace. Norman once offered to play Canadian golf great George Knudson for five dollars per pin hit in regulation. Knudson agreed with a laugh, thinking that no one hits pins in regulation. After three holes, Moe had hit three pins, and Knudson walked back to the clubhouse.
Mr. Norman played golf his entire life. Between 1980 and 1987, he won seven consecutive Canadian PGA Senior Tour championships and once shot 59 at age 62. Norman, who visited his first doctor at 68, died of congestive heart failure on this day in 2004. He was 75. The greatest ball striker who ever lived was inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in 1995 and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.