Ask the average person to name the best golfer who has ever lived and you'll hear names like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Ask if they've heard of Moe Norman and the response is likely to be, “Who's Moe Norman?” Never mind that many pros consider him to be the greatest ball-striker in history; never mind that Moe's shot-making prowess is legendary; never mind that he's the most colorful golf personality ever to play professionally. The sad truth is that the 70-year-old Norman has achieved only a small fraction of the recognition he deserves. When he joined the U.S. PGA Tour in 1959, the sky seemed to be the limit. But openly rejected by many fellow pros, Moe abruptly quit the tour after less than two seasons, never to return.
This past February, when Moe arrived at Orange County National Golf Center in Orlando, Florida, to conduct a clinic, he looked more like a confused senior citizen than a shoot-out-the-lights golfer. Wearing a bright red long-sleeve golf shirt and strikingly contrasting indigo slacks, he wandered aimlessly through the crowd of 125 attendees—signing some autographs, ignoring or rejecting others—before making his way to the tee. With a club in hand, Moe began to relax, and using his unorthodox swing, rapidly hit a half-dozen balls, all of which landed in very nearly the same spot.
The signature swing Norman utilizes breaks virtually all the rules of conventional golf mechanics. To oversimplify his method, Moe holds the club in his palms as opposed to his fingers; he uses an abnormally wide stance; his arm and the shaft of the club are on a single axis; and he faces the ball at impact. He also grounds the club as much as a foot behind the ball and moves his head considerably during his motion.
As Norman continued his demonstration, the crowd began murmuring in disbelief. Moe was systematically hitting every ball straight down the middle, calling out trajectory and distance before each shot. “M.O.S. More of the same,” he announced. During the hour-long demo Norman never took a divot and never landed a ball more than 10 yards off-center—except when he intentionally hooked, sliced, or topped the ball, which he can also do with pinpoint accuracy. When the clinic concluded, the assembled adults swarmed around him requesting autographs and photographs—reminiscent of treatment afforded rock stars, not aging, unknown golfers.
For Murray “Moe” Norman, the attention he received wasn't always so positive. Growing up in a working class family in Kitchener, Ontario, in the 1930s, Moe (a.k.a. Moe the Schmoe—a self-appointed nickname) was considered an oddball child. He had difficulty interacting with other children and was ridiculed relentlessly by his peers. His tendency to talk very fast and repeat words or phrases is still prominent today. For example, Moe might say, “Mine is just straight down the middle, straight down the middle,” his singsong voice rising at the end of each statement. Friends have speculated that Moe is a higher functioning autistic, likening him to Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie Rain Man.
It's just as likely, however, that Moe's problems stem from frontal lobe damage, which may have been suffered at age five when he was struck in the face by a car after tobogganing down a hill and into traffic. Apparently for financial reasons, Moe's parents neglected to take him to the hospital following the accident. In fact, Norman never once visited a doctor until age 67 when he suffered a heart attack and passed out while driving his car.
As a teenager, the only place of comfort was the golf course, where Moe hit hundreds of balls a day, often practicing till his hands were raw and bloodied. If it didn't concern golf or math (he's equally gifted with numbers) Moe simply wasn't interested. Unfortunately, his family didn't appreciate his passion. Golf was considered a game for bluebloods, and Moe's father characterized it as a “sissy” sport. To this day, Norman is still bitter about his parents' lack of interest in his golf game. “In my whole life, they [mom and dad] were never right beside me when I was hitting a golf ball,” he says.
By the mid-'50s Norman had developed into one of the premier amateur players in Canada with a professional future that looked exceedingly bright. But old insecurities coupled with social difficulties caused him problems with pros, golf officials and fans alike. On the course, Moe was certainly a sight to see. With a limited and mismatched wardrobe, he often played with his pants up over his ankles and a stained shirt hanging out of his trousers. Decades before Tiger Woods' famous Nike commercial, Norman was bouncing the ball off a clubface during tournaments, doing it while walking the course, his record nearly 200 yards. His swing was so numbingly consistent that even in competition he would joke around, frustrating playing partners by hitting the ball off eight-inch tees, wooden tee markers, even off Coke bottles. At the time, Moe was never without a Coca-Cola; he consumed as much as a case a day. Between his clown-like appearance, on-course antics and odd-looking swing people were always mocking Moe, and it was difficult for him to discern whether people were laughing at him or with him.
Ridicule from the gallery wasn't the only factor to hamper Norman's tournament scores. Moe played faster than anyone in competitive golf, usually striking the ball in about three seconds. With the slow methodical pace of tournament pros frustrating him to no end, Moe would silently protest by lying down in the fairway, pretending to go to sleep. On the green, he often didn't bother to read putts, walking up to the ball and striking it without setting himself. This exasperated fans and media alike, who watched Moe manufacture splendid birdie and eagle opportunities, only to throw them away. Once, on the first hole of a practice round—a 230-yard par 3—the media members assembled around Moe began teasing him about his putting. Moe promptly pulled a club out of his bag, smacked the ball, then turned to the reporters and announced, “I'm not putting today.” The ball went in for a hole-in-one, one of 17 he has recorded.
After competing on the Canadian tour and playing in two Masters tournaments as an amateur, Norman played briefly on the PGA Tour, with fourth place at the '59 Greater New Orleans Open being his best finish. Confronted by peers who strongly encouraged him to “shape up,” he walked off the tour after earning less than $2,900. While Moe wanted people to like him and appreciate his talent, he often acted like an ill-tempered child, drawing attention by misbehaving, then getting offended when chastised. Ironically, when Norman appears on the driving range at a PGA Tour event today, activity on the range halts and the game's top stars crowd around to watch him in action. Ask him why he never takes lessons from other pros and Moe responds, “ . . . because I haven't found the guy who can beat me.”
However, away from the television cameras and the rising popularity of American stars like Palmer and Nicklaus, Norman was doomed to obscurity. He returned to the less prestigious Canadian circuit, dominating it so thoroughly that it was dubbed the “Moe Norman Tour.” Despite 55 career victories, it has been speculated that he often let other players win to avoid the spotlight of the trophy presentation. At other times he appeared intimidated by “big-name” competition, always coming up short against a few select players. When the Canadian tour lost its sponsor following the '77 season, Norman lost the ability to earn money from competitive golf. With his anxieties, insecurities and the occasional confrontation with fans preventing him from earning an income in other golf-related occupations, Norman turned to hustling unsuspecting amateurs.
By the mid-'80s Moe was debt-ridden, frequently sleeping in his car or on park benches. Depressed and with few prospects for income, he faced the very real possibility of fading away a lonely, destitute old man. But in 1992 Moe came to the attention of physicist Jack Kuykendall, who had independently developed what he considered to be the ideal golf swing—an exact copy of Moe's technique. Kuykendall had founded the company Natural Golf and hired Norman to demonstrate the method. With a regular paycheck and a public relations effort on his behalf, his life improved dramatically. In February, 1995 a long overdue honor was bestowed when Moe was enshrined in the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. That same month Wally Uihlein, president of Titleist and FootJoy Worldwide, announced that it would pay Norman $5,000 a month for the rest of his life—simply for being himself—further solidifying what was previously an uncertain financial future.
Today, Moe has a weekly routine that you can set your watch by . . . literally. Norman wears as many as five wristwatches at once, ensuring that he will always have the correct time. He spends the warm weather months in Canada and the other six months in Florida, maintaining a set pattern of activities for each day of the week. His schedule is mostly made up of hitting golf balls, doing demonstrations, watching the Golf channel, and listening to self-help tapes while driving his Cadillac. Most people would find his lifestyle painfully boring. He claims to have had two dates in his life and says he didn't enjoy either of them. He has never had a drink and never owned a telephone. And, until very recently, he never maintained a bank account, keeping his life savings in cash.
As his standoffish behavior at clinics suggests, Moe is still painfully uncomfortable interacting with strangers. But his golf game has not deteriorated; he claims to be hitting the ball better than ever. “I'm still waiting for a tournament at midnight,” he jokes, implying that he would be the only player who would be able to find his ball in the dark. If there's one concession to age, it's that he has sworn off drinking Coca-Cola, switching to Caffeine Free Coke for health reasons.
Strangely, Norman has had more impact on the game in the last five years than when he was playing professionally. His clinics have played a role in converting thousands of golfers to Natural Golf and convinced many others to learn the game using the method's simpler mechanics. He even has several disciples, including Natural Golf pro Todd Graves (who he has dubbed “Little Moe”), and Shawn Clement, who is competing on the Canadian PGA Tour playing left-handed and right-handed—even numbered clubs left-handed, odd numbered clubs right-handed.
While Moe will never realize the fame his talent might have afforded him, he has come to terms with that. “You learn from your mistakes,” he says. “You're going to make them as long as you live. Mistakes teach you—they're your own best friend.” And although he has complained in the past about lesser players making millions of dollars, he doesn't seem to begrudge Tiger Woods' success. “They're trying to track old Tiger down already,” he notes. “A lot of guys aren't glad that he's doing well. He's putting a lot of money in their pockets but they don't see it that way.” Perhaps more than anyone, he recognizes there's a price to be paid for being number one. “It's awfully lonely at the top,” he says. “Nice to be there though.”
Moe Norman passed away on September 4, 2004.