Fergus Bisset tells the incredible story of enigmatic Canadian Moe Norman.
Leading the 1963 Saskatchewan Open by three strokes, Murray “Moe” Norman found himself with a birdie chance on the final green. He had the tournament sewn up but, to see if he could handle the pressure, he deliberately putted into a greenside bunker before getting up-and-down for a bogey to win by two. Moe was not a conventional golfer.
In fact, Moe Norman wasn’t conventional by any standards. He didn’t see a doctor until he was 68, never owned a telephone, only went on three “dates” in his life and received three tickets for driving his Cadillac too slowly.
Norman’s golf technique was unique too. Setting the club way out in front of him and a foot behind the ball, he swung with his feet flat on the ground. But the ball went straight, every single time. He was obsessive with practice and had hit some 5 million balls by the end of his career. After receiving a lesson from Sam Snead at the 1956 Masters, Moe proceeded to hit 800 balls until his hands blistered. He was forced to withdraw from the tournament.
Leonard Kamsler, the man who took this photo, worked with Norman on a couple of occasions. “I flew up to Canada to do a shoot with Moe but it was difficult to get in touch with him as he didn’t have a telephone.” Kamsler says. “Eventually a go-between arranged a meeting. Moe was living above a bar. He was something of a mystery man in the States so I turned up with a Lone Ranger mask thinking it would make an amusing shot if he wore it. I wasn’t sure how he’d react but he just did it. He was a trusting guy.”
Although never diagnosed, it’s thought by Norman’s friends he may have been autistic. He spoke with a high, singsong voice and often repeated himself. He had an amazing memory for numbers and was able to recall the exact hole yardages at 375 of the 434 courses he played.
He was a shy man who was happy to be alone but, when he started to play golf, he became more animated and people were drawn to him.
“I went up to the Canadian Open to take shots of Moe on the practice ground.” Says Kamsler. “When I arrived, there was a large group of players congregated at one end of the range. They’d stopped their practice to watch Moe hitting. They just couldn’t believe how straight he drove it.”
Norman was so unerringly straight that, during his entire career, he went out-of-bounds only once. In a 2004 interview, Vijay Singh was asked who was the best golfer he’d ever seen. Without hesitation, Singh answered – Moe Norman.
Tiger Woods said, “Only two players have ever truly owned their swings: Moe Norman and Ben Hogan.”
Norman’s phenomenal skill as a ball-striker often overshadows his excellent playing record. He won 54 tournaments and set 33 course records. He shot three 59s and made 17 holes-in-one. He played briefly on the PGA Tour in 1959 but after receiving a dressing-down from officials and players for his unconventional behaviour following a fourth place finish at the Greater New Orleans Open, he was so upset he vowed never to play on the tour again. He returned to his native Canada.
Unfortunately for Moe, the Canadian Tour offered relatively little prize-money and he spent much of his life strapped for cash. His situation was improved in 1995 when the CEO of Titleist, Wally Uihlein, met Norman at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. Uihlein couldn’t believe that Norman had been playing their golf ball for 40 years yet had never received a sponsorship deal. On the spot, he offered Moe $5,000 a month for the rest of his life. After that, Moe was able to open his first bank account at the age of 67.
Norman died in September 2004. 400 of his family, friends and fellow professionals attended the funeral – pretty impressive for a man who liked to be alone. It was proof of how much respect there was for golf’s Rain Man.
Date of birth: July 10 1929
Place of birth: Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
Died: September 4 2004
Canadian Amateur Champion 1955, 1956
America’s Cup Canadian Team Member 1954
Won over 50 tournaments in Canada
Canadian Professional Golfers Champion in 1966 and 1974
Inducted into Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in 1995
Inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2006
Quote: “When you talk about Moe Norman, you’re talking about a legend… I think the guy’s a genius.” Lee Trevino.