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In Honor of the RBC Canadian Open, We Remember Canada's Greatest Golf Genius
Moe Norman was a painfully shy, eccentric Canadian prone to wearing garish, mismatched outfits. He was also quite possibly the greatest striker of the golf ball in history. No less of an authority than Tiger Woods has said that only two golfers in history “owned their swing”: Ben Hogan and Moe Norman. “I want to own mine,” Woods added with a hint of envy.
Norman’s swing featured an abbreviated backswing and shorter-than-normal follow-through that produced uncanny accuracy. And it was purely self-taught; Norman never took a lesson in his 75 years.
His shyness — some have speculated that Norman might have suffered from a form of autism — precluded a career on the PGA Tour. But Norman did share his unique approach to golf with thousands of fortunate players through a long series of clinics. One of his partners in these clinics also happens to be Craig Shankland, a member of Athlon Sports’ Elite Eight staff of golf instructors. Here, Craig shares his memories of Moe, golf’s greatest ball-striker and most unique personality, a true legend of the game.
Printed here are my thoughts and remembrances of Moe Norman, many of them from the clinics that we did together over 18 years.
I present these with a deep sense of respect for his incredible skill at ball-striking and consistency. There will never be another like him. Watching Moe hit balls was riveting. You could not believe how good he was time after time.
People have asked me why Moe and I got along so well. I reply by noting that many have called me a champion of idiosyncrasies. I have always loved people who would come along with unusual styles and could beat your brains in. I have taught people not to change their style, but to nurture it and show how it could be an asset. I hate people who rebuild something like that and ruin individuality.
Moe had an unusual, brilliant style that I deeply admired. In turn, he also admired and respected what I did. We had a mutual respect.
Moe had some difficulty trusting and relating to people. If someone came up to Moe for an autograph, he would turn away. If I told Moe that the person was a very good player, he would sign the autograph. He only talked to people who could play — if I told him so. He knew then that they respected him and were not there to ridicule him.
When I would ask him if people should copy his swing, he would laugh. “How can anyone copy my swing? They would come and take you away,” he would say. “You can’t be me. Everyone is copying everyone else. Be yourself; don’t try to be me. You can’t be me.”
The first time I met him was during one of my free clinics. He was in the audience. After I finished what I thought was a perfect display of shotmaking and shot-shaping, he approached me. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. “Yes, Moe Norman,” I said. He replied, “How would you like me to come next week and show you how a ball should really be hit?” I told him to come on. We did clinics together for the next 18 years.
He was very comfortable hitting balls. He was uncomfortable around people he didn’t know. Hitting balls was his life; no one could do it better. After hitting balls, he would withdraw, getting lost in his own world where no one else could disturb him.
Moe never gave any credence to putting. “There’s no skill in that,” he would say. “Hitting pins in regulation — that takes skill.”
Moe once told me that during a practice round for the Canadian Open, he was playing with Canadian golf great George Knudson. Moe offered to play for $5 per pin hit in regulation. George agreed with a laugh, thinking that no one hits pins in regulation. After three holes, Moe had hit three pins, and George walked back to the clubhouse.
On the first hole of a practice round, a 230-yard par 3, the media assembled around Moe and teased him about his putting. Moe pulled a club from his bag, struck the ball perfectly, and turned to the reporters, saying, “I’m not putting today.” The ball rolled into the hole for a hole-in-one. It was one of 17 holes-in-one that Moe hit.
Moe broke all the rules of conventional golf mechanics. He held the club in the palms of his huge hands. I always said he had no wrists, only arms with hands. He used an abnormally wide stance; most players, even pros, would whiff while trying to address the ball in his footprints. He started the club at least a foot behind the ball. He reached for the ball, extending his arms as far as they would go, arms and shaft on a single axis. He faced the ball at impact, his feet flat on the ground. His arms did all the work. His body seemed to react to his powerful arm swing.
We went to Bay Hill to do a clinic for a medical company. Moe didn’t know the way from Daytona, so he said he would follow me in his car. We started onto I-95 heading for I-4 and Orlando. When I looked in my rear-view mirror, I didn’t see Moe. I slowed down to 50 mph. Finally, I spotted him in his car, going 45 max. Truck drivers were honking and yelling. But Moe had the volume turned up so high in his Cadillac that he was oblivious to the noise. When we finally got to Bay Hill, the noise from his radio was deafening. Science and math tapes were blaring from his tape player, with the volume turned up as high as it would go. He was in a world all his own.
When we got there, we went looking for the practice area where the clinic would be held. Arnold Palmer came toward us in his cart and said, “Hi. How are you, Moe?” Immediately, Moe shot back, with an obvious reference to Palmer’s lack of accuracy off the tee: “I haven’t had a thorn bush stuck up my ass for the last seven years. How about you, Arnie?” Palmer cracked up. He knew that Moe was never in the bushes.
Over 41,352 people attended our clinics. How do I know? Moe counted every person who ever attended a clinic. He knew the exact number of balls we hit and how many tees we used each time.
Moe showed up exactly at the time of the show, never earlier. He was never late. He would have continued to hit balls forever for the crowd if he could have. If there were golf balls in a pile or on the ground, anywhere, he would hit them. You would often find him hunting for range balls on the edge of the range, on lake banks, in deep rough, off on his own. If there were snakes and alligators in there, he didn’t care.
He came down to Florida each year in a new Cadillac. He would proudly show it to me. Inside the trunk were new clothes and golf balls all over the place. New Titleists out of their packs. “Imagine that,” he said. “They gave me all these balls. Why did they give me all these? All I need is one.”
Sometimes the weather got really hot during the clinics. Moe would be there in his turtleneck, a Gucci sweater and heavy twill slacks. “Aren’t you hot?” I would ask him. “I don’t sweat,” he would reply. “Look at my hands.” They would be dry as a bone.
Moe told a story about a day he played with Sam Snead: “There was a par 5 with a stream across the fairway. I pulled out my driver. Sam said, ‘You can’t carry the stream today; it’s into the wind.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to carry the stream. I’m going to run the ball across the bridge. I did it, and Snead couldn’t believe it. When we got to the bridge, he said, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ I rolled a ball across the bridge and said, ‘See? It fits.’”
Moe hit 32 balls off the same tee one day without touching the tee. He simply would place another ball atop the same tee, until finally, on the 33rd ball, he moved the tee slightly with his shot. “How long have you had that tee?” I asked him. “Seven years,” he said. “I’ve only used one ball and one tee in seven years. It’s a cheap game!”
On a hole that required a driver and a wedge, Moe would sometimes hit wedge and driver, in that order. When asked why, he said, “To have fun. And I still made birdie.”
Here’s a sample of some of Moe’s many sayings over the years.
To older audiences: “Stop worrying about when you are going to die, but how good you are going to live. Get off your ass and go practice!”
On the Vardon (overlap) grip: “It stinks. You’ve got 10 fingers. Why would you take any of them off the club? How dumb is that?”
On his grip: “Where do you hold a baseball bat, a tennis racquet, a hockey stick? In the palms of your hands. That’s where the meat is, not in the fingers. You’re playing a tune. Fingers are fast, palms are quiet.”
On how tightly he held the club: “I draw blood with my left hand.”
On gripping the club like a bird or a tube of toothpaste: “That’s crap. It’s all bunk.”
“The most important inches in golf are the five and a half inches between your ears.”
“In my backswing, I place a coin 41 inches behind the ball and two tees 22 inches in front of the ball. I swing back over the coin to get extension and between the two tees to keep the clubhead square 22 inches after impact. I see that in my mind, and I do it.”
“I don’t take divots. I comb the grass. Give me your Rolex watch; I’ll hit it right off the top. I wouldn’t break it. I’d hit the ball off the top of your head and wouldn’t harm a hair. I’d give you the best butch cut you ever had.”
“I’m a superintendent’s dream. ‘Look, Moe was here. No sign of any divots, just where his shoes were.’”
“Distance is only a word. I am accuracy-oriented. What good is it if you hit the ball 300 yards into the trees?”
On the last time he missed a fairway: “1974. The ball hit a sprinkler head and bounced out of bounds.”
“The ball does exactly what I tell it to do, every time.”
“You play hoping golf; I play knowing golf. You hope it’s going down the fairway. I know it’s going down the fairway.”
“I swing the whole golf stick. Swing the clubhead? That’s crap. You have to learn to swing the handle first. If you can’t control the handle, how can you swing the clubhead?”
“There’s no such thing as a bad lie.”
“There’s no wrist roll in my swing. You could cook an egg on the clubface after impact, sunny side up.”
“Hogan and I hated 36-hole events. In the afternoon round, we were always in our morning divots!”
“I use smooth force, not brute force.”
“My right hand is an ornament on the club.”
“I lead so well. The handle always gets to the ball first. The handle is past my left leg before the ball is hit.”
“I hit my right shoulder on my downswing, I lag so much. One day, I lagged so much, I hit my right ankle!”
On starting the club so far behind the ball: “It does four things for me. You can’t take the club outside, you can’t lift the club up, you are already in your turn, and it eliminates a foot of the swing!”
“I hit the ball down my chosen line of aim, every time.”
“Hogan said, ‘The straight shot is an accident.’ I told him, ‘Come with me and you will see a lot of accidents.’”
“I’ve hit 5,000,000 balls and never had a sore muscle in my life. I can stand here all day and hit balls.”
“I’m the greatest ball-striker because I have the fewest moving parts.”
“Golf is not a turning action. It’s a shifting action.”
“It’s a swing, not a hit. You should have a pulling action.”
“Golf is not supposed to be work. It’s supposed to be fun. So have fun.”
“I never get mad. Getting mad makes you swing worse.”
“Golf is easy. People make it hard.”
“I feel like a windmill, never jerky.”
“You will never see a cleat on my left shoe (his foot would remain flat on the ground). My big toe never moves.”
“I don’t force it, I finesse it. I don’t bash it, I bump it.”
“I can’t hit the ball off line if I want to; my swing won’t let me. I can’t hit a bad shot if I tried; my swing won’t let me.”
“I want my left knee past the ball before impact.”
“I am the straightest that ever lived. If there was ever a tournament at midnight, I’d win. I know where to find my ball every time. I wish the fairways were four inches wide. The ball will fit!”
On how he wanted to be remembered: “I’ll be walking down the fairway, off into the sunset with a big smile on my face. Isn’t it great to have been able to do something no one else in the world can do!”