Moe Norman — Golfing genius

Lucky me. I was seated the other night at the Score Golf Magazine awards dinner with Moe Norman. The one and only Moe Norman — the best ball-striker ever (according to many observers), a member of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame and an endlessly fascinating human being.

Moe is 70, and has had open-heart surgery. He lives for one thing — to hit the ball straighter than anybody who has ever played the game. And he does so with a highly personal swing. Moe stands far from the ball, puts the clubhead down well behind it and takes it away, seemingly, in one piece. It doesn’t look as if there’s any rotation to his golf swing, back or through. Filmed sequences of his swing reveal that there is, but it’s minimal.

“See my girlfriend up there?” Moe asks, pointing to professional golfer Lorie Kane. “She was having trouble with her wedge game. I gave her a lesson and she told me it’s really helped. Lorie was letting the club go across her body after she hit the ball. She wasn’t down the line. You have to be down the line.”

Later Kane, who received the Score Award as Canada’s top playing professional for 1999, thanks Moe publicly. Kane is Cada’s top player on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour. She won $750,000 (U.S.) on the 1999 LPGA Tour and is on track for that and more this season. Give Moe some credit for her fine play.

Straight and far

He’s shy, of course. I first learned that during the early 1960s, when my father took me to the De Haviland Golf Centre in Toronto. In the evenings I’d find him on the lower level of the two-tier driving range, whacking balls into the night. Straight. Always. Far. Always. Talking. Always.

Who was this man who spoke quickly and who often repeated his comments? Who was this engaging man who would spend hours with kids but who seemed afraid of adults? Who was this man who settled into the night at De Haviland and hit hundreds of balls into the night sky?

I’m still asking those questions. Nobody knows Moe. Not really.

But we can open ourselves to him. Lee Trevino has called him “a genius when it comes to playing the game of golf,” and added, “When you talk about Moe Norman you’re talking about a living legend.” Tom Watson said Moe hits the ball better than anybody. He won two Canadian Amateurs, provincial Opens right across the land, eight Canadian PGA Senior Championships. He still plays a few times a week with his great pal Nick Weslock, himself a four-time Canadian Amateur winner.

The poetry of the swing

And so I listen to Moe and I listen for golfing gems. He says it’s a good idea to keep the hands out of the swing as much as possible and to grip the club in the palms of the hand, not the fingers.

“Palms are calm,” Moe says, “palms are calm. Fingers are fast. Fingers are fast.”

These are bits of golfing poetry. Find out where Moe is playing. Maybe there’s a senior pro event near you. Moe could be there.

“Long and low, stretch it,” Moe might say. “Shake hands with the flagstick. I want the right arm bent and the left arm a rod at impact. I still believe in mass (of the clubhead). What do you want out of the rough, a matchstick?”

I think back to those De Haviland days. Moe in the heat of the night, burning up the sky with his laser-like drives. Rat-a-tat-tat, one ball after the other, no pauses. Why pause? Golf gives a player too much time to think. Why think? There’s the target. React. Swing away.

The guy plays quickly. Moe conquers golf’s slowness. He’s been called “the 747 of golf.” Wherever one travels in golf, there’s a story about Moe.

A mysterious genius

One time Canadian rock singer Neil Young — whose father Scott was one of Canada’s finest sportswriters and an inspiration to me — was golfing on some sunny exotic island. He was playing with a French professional who didn’t speak English. Young, a capable enough golfer to have played in the Ontario Junior Championship, accidentally hit a ball straight up in the air. “Only Moe Norman could do that,” Young blurted out.

You know Moe Norman?” the French golfer suddenly said, the first words of English he had spoken, maybe the only words he knew. He knew Moe. Everybody knows Moe. And nobody knows Moe. He’s mysterious — a mysterious genius.

“I’m hitting the ball 30 yards further now, 30 yards further,” Moe says at the Score dinner. He’s talking golf, as he has for 60 years. Nothing has changed. It’s a privilege to know him, to have dinner with him.

“If you’ve seen Fred Astaire, you’ve seen the best dancer,” Murray Tucker, a member of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, has said. “If you’ve seen Peggy Fleming, you’ve seen the best skater.” Tucker’s voice was breaking. “And when you’ve seen Moe hit a golf ball, you know you’ve seen the best that ever hit a golf ball.”

Everybody at the Score dinner knew that to be true. And so we gave Moe what he deserved there — the longest ovation of the evening.