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The unique life story of late golfer Moe Norman
Moe Norman has been called “The Mysterious Genius of Golf.” His swing, his mannerisms, and his lifestyle were unusual to say the least: Moe played very quickly, never took a practice swing, often repeated phrases when talking, and lived in motel rooms most of this life. Moe, who died in 2004 at age 75, suffered from crippling insecurity and introversion, which kept him from succeeding at the highest levels of play. Yet Tiger Woods has said that only Moe and Ben Hogan actually “owned” their swings, and Moe described himself as “the happiest guy on two feet.”
In Moe and Me, Lorne Rubenstein, a sports journalist who knew Moe for 40 years, examines Moe Norman’s unique swing, his character, and how he lived his life well, despite being limited in significant ways. Rubenstein also offers his views on what made Moe special and what this most sensitive and peculiar man meant to him and to others.
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Moe & Me
Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius
By Lorne Rubenstein
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2012 Lorne Rubenstein
All rights reserved.
IN THE EARLY 1960s, when Arnold Palmer was dominating golf and Arnie's Army was following him, I was thirteen years old and encountered Moe Norman for the first time. He was working at the De Haviland Golf Centre in north Toronto, a five-minute drive from where I lived. Moe's responsibilities included teaching and selling equipment and, generally, just hanging around De Haviland, which featured a two-tier driving range, a huge practice green, a nine-hole course, a thirty-six-hole mini-putt course, and a night-lit, par-three, eighteen-hole course. After some difficulties on the PGA Tour, which I'll discuss in the next chapter, Moe had found some peace here. He was comfortable among people who came to De Haviland for practice and play. I first remember Moe behind the counter dispensing white wire pails of yellow golf balls to golfers. Small pails. Medium. Large. Beaten-up drivers whose heads were scratched filled the racks behind Moe. He grabbed the pails of balls from the bins behind him. In between customers, this red-faced man in his tangerine shirt, banana slacks and torn golf shoes through which his toes stuck out flashed his snaggled teeth, sharp as the tines of forks, and performed card tricks. I watched. Moe was friendly. He told me to hit some balls.
"Go on, go on, it's a nice night, it's a nice night," he said. "It's warm. It's warm. Maybe I'll hit some too."
I walked out the door to the night and put a pail down by the hitting station. Moe emerged a few minutes later, holding his driver and bouncing a ball off the clubface. He walked slowly to a station with a pail of balls. He then placed a ball on the rubber tee embedded in the hitting area. The rubber tee popped up as if it jumped from underground. His head snapped left as he looked quickly down the vast, grassy area flecked with balls. The sky was black, but the klieg lights turned night into day. Moe set his clubhead a foot behind the ball. I wondered why. He looked unlike any other golfer I'd seen. Who sets the club a foot behind the ball? Only Moe, I would learn. He spread his feet well apart — although not as far apart as he would later in his life — so that it appeared he was trying to do the splits. Moe extended his arms out so far in front of him, with his hands held so unusually high, that I thought they could pop out of his shoulders. He looked like a lion awakening from slumber.
Moe did more than hit balls off the rubber tees. His real show started when he hit balls off the asphalt that extended the entire width of the range, 100 yards or more. Moe picked the ball cleanly off the asphalt with a driver. His contact with the ball was so clean that he didn't leave a nick on the driver's soleplate. How was that possible?
Moe moved the club back low and slow and returned it through the ball low and long. His arms and the club were a unit, like one of those triangles used to set balls on a snooker table. The clubhead pointed down the range as if it were tracking the flight of the ball. His ball flew straight, an arrow. Then, hardly stopping, he hit another ball. Same routine, same result. Balls continued to fill the night sky like sparklers. They were tracers, and I was mesmerized. Other golfers had stopped hitting balls and walked over to watch Moe. He was sweating, hitting one ball after another. He talked while he hit.
"Hope and fear, hope and fear, that's how people play golf," Moe said and thwacked another ball dead straight. "Not me. No, not me. I see happiness, I see happiness." He was drenched in sweat, and he was speaking as quickly as he was swinging, words flying out of his mouth like popcorn out of a popper. "The ball fits the Moe Norman way."
I lived a mile away, and I went to De Haviland with my father a few nights a week. We hit balls, and we played the par-three course with my dad's pals, including a fellow named Sam Shapiro. Sam showed up at De Haviland one day because he wanted to learn how to play golf. He ran into Moe and asked where he could take some lessons.
"You've come to the right place," Moe told Sam, who took more than fifty lessons from him.
"I had a good relationship with Moe," Sam said. "I liked him. He was a nice guy, and he would give you his heart. I went to Florida with him, and we'd go into restaurants to eat, but he wouldn't stay inside. He would take a sandwich, put it in his pocket, and eat outside. You had to feel for him. I'm not a doctor, but he was a human being." Moe taught Sam so well that he got down to a single-digit handicap, and he had a short game that turned bogies into pars regularly. Sam stayed close to Moe and attended his funeral.
As much golf as my dad and I played at De Haviland, we spent more time watching Moe. He fascinated me not only because of his extraordinary ability to control the flight of the ball, the true art of the game, but also because he was so different from every other golfer I'd seen. Moe looked like no other golfer I'd come across, nor did his style resemble that of any other golfer. He never took a practice swing — he never took a practice swing his entire life — but every shot flew dead straight, virtually without any sidespin. Even the best players in the world hit the ball with some sidespin. Moe hit the ball so that it rotated as if it were a Ferris wheel. He could also curve the ball at will. He could hit the ball high or low and everything in between. Moe knew where the ball was going. When somebody asked him to hit it to a specific spot, he hit it there.
"I make narrow holes look wide," Moe told me. "I never get tired of the middle. It's beautiful there." The faces of his irons were worn with a spot the size of a quarter in the center, equidistant from either side. He liked to show people the spots. Moe craved adulation. He needed approval.
Moe was in his early thirties when I first encountered him, drifting that summer from course to course and tournament to tournament, as he would the rest of his life. It was immediately apparent that he was like nobody else I'd met. By being himself, Moe stood alone.
I don't know why Moe galvanized my attention to the degree he did. I was a shy kid myself and didn't socialize easily. Maybe the few incidents that I remember from when I was a youngster are the ones that made me sympathetic to Moe when I met him.
Before I met Moe, I attended a Hebrew day school in Toronto. We studied Hebrew and Jewish history for half a day, and the conventional public school education in Ontario filled the other half. I enjoyed the intense focus on academic subjects but also missed sports, for which there wasn't a lot of time. I followed sports closely, though, and was paying more attention to the seventh game of the 1960 World Series than perhaps I should have been. The Pittsburgh Pirates were at home playing the New York Yankees at Forbes Field. I brought a transistor radio to class and carefully tucked it into my pocket. I listened to the game through an ear bud in my left ear and leaned forward to listen to the teacher. My left hand covered my ear. The score was 9-9 as the Pirates took to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. Their second baseman, Bill Mazeroski, was leading off. He hit a walk-off home run that has been called the most famous home run in baseball history. Nobody had ever hit a walk-off home run to win a World Series. I rose up from my desk as soon as the ball left the park. The teacher wasn't pleased and came over to rap me on my neck with the back of his hand. The pleasure I felt while listening to the game was worth the punishment.
A few weeks later I decided that I wanted more sports in my life and left the school for a nearby public junior high. The school had a proper baseball diamond and an ice rink. I played for the football team, called the Red Devils. Meanwhile, in my first gym class, I noticed a boy whose first name was the same as mine. He was standing in a corner away from the other students. He didn't want to participate in any of the activities. Clearly, he was different. He was gay, although nobody used that word then. Classmates called him a "fairy" and a "homo." They laughed at him. He felt even more apart, even lonelier. I tried to be kind to him, maybe because we shared a first name or maybe because I thought my classmates shouldn't be ridiculing him. He was different, true. But so what? Let him be.
I'd reached my adult height of six foot three by the time this happened, and I was always the tallest kid in class. I felt apart from other students and didn't mix easily. At school parties, I faded to the margins. At dances, I stood by the wall — the classic "wallflower." I took refuge in sports, especially golf. Although I was a fair athlete in hockey, baseball, football and soccer, golf provided me with a place where I could most be myself. I felt a freedom on the course that I felt nowhere else. A golf course provided a refuge. Golf was a way into myself and, therefore, a way out of myself. Was it that way for Moe, only much more so? I was too young to be able to formulate such questions consciously, let alone answer them. But something in Moe captured my attention.
Night after night I went to De Haviland, usually with my father. He'd played pro football in Winnipeg, his hometown, but had given it up after a knee injury. Now he had a small automotive supplies store. He loved sports, and he saw that I had some talent for golf. I played the Ontario Junior and won a provincial team event with the pro at the club where I played. Other kids were going out with friends or to summer camp or the local Dairy Queen for ice cream. We called it the Puppy Palace. I spent many more evenings at De Haviland than at the Puppy Palace because of Moe. I didn't know it then, but I would chase the truth of the man from then on. I would chase it through university as I acquired a master's degree in psychology, and I would chase it while I caddied on the PGA Tour a few tournaments each summer while I was in university, and I would chase it after I became a golf writer. I would chase it until Moe died, and I'm still chasing it.
Always there was Moe, flitting along the fringes of the game, owning his swing or, as he said, "capturing" it. Always I would find him, and follow him, and meet him, and write about him. I watched him at De Haviland. I followed him in tournaments. Later, after I started writing, I argued, along with other colleagues, that Moe should be an inductee into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, and when he was finally admitted in 1995 I was at the ceremony at Foxwood, a small rural club where Moe felt comfortable. I told Moe Norman stories everywhere I traveled in golf; his name always came up. Everybody knew Moe or of him. Everybody was curious about him.
Maybe it was because I felt some kind of kinship with Moe, but I never ridiculed him in private or public. Some writers called him the Clown Prince of Canadian Golf or Sleepy Moe from Hollow Norman — a description that appeared when he was playing out of the Sleepy Hollow Club near Toronto. An English writer called him a "nutter of imperial status." He even called himself Moe the Schmo.
Moe hit the ball cleanly and accurately with a swing that appeared to defy convention. Yet he never succeeded on the game's biggest stages. He was far too insecure for that; professional golf is a private game played publicly, and Moe couldn't cope with its public side until late in his life — and even then not easily or comfortably. After he won the 1955 Canadian Amateur in Calgary, he hid by the bulrushes on the banks of the Bow River rather than give a speech at the prize ceremony. He could address a crowd many years later, but mostly he spoke by rote, reciting material he'd memorized — usually the same material. Life was never easy for Moe. But he cruised along, finding his way.
On the course, Moe had control of the golf ball if nothing else. The course was the one place where he was able to exert mastery. He loved being on a course or on a range or in his car, listening to tapes about the psychology of golf.
Moe was ill at ease in social situations and tried to avoid them. The practice range, the golf course, his car, and his motel room were his natural, chosen places; he couldn't cope with the social side of the game. I was at a cocktail party at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario, as part of Jack Nicklaus's induction into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in the builder category; Nicklaus had designed Glen Abbey, home of the Canadian Open from 1977 to 2000, with the exception of 1980 and 1997 when it was held at the Royal Montreal Golf Club. Moe was invited, and he stood wearing a red sports jacket. The bar was crowded, and he was trapped. Suddenly, I heard my wife, Nell, yelp; Moe, trying to be friendly, had come up behind her and put his glass of ice-cold Coke against the back of her neck as a way of saying hello. "Somebody told me you're Lorne's wife. Just want to say hello."
Another time Moe was sitting outside a clubhouse when a golfer came along. He was going in for lunch and asked Moe if he wanted anything. Moe said he'd like some ice cream. The member went inside and asked for some ice cream for Moe. He was told ice cream wasn't available and went outside to tell Moe. "Sorry, they have no ice cream." Moe said, "I know. You asked what I wanted, and I said ice cream." To Moe, this was the right answer. He wanted ice cream. He hadn't asked the club member to get him ice cream.
His reactions didn't depend on where he was or to whom he was talking. Craig Shankland, a PGA Master professional who was close to Moe for the last eighteen years of his life, went with him to the Bay Hill Club in Orlando to do a clinic for a medical company. Arnold Palmer owned Bay Hill and drove toward Moe and Shankland near the driving range, where they were to conduct their clinic. Palmer said, "Hi, how are you, Moe?" Moe knew that Palmer, seven-time major champion that he was, wasn't the most accurate striker of a golf ball. Moe came right back to Palmer's friendly greeting with "I haven't had a thorn bush stuck up my ass for the last seven years, how about you, Arnie?" Palmer didn't know what to say for a moment, and then, Shankland remembered, he "began to crack up, ending on the floor of his cart, tears coming from his eyes, doubled up with laughter."
Moe reacted immediately to situations. He lacked a trip wire or filter. This wasn't helpful in social situations, but it was valuable in golf. Moe turned golf into a reaction sport rather than a creation sport. He played golf as if it were hockey or baseball; he was reacting rather than initiating a motion. Moe looked at the target, assimilated all the information he needed, and swung immediately: his swing was his reaction. All golfers want to play the game without thinking. His nature compelled him to play that way. That's why he hated blind shots, where he couldn't see the target.
Moe occupied a cubbyhole all his own, and he made that space his world. The sport at which he excelled forced him to encounter the world beyond the spaces he preferred to occupy. Yes, he lived in the golf world, but he never did truly occupy it. There was always something impermanent about his place there. The place where Moe could best express himself also imprisoned him. A driving range, a field in the countryside where he could hit balls, or his car at the side of a rural dirt road — these were his real homes, where he felt most at ease.
When I think about Moe, I think about a line from a Leonard Cohen song: "There's a crack in the world, that's how the light gets in." Moe represents a crack. By being in the world, he let some light in.CHAPTER 2
MOE AND HIS TWIN SISTER, Marie, were born in July 1929 in Kitchener, Ontario, a blue-collar city of about 30,000 people an hour southwest of Toronto. He was one of three brothers and three sisters. Moe's father, Irwin, worked at Beaver Furniture in Kitchener as an upholsterer until automation ended that trade. He then became a shipper there. The family lived in a small home at the top of a hill on Gruhn Street, near Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate. Stories were later written that the family was poor, but Marie denied that was the case. "I can't believe the things they've written in the paper," she said. "It was far from poverty. It sure upset my mother, the garbage they printed."
Excerpted from Moe & Me by Lorne Rubenstein. Copyright © 2012 Lorne Rubenstein. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great background on one of the best ball striker that ever played the game of golf