Moe and Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius

A couple of years ago I was playing golf with Robert O’Callaghan for a small wager, a box of Footy Almanacs to three bottles of Rockford wines (a bounty that was incentive enough). We’d had huge overnight rain in Canberra and Robert was out of the blocks quickly to go two up. Golf can be a chatty affair – although it doesn’t have to be – and with Robert there is always story-telling and pontificating punctuated by guttural responses to the cruelness of the gods.

Somewhere around the seventh tee (I was by then three down) Robert mentioned Moe Norman.

“Moe Norman?” I asked. “Who’s Moe Norman?”

“You’ve never heard of Moe Norman?”

I was embarrassed to say I hadn’t. I have been a golf reader over the years, although not voraciously so. And I reckon I knew a fair chunk of the history of the game and of the characters who fill its dramatis personae. But Moe Norman?

Robert began to explain; an explanation I have come to know reflects how Moe Norman exists in the public imagination in North America, and in Australia. Moe Norman: the eccentric Canadian golfer, a fine amateur, a good professional who is well-known not for his tournament record, but for being (arguably) the finest ball striker  that the game has seen.  (Along with Ben Hogan, of course)

As Robert said down the seventh, “He was just phenomenal. Incredible. But he was different. He had an unusual swing. He muttered to himself, and to those around him. He didn’t like clubhouses. He slept in his car or when playing in a tournament he was just as likely to sleep in the bunker by the eighteenth green. People didn’t know how to take him.”

I made a mental note to find out about Moe Norman.

I am sent quite a lot of books. One arrived the other day: Moe and Me: Encounters with Moe Norman Golf’s Mysterious Genius, by a well-credentialled Canadian golf writer, Lorne Rubinstein.

Serendipitous.

The book fascinated me: it is a combination of biography, observation, reflection and diagnosis, while at the same time offering some thoughts on the nature of golf.

I feel I have a pretty good idea of Moe Norman, although as Rubinstein admits, there are always limits to understanding Moe. The writing runs a very subtle and unobtrusive parallel: the mystery of golf, the mystery of the golf swing is intertwined with the question ‘What is it about Moe?’

Moe was involved in an accident when, at the age of five, his sleigh was hit by a car. Although he did not appear to have any major injuries, his behaviour changed soon after. Over the years people have seen Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man in Moe. He has always been socially awkward, and has always had difficulty with being the focus of attention – except when on the golf course. Although, even that is not quite right. Really the exception is when he is striking the golf ball. So Moe loved the driving range where he controlled the flight of the golf ball like few others have ever done. He would attract a crowd – often top pros would gather around as he was hitting and muttering and chuckling, in half commentary, half explanation. But always loving the moment.

He hit the ball straight. With little or no side spin. He was once asked by a fan, “Can you play with a draw or a fade?”

“Why would I?” he replied.

He controlled the height and the general trajectory remarkably and the stories of him striking target objects is legendary (Rubinstein did not believe these yarns until he saw some of the shots with his own eyes).

This was all achieved with an idiosyncratic action; indeed it is not unreasonable to say it was a unique action. This is a much mis-used word, but there were a number of features of Moe’s set-up and swing which make the term appropriate.

Firstly, at address, he rested the club a foot behind the ball. I have never seen this before. Secondly, he took a very wide stance, and held his hands high to make a classic straight-armed V. Thirdly he continued the club along the line of shot well after striking the ball. He used to say most golfers are preoccupied with what happens before the ball is struck, when really the reverse is true: it’s what happens after. He also played very quickly.

Here’s Moe driving. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0Q7NSdHACc&feature=related

Moe’s philosophy of golf is also established by Rubinstein, and by Moe himself. Moe’s favourite word was ‘let’ as in “let it happen” which immediately conjures up notions of truth. In that the right way exists, it’s just a matter of finding it. That is, finding the truth.

Here he outlines some of it in a clinic. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-1ZAbuvKQ0

It is a terrific book, and one I recommend to those who are fascinated by the game.

The narrative takes us through his middle-age, stories of him living in his much-loved Cadillac and out of motel rooms, an old man missing his front teeth whom many didn’t know how to take. It takes some of the clues – like why Moe struggled with blind shots, and why he didn’t putt well, and why he played so fast (something which got him in strife with PGA officials, believe it or not)  – and tries to piece together the neuropsychology of Moe both in terms of golf and his broader life. It is the story of a man who expressed himself through striking a golf ball.

The book’s themes have relevance well outside golf.

Moe’s life certainly resonated, and continues to resonate, with Robert O’Callaghan.

At Royal Canberra I fought back, and in a stroke of ridiculous irony, I couldn’t miss a putt.

I still have the wine. Robert had plenty of books from previous outings anyway.

 

Copies of Moe and Me are available through this site. To order contact us at footyalmanac@bigpond.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au He has written many columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted j.t.h@footyalmanac.com.au He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo10, Anna8, Evie7. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.

Comments

  1. Strewth! He looks a lot like a portly former club professional that I think we both had lessons from John!

  2. Wandering says:

    We can win this.

  3. John McCarthy says:

    John
    Standing on the tee of the 3rd hole at Kingston Links Golf Course my father told my brothers and me a Moe Norman story. The gist was that at a tournament Moe came to a hole with a water carry. As he set up for his shot his fellow pros asked him why he was not aiming where everyone else did – the safest route over the water. Moe replied that he was aiming for the bridge! I’m a bit hazy whether he hit it or not.

    The 3rd at Kingston Links is a 173m Par 3 over water. Dad is in his 80s and cannot really get the 150m or so required to carry the water. But he stepped up to have a go and bounced his ball on the bridge and up next to the green. Would have been a magic moment anyway but coming straight after the Moe Norman story – as the say somewhere – priceless!
    John

  4. Mark Doyle says:

    I once read about a Canadian golfer who was a hustler and made money doing trick golf shots for the public. Is this the bloke?

  5. John Harms says:

    Classic John.

    Mark. I don’t think it’s the same bloke. Moe wasn;t a hustler. Very much the opposite – a purist.

  6. I was playing with Matt Cole at Kingsville golf club ,Matt was taught by Moe when he played the tour talks about moe all the time Matt is now teaching golf at kingsville Acedemy for golf and Moes teaching lives on.

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