A LEGEND OF CANADIAN GOLF
Story by: Mike May
Photos Courtesy: Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, Golf Canada & Moe Norman's Facebook
Talented, misunderstood and underappreciated. That may be the most appropriate and accurate way to describe the life of the late, great Canadian hall of fame golfer Murray ‘Moe’ Norman, who died in 2004 at the age of 75. To use a popular cliché, ‘Moe’ Norman was the real deal in golf. When he died, he was a member of three sports halls of fame – 1995 inductee of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, 1999 inductee of the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, and a 2000 inductee of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame. After his death in 2004, he was later inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 and the PGA of Canada Hall of Fame in 2014. Frankly, he deserved to have all those halls of fame honors when he was alive.
For Norman, his life had two parts. There was his life on the golf course, which was probably filled with more positives than negatives. And, there was his life off the golf course, which was probably filled with more negatives than positives.
It also fair to say that his life, inside and outside of golf, was a little rough and tough, at times. But, Norman was quick to remind you that his shots on the golf course rarely found the rough. The up-and-down nature of his life can probably be attributed to the fact that Norman was considered to be autistic, but he was never officially diagnosed with autism. For that reason, Norman was a bit of an enigma at times – both on and off the golf course.
For Norman, his achievements on the golf course would leave golf historians and aficionados rather impressed, especially after looking at his rather unique single-plane golf swing. To say that it was an unconventional swing is an understatement. But, Norman could make it work and make it work very well -- consistently. To his credit, Norman could get the golf ball in the hole in very few strokes. He had more than 40 course records, three of them with rounds of 59. One of his 59s was shot when he was in his 60s. He also registered 17 holes-in-one. Norman was a talented golfer as a young man and he continued to excel in the game well after the age of 50. In all, he won 55 pro golf tournaments in Canada. He also won a few prestigious amateur golf titles in Canada. Some of his many titles included eight Canadian Senior Championships, three Canadian Amateurs, three Manitoba Opens, three Alberta Opens, two Canadian PGAs, and one Quebec Open. Moe never won the Canadian Open, but that’s OK. The great Jack Nicklaus didn’t win the Canadian Open either.
Those eight Canadian Senior Championships deserve a special mention. Of his eight wins, there were seven straight from 1979 – 1985. The eighth title came in 1987.
Norman also played in the Masters on two occasions and he represented Canada in the 1971 World Cup, too. Sadly, he never played in the U.S. Open, PGA Championship, or the (British) Open Championship. The game of golf would have been better off – and Norman, too – if he had played in those major championships, back in the 1960s and 1970s.
When Norman was 12, he started playing golf. From that moment forward, he never stopped. He was also self-taught. For people who were able to watch Norman in person, they were fortunate. For those who did not, there are now many videos of Norman to watch on YouTube. And, there are stories to hear and read about from those people who were friends and colleagues of the talented Canadian.
NORMAN & THE PGA TOUR
After turning professional in 1957, Norman started playing on the PGA Tour in 1959. He played in 27 PGA Tour events. He made the cut in all but two of those tournaments. After playing in a tournament in New Orleans, he was harshly criticized by tournament officials for his behavior and wardrobe selection during the tournament. It’s fair to say that Norman was treated as an outcast and he was often harshly reminded of his unconventional behavior by many of his peers. It’s not that he broke any rules. It’s just that he didn’t fit in with professional golf’s social and fashion scene, back in the day. After that confrontation in New Orleans, Norman never played in another PGA Tour event. He quit the PGA Tour -- cold turkey. That was unfortunate for Norman, for the PGA Tour, and golf fans everywhere. Norman played the rest of his pro tournament golf back home in Canada. It’s where he felt comfortable. But, again, he did resurface in the U.S. in 1971 when he played on Canada’s World Cup team when the event was held in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. And, between 1981 and 1984, Norman played in five Senior PGA Tour events, making the cut in all five tournaments. In those five events, he had one top-three finish and two top-ten results.
COMMENTS FROM GOLFING CONTEMPORARIES
Despite his idiosyncrasies and irregularities, Norman earned the respect of many touring golf professionals.
The late Ken Venturi, the 1964 U.S. Open champion and a longtime golf analyst on CBS Sports, once referred to Norman as ‘Pipeline Moe.’
“If you laid down a pipeline, every ball (that Norman would hit) would be right on it,” remarked Venturi.
Other well-known touring professionals such as Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead, Vijay Singh, and Gary Player all had words of praise for the talented Norman.
Watson was impressed by Norman’s accuracy.
“I’ll tell you about a guy who can hit it better than anybody. His name is Moe Norman,” once said, Watson.
Norman’s ball-striking ability drew words of praise from Trevino.
“I think the guy (Norman) is a genius when it comes to playing the game of golf,” said Trevino.
Snead was amazed at Norman’s hand control.
“He (Moe Norman) has the best hands in golf,” Snead once said.
Singh was quoted as saying that Norman was “God’s gift to golf.”
And, Player noted that Norman had the fewest moving parts of any golf swing.
MEMORIES OF MOE IN FLORIDA
While Norman earned legendary status in Canadian golf, which eventually resulted in him being inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in 1995 and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2006, it was the many winters that he spent in Florida that helped establish his unique reputation in the U.S. Of all the places he chose to spend his North American winters, it was in the greater Daytona Beach, Florida area and throughout Volusia County. While Norman spent a significant amount of his time at Riviera Country Club in Ormond Beach, he was also spotted from time to time at Tomoka Oaks, Indigo Lakes, Matanzas Woods, and New Smyrna Beach Municipal. And, he also played and practiced at Ocean Palm in Flagler Beach, just north of Daytona Beach, in Flagler County.
Long-time Daytona Beach-area golf professional Mike O’Sullivan has vivid memories of Norman.
“I first met Moe back in 1956 when he came to Daytona Beach from Canada,” recalls O’Sullivan. “Moe arrived in town with Gary Cowan. Moe was the Canadian Amateur Champion and Gary was Canada’s top junior amateur.”
As amateur golfers, both Norman and Cowan didn’t have much money in their pockets, but they found a local benefactor who gave them a roof over their heads.
“Bill Meyers, the owner at the Riviera Country Club in Ormond Beach at the time, let them both stay in the vacant apartments in the clubhouse at Riviera,” adds O’Sullivan, who was a local high school golfer at the time.
It didn’t take long for O’Sullivan to realize that Norman was a unique and different individual.
“Moe always did what Moe wanted to do,” says O’Sullivan. “He was sort of a Walter Mitty type of character.”
If you were fortunate to gain his trust, Norman was a very loyal friend.
“If he liked you, he would go out of his way to say hello,” reveals O’Sullivan. “I always felt privileged to be a friend of his.”
O’Sullivan can recall Norman’s unique expression when he would greet a friend.
According to O’Sullivan, “Hay, you. Hay, you,” was what Norman said time and time again to friends that he would run into, whether at a golf course, in a restaurant, or at a golf trade show.
On the golf course, Norman had a talent for swinging a golf club and consistently hitting the golf ball well. Unlike many top-flight golfers who grew up with instructors, Norman did not. His swing was self-taught. He never took a lesson.
“The only golfer who could strike it better than Moe Norman was probably Ben Hogan,” states O’Sullivan. “Moe had a repetitive swing and it worked.”
Truth be told, Norman’s swing worked day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.
While Norman was amazingly consistent with his woods and irons, he was not known as a brilliant putter, but he didn’t have to be.
“Moe didn’t have to be a great putter because he hit it so close to the hole every time,” adds O’Sullivan.
At times, Norman was very intentional when he played golf, just to prove a point.
“Many times, Moe would hit a ball in a greenside bunker, just so he could prove that he could get it up-and-down for a par with his sand wedge, which he called his Sandy Andy,” says O’Sullivan. “And he would get it up-and-down 99 percent of the time.”
Norman also developed a reputation for playing short par fours differently. For instance, from time to time, Norman would hit his tee shot with a short iron and then reach the green with a driver from the fairway.
Two other longtime Daytona Beach residents who befriended Norman were Jim and David Baliker, a father-son tandem that operates a local golf club repair shop. The original business was Legacy Golf in Daytona Beach. They now own and operate the Bali Golf Company, in neighboring Ormond Beach (1360 North U.S. Highway 1; 386-310-8228). It’s where many golfers like to visit and hang out in between rounds of golf in the greater Daytona Beach area. It didn’t take long for Norman to build a trusting relationship with the two Balikers since they had a common interest: golf.
After building a sense of trust, Norman often asked Jim to look after his money while he was in Florida.
“Moe did not trust the banks,” says Jim Baliker. “He asked me to take care of his money when he was in town. So, I did.”
Baliker’s form of ‘banking’ for Norman was to seal his envelope of cash with duct tape, put it in his office drawer, and then return it to Norman when he headed back to Canada in early April.
“He would always stop in Augusta, Georgia for the Masters every year on his way home to Canada,” says Jim Baliker.
As the Balikers would agree, Norman was a creature of habit and his habits were not always conventional.
“Moe would work out by lifting bowling balls and paint cans which were filled with paint,” says David Baliker. “He always had them in his car.”
When it came to eating breakfast and getting dressed, Norman knew what he liked and never deviated from the norm.
“For breakfast, he ate chocolate-chip pancakes covered in syrup and a Coke,” reveals David Baliker. “And, he always wore a long-sleeved turtle-neck shirt, regardless of the outside temperature.”
Besides bowling balls and paint cans, another item that Norman kept in his car was a guide on his golf game.
“In the trunk of his car, he would carry a journal of his swing thoughts,” says David Baliker. “I looked through it once. I regret not making a photocopy of that journal. It’s probably lost now.”
Both Balikers played many rounds of golf with Norman, who always played with Top-Flite irons and Spalding persimmon-headed woods.
“He always played with a Titleist DT golf ball,” remembers Jim Baliker. “He would always hit a nice, little soft draw. His swing was effortless.”
Norman’s swing was so repetitive that you could see the side effects of his repetition.
“He would hit his sand wedge so consistently that it caused a concave indentation in the face of the club,” states David Baliker. “We had to regrind the club in order to get the surface flat again.”
Another individual with strong ties to the greater Daytona Beach-area golf scene, who knew Norman, is Eric Meyers, the current owner of the Riviera Country Club in Ormond Beach.
“Moe was a character and a little unorthodox, too,” says Meyers. “He was a mainstay around here (at Riviera) for a number of years.”
While living in one of the upstairs apartments at Riviera, Meyers could always tell if Norman was on the property. He was either on the driving range hitting balls while drinking a Pepsi or juggling a golf ball on one of his irons up in his apartment.
“In the morning, he would come downstairs, grab a Pepsi, and head to the driving range to hit balls all day or he would be upstairs bouncing a golf ball on one of his irons,” says Meyers. “You could hear him through the ceiling bouncing that ball on the club.”
According to Meyers, one of the proudest moments in Norman’s life was getting inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in 1995. Norman kept the hall of fame plaque in the trunk of his car.
“He was always glad to show off his hall of fame plaque,” says Meyers. “That meant something to him. He was proud of that achievement.”
Norman’s circle of friends was small.
“If he knew you and liked you, he would come talk with you,” says Meyers. “If he didn’t know you, he would not give you the time of day.”
While many golfers play competitive games and matches on the golf course, Meyers recalls a special game that Norman enjoyed playing. It was called polies.
“In polies, you actually count how many pins you hit from off the green,” reports Meyers. “Moe enjoyed playing polies.”
Another longtime Daytona Beach golf figure who knew Norman very well was area golf teaching professional Craig Shankland.
When Norman was with Shankland, he had another name for polies.
“Moe didn’t play greens in regulation,” recalls Shankland. “He likes playing pins in regulation. Moe always wanted to see how many pins (flagsticks) he could hit.”
According to Shankland, Norman didn’t think putting took any skill, but hitting pins in regulation did require a great deal of skill.
“I can still recall Moe saying ‘pins in regulation, pins in regulation,’” adds Shankland.
Shankland’s recollection of Norman’s personality traits, habits, and mannerisms are consistent with others who knew him.
“He was a little bit off the wall,” remembers Shankland. “But, Moe was brilliant at what he did. He was the best ball-striker in the world. I loved that swing of his. His mind was filled with positive thoughts and a clear picture of what he wanted to do. And, he did it. He hit the golf ball as pure as you could possibly imagine.”
Shankland ate lunch with Norman on many occasions. And, Shankland always paid the bill.
“Moe ate hamburgers, lots of fries, and a Coke every time,” says Shankland. “It was all the wrong things. And, Moe would always slide the check over to me.”
For nearly 20 years, Shankland and Norman worked together on a series of Wednesday afternoon clinics in central and northeast Florida, which were held in the fall, winter and spring.
“I still have the notes from those clinics,” says Shankland. “The early clinics were held at Ocean Palm in Flagler County, just north of Daytona Beach.”
Norman would never call ahead to let people know that he was headed to Florida after summering in Canada, but he would always show up at the same time on the same day of the week, every year.
“I would always see Moe on a Thursday at 1:00 pm in September, every year,” says Shankland. “He was always on time. He would just show up, unannounced.”
Norman’s disdain for conventional behavior was reflected in how he handled his money.
“Moe would show up every year, take a big wad of cash out of his pocket, and throw it in the air,” says Shankland, whose father was the great Australian golf professional and talented rugby league player Bill Shankland. “Before throwing the money in the air, he would ask me how much money I had made in the last year. Then, we’d spend an hour picking up his money off the ground.”
Norman’s car was a key part of his life. It was his own version of a mobile safety deposit box and a closet. And, when he drove the car, he never went more than 45 miles per hour.
|“In the trunk, he would store his clothes, money, golf balls and clubs.”
(Photo courtesy of Golf Canada)
“Moe kept everything in his car, especially in the trunk,” says Shankland, who was born and raised in Leeds, England, but moved to the U.S. in 1961. “In the trunk, he would store his clothes, money, golf balls and clubs.”
Shankland clearly recalls a specific comment by Norman, as it pertained to all the golf balls sent to him every year by Titleist.
“I don’t know why they send me all those balls because I only need one,” Shankland recalls Norman saying from time to time.
Norman was always touting his ability to consistently find the fairways, according to Shankland, O’Sullivan, Meyers, Jim Baliker, and David Baliker. Frankly, Norman could talk the talk and walk the walk. He was the real deal and he knew it.
With that kind of ability to consistently find fairways and greens, Shankland is confident that Norman probably would have won his fair share of golf’s major championships.
“With that swing, he would have won an endless amount of U.S. Opens,” reflects Shankland. “He could find fairways and greens. In the U.S. Open, pars are important.”
Norman’s efficient, repeatable swing was on display one day when a camera crew was filming him on the driving range at Ocean Palm.
“The cameraman counted 31 straight shots where Norman used the driver and never once did he hit or move the tee,” says Shankland. “After his 32nd shot, Moe had to adjust the tee just a little.”
When it came to equipment, Norman used golf clubs that nobody else was using.
“His clubs were heavy and his driver had only a five-degree loft,” says Shankland. “But, Moe could swing those clubs because he was very strong.”
Despite Norman’s prowess on the golf course, his way of doing things rubbed people the wrong way. Without a doubt, Norman was never politically correct and had no plans of ever being politically correct.
“On the Champions Tour, he wanted to wear shorts, he played too quickly, and his personality rubbed people the wrong way,” recalls Shankland. “Today, he would be very popular and well-received.”
Shankland often thinks of Norman. The last time that Shankland spoke with Norman on the telephone was two days before Norman died on September 4, 2004 – in the same city where he was born, Kitchener, Canada. Norman had every intention of returning to Florida for another winter of golf. He was planning to show up on a Thursday in September at 1:00 pm.
Shankland has fond memories of his Canadian sidekick.
“He was a great friend, a true friend,” notes Shankland. “Truly one of the greats of golf.”
Shankland once asked Norman what he wanted to be remembered for in life. Norman gave a carefree response, but he meant it.
“I’ll be walking off into the sunset with a big smile on my face knowing that I was the best ball-striker and no one could do what I did as well,” said Norman.
The YouTube video below shows Moe Norman demostrating his Master Move, Vertical Drop, Coin Drill. Golf swing instruction at its best.
Shankland once asked his Canadian friend what’s it like to be perfect.
Norman’s response was genuine and authentic.
“You’ll never know. I’m the only one that knows,” answered Norman.
“His world was a great place, all positive in spite of tough times,” concludes Shankland. “His car was his world. He drowned out the rest of the world by using the top of his Cadillac’s stereo volume.”
Of course, while going no faster than 45 miles per hour.
If Norman were alive today, the world of golf and the golf media would respectfully acknowledge his talent; his way of life would be understood and respected; global golf fans would definitely show their appreciation for his skill level, and he would be lauded as a global golf legend.
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