- Alistair Tait
The feeling of greatness
Golf aficionados don’t flock to Rockway Golf Club in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. No great championships have been held on this short, well-maintained, muni-course with a busy road cutting through part of it.
Rockway has a small place in golf’s illustrious past. It’s home to the most unique man who ever tried to guide a small, mostly malignant sphere around green and pleasant places.
Rockway is where Moe Norman learned to become the straightest hitter of a golf ball that ever lived. Moe’s story, which former South African tour pro Dale Hayes briefly recounted recently on social media, is one I know well, but one I wish I’d stumbled upon much earlier.
I spent my formative years in Kitchener after my family emigrated from Scotland and settled in this Germanic town. Rockway played an important role in my golf education. The one gap in that education was my failure to enquire about the eccentric little man who hung around the club.
Murray Irwin Norman was born in Kitchener in 1929. At age five he was injured in a sledging accident when his sledge ran into a car and he was dragged for 100 yards. Norman was never treated for the injury, and the theory is he developed Asperger’s or possibly autism as a result.
Incredibly shy and introverted, Norman found solace in golf. Quite simply, he hit thousands of balls, developing a unique swing that made him the straightest hitter of a golf ball that ever lived.
Moe’s modus operandi was to address the ball with the club head far behind the ball. He stood rigid and far from the ball with a wide stance, his left arm ramrod straight. He gripped the club with his right hand very much under the shaft, at odds with the left hand. Then he would swing straight back and straight through with a short swing. One quick look at the target was all that was required before Moe would take the club back and fire, with the ball flying dead straight to the target. He wasn’t called “Pipeline Moe” for nothing.
I recall seeing Moe at Rockway, remember wondering why anyone would wear a long sleeve turtleneck in the middle of August when the temperature was pushing the 100-degree mark and the humidity was off the scale. I wondered why this little man with close cropped hair and bad teeth wore trousers that seemed to be four inches too short.
I remember looking over at the Rockway practice ground during one round and seeing this little man ferociously ripping balls with the weirdest swing I’d ever seen. I wish now I’d quit my round and wandered over just to watch him hit balls.
I only realised it was Moe when I moved to England and started working for Golf Monthly magazine. I opened the mail one day and sat back to read Lorne Rubenstein’s feature. It was a compelling tale about the straightest hitter in golf: Murray Irwin “Moe” Norman.
Visions of the little man at Rockway came flooding back. Imagine my sadness when I realised I’d been in the presence of greatness and didn’t know it.
And it was greatness, albeit not the kind we associate with Tiger Woods, or Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, Harry Vardon or other established greats.
Moe hit the golf ball straighter than any of the greats. Ask Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead, Nick Price, Nick Faldo, Ben Crenshaw, Fred Couples or Vijay Singh or anyone else who saw Moe hit balls. Year after year at the Canadian Open, players would drag Moe onto the practice ground to watch him hit balls.
Tales of Norman’s ball hitting prowess are legendary. He’s the guy who often played par-4s backwards: hitting a 7-iron off the tee and then driver into the green.
Moe spent his summers in Canada before heading to Florida for the winter. Paul Azinger first witnessed Norman in his first year at Brevard Junior College in Florida. A short, elderly man stepped onto the range as Azinger and his team mates where practising and Brevard coach John Redman announced:
“Boys, here comes the best ball striker that ever lived.”
Azinger was mesmerised.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Azinger recalled. “I’ve hit balls for a couple of hours, it’s a hundred degrees, and here comes this guy in a long-sleeve turtleneck. I watched him hit drivers at the 250-yard sign and he never hit one more than ten yards left or right of the marker.”
Canadian club professional Paul Dellanzo once worked at a driving range North of Toronto that had a nine-hole course. Moe would sometimes drop in and drag Dellanzo out to play.
“In the summer, the greens would get as hard as concrete,” Dellanzo said. “It was almost impossible to get the ball to stay on a green, but Moe could do it. He said to me once ‘do you want to see the ball bounce twice on the green and stop?’
“So he hits this iron shot and sure enough it bounces twice and comes to a complete rest. Then he says, ‘do you want to see it bounce once and then stop?’ So he drops another ball and does exactly that. He was phenomenal. I’ve never seen anyone hit a golf ball the way he did.”
My favourite Moe story is the time he allegedly played a practice round with Sam Snead for a PGA Tour event. I say “allegedly” because I’ve never had it confirmed that Snead was indeed the tour pro in question. However, there’s a good chance of that since Snead saw something of himself in Moe – a player from a poor background trying to make it among more fortunate country club types – and took Moe under his wing when the Canadian tried to play the PGA Tour.
Snead and Moe came to a par-5 with a stream across the fairway and Moe pulled out driver.
“Don’t think you’ll be able to carry the stream today,” Snead said, “hole’s playing into the wind.”
“I’m not going to carry the stream,” Moe replied. “I’m going to run the ball across the bridge.”
Snead watched as Moe’s ball landed on the fairway short of a small bridge across the stream, and then ran across the bridge to the other side.
“I can’t believe you did that, Moe,” Snead said as they walked down the fairway.
Moe pulled a golf ball from his bag and rolled it across the bridge.
“Why Sam? See, it fits, it fits.”
Norman’s best finish on the PGA Tour was fourth place in the Greater New Orleans Open, but he quit the tour because he felt inferior to the big-name Americans.
“I didn’t feel at home there,” Norman said. “I felt they were superior to me, that they were gods, that I was their servant.
“I had no money, they got money. I’m trying to make enough to go to the next tournament, they’re leaving five dollar tips.”
Moe won dozens of amateur events in Canada, including the 1955 and 1956 Canadian Amateur Championships. He won 13 Canadian Tour events and represented Canada in the 1971 World Cup. He won the Canadian Senior title seven times. He broke so many course records it’s hard to count them.
Watching Moe hit balls is one of my greatest golf experiences, and I’ve been fortunate to have had many great golf experiences. In 2000, four years before his death, Moe conducted a clinic at Falcon’s Fire Golf Club in Orlando, Florida. Aged 70, he must have hit over 300 balls and not one veered from a straight line.
After nearly every shot, he would say:
“The feeling of greatness. The feeling of greatness.”
Near the end of the clinic he lined up eight balls perpendicular to the ball to target line. He took out a 4-iron. He then proceeded to hit each ball with the 4-iron, changing the trajectory of each ball as he did so, altering the club face loft so it became 5-iron loft, then 6-iron loft and so on until the last ball flew through the air like it had come off a sand wedge. He hit all eight balls in rapid fire, never changing his grip or ball position. He would swing, hit, step closer to the next ball and swing, hit, dispatching the eight balls down the fairway in about 12 seconds. All he was doing was changing the club face loft at impact. His club face control was almost beyond belief.
The Moe Norman Historical Room at Rockway isn’t the greatest of golf shrines. There isn’t much to see in this small room. A few photos of Moe, a couple of his old clubs, the scorecard of his 59 at Rockway in July 1957, and that’s your lot.
It doesn’t seem a fitting tribute to Moe’s life. Maybe it is considering he didn’t like the limelight. Maybe a quiet place for average golfers to enjoy a bite to eat, a room named after him, is the way Moe would have preferred it.
I highly recommend two books: The Feeling of Greatness (pictured) by Tim O’Connor and Moe and Me by Lorne Rubenstein. You’ll find plenty of Moe videos on You Tube. I like these two in particular. Well worth a watch during this lockdown.