July 7, 2007

My Shot: Moe Norman

Weeks before passing away, Pipeline Moe, the straightest hitter who ever lived, offered a lasting testimonial to the game he loved.

The late Murray (Moe) Norman, photographed at Carlisle Golf Country Club near Toronto on Aug. 30, 2004.

The late Murray (Moe) Norman, photographed at Carlisle Golf Country Club near Toronto on Aug. 30, 2004.

Golf-swing genius

I'm good with numbers. Number of courses played: 434. Number of courses I can remember the exact hole yardages: 375. Age when I saw my first doctor: 68. Number of two-stroke penalties in one 11-year period: only one—I hit a drive that went out-of-bounds by two feet. Most balls hit in one day: 2,207. Total balls hit in my lifetime: About 5 million, not counting chips and putts.

I don't go to church, but I certainly pray a lot. Always have. One of my sisters was a nun, and when I was young my parents dragged me to church by the seat of my pants. God is real—He has to be, because no man could develop the talent I have on his own. I am the world's best ball-striker and teacher because it was His will. Why did He choose me to be the best who ever lived? I don't have the faintest idea. That's why there's a hereafter—so one day I can find out.

One day I met Dave Pelz, the short-game teacher. We were debating, and I told him I could drive the ball straighter than he could putt one. He looked at me funny, and I told him I was serious. "Let's put a post out in the fairway 250 yards away. You choose a hole to putt at from 80 feet away. We'll take turns, and I bet I'll hit the post before you hole a putt." Dave turned down the bet. Dave is going around telling this story, so you know it's true.

I hated putting, and so did George Knudson, another really good ball-striker on tour. We played against each other in many betting games where putting didn't count. If you missed a fairway, you owed the other guy $20. If you missed a green, you owed $20. If you hit the flagstick, you won $100. When we got to the green we just picked up our balls and went to the next hole. George was very good, but I got the best of him. My best day, I hit the flagstick six times.

One year I was leading the Saskatchewan Open by three strokes. I was putting for birdie on the last hole, but just to see if I could handle the pressure I deliberately putted my ball into the bunker. I looked at the side of the green and saw two guys with the blood drained from their faces. After I got up and down for a bogey to win by two strokes, I walked over and asked them what was the matter. "We had a huge bet on you to win," one of them said. "Sorry," I said. "I needed the variety."

Working on your swing is the greatest joy in golf. Tiger Woods must be having a wonderful time searching for that one little thing he's doing wrong. I wonder when he'll notice it—the way his right heel lifts straight off the ground now instead of coming up and toward his left. His weight shift is terrible right now, that's all. Don't tell him. It'll ruin his fun.

I'm 75 and I've never owned a telephone. Never needed one. You reached me, and here you are, right?

My given name is Murray. When I started out as a caddie, a guy started calling me Moe. Actually, he called me "Moe the Schmoe, the Pinochle Pro." It made no sense, but it stuck.

I'm good at tapping the ball on the face of my driver. One day a guy accused me of showing off, and then he wanted to make a bet. He said he'd give me a dollar for every bounce over 100. I got well over 100, and the guy's face turned white as a sheet. I was laughing so hard that I stopped at 192. I didn't have the heart to take more than that off him.

I hit so many balls I tend to build up a huge callus on the meaty part of my left hand. It gets so thick that from time to time I take a pair of scissors and cut it off. The edge of the callus gets very sharp—if I dragged it across your face I'd draw blood.

Speaking of calluses, the first time I saw Ben Hogan was at the Carling World Open at Oakland Hills. He was on the range, and all the players gathered to watch him. Hogan didn't notice because he was really concentrating, but when he finished he looked up and saw all the guys watching him. As he walked away he said, "I can see why you guys are no good—you've all got calluses on your asses."

I shot 59 three times. The best of them I shot playing with the future U.S. Amateur champion, Gary Cowan, at Rockway Golf Course [in Ontario] in 1957. It could have been lower if I hadn't three-putted the 10th hole. In fact I didn't putt all that well that day. I hit the ball close a lot, is all.

I just learned to putt a short time ago, and now I putt so well it would make you cry. It's the best part of my game, and that's saying a lot.

My childhood was very difficult. We were poor. Me and my brothers used bobby pins to hold our pants up, and we taped our shoes to hold them together. Our father was very strict. When I got a set of clubs together, he wouldn't let me bring them in the house. I knew if he got his hands on them he'd throw them out, so I kept them under the back porch, through a little hole where he couldn't get at them because he was fat. He was pleased when I started getting my name in the newspaper, but he never saw me hit a golf ball, even in our hometown when I became well known.

Even in my late teens and early 20s, when I got good enough to play in tournaments, I slept in bunkers and hitchhiked to get from one place to the next. Some of the golfers laughed like hell at me and teased me constantly—"Where you sleeping tonight, Moe?" Nobody came to my rescue until I was 26. I really resented that.

In the 1950s there was no money to be made playing professionally in Canada. I stayed an amateur, working as a pin-setter in a bowling alley all winter so I could play golf all summer. This was before they had machines that set the pins. That was hard work, but, boy, was I good at it. I was able to work four lanes at once because they played with five pins, not 10. I hopped from one lane to the next like a bumblebee. No one was faster or better than me.

In the 1980s and early '90s I went through another hard time. The Canadian tour lost its sponsor, and for a while I had to sleep in my car. Then I went to the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. I was at the Titleist booth when Mr. [Wally] Uihlein, the CEO, walked up to me. "I see you're still wearing our visor and wear our FootJoy shoes," he said. "You've played our ball for 40 years. Has anyone done anything for you?" I told him nobody had done anything, and that I'd never asked. Mr. Uihlein said, "Give me your hand." He gave me a handshake and said, "You're going to get $5,000 a month from us for the rest of your life." That was a big help. Between that and the start of the Natural Golf teaching program, I opened my first bank account.

When money was dear, I'd play with the same ball until it wore out. A balata-covered wound ball had exactly five rounds in it before it got knocked out of round or got too soft. Then it was time to search the bushes for lost balls and root out a new one.

I never got married. In fact, I went on only three dates. If I'd gotten married, it wouldn't have been fair to a wife because of my life as a golfer. I'd wind up divorced, and then she'd get everything. I think that's how it works, judging by what's happened to some friends of mine. I'm very happy being alone.

What would I do if I won the lottery and $20 million? Give it away, probably to one of my relatives, even though they never cared enough about me to come and watch me play golf.

I don't like these super-long par 3s where average golfers need a wood to reach them. They're terrible—you hit 15 or more wood shots on the other holes already; that's enough. On the other hand, I don't like par 4s where guys hit irons off the tee. What are these architects thinking about? They're designing courses upside down. They think they're smart, but they're just the opposite.

Backing the ball up on the green may look impressive, but it's no way to play golf, because you can't control it. Every shot you hit should bounce forward after it lands. If the flagstick is just over a bunker, you get it close by hitting the ball higher, not by backing it up. With these 60-degree wedges, hitting it high is easy.

I don't understand why anyone would go to the gym to get in shape to play golf. If you hit 600 balls a day, walk a lot and watch your diet, you'll get in shape. I don't think Sam Snead ever went to the gym, and nobody today is in better shape than he was. Hitting balls is the best workout there is.

I don't believe in taking much of a divot, especially with the longer irons. You want to barely comb the grass through impact, as though you were hitting a ball off the top of somebody's crew cut. It's the only way to catch the ball on the second groove up from the bottom of the clubface. That's where you want to make contact—on the second groove.

I never saw a doctor until I was 68. It's because I never felt sick. Never had a headache, earache or toothache, and never had a cold. Then one day I had a heart attack. Now I see the doctor every day. All he did was make me give up all the foods I like, meaning liver and onions, hamburgers, hot dogs, chocolate and barbecue potato chips, all that stuff. He made me switch from regular Coke—I drank 15 cans a day on average—to caffeine-free Diet Coke. I've lost 45 pounds, gone from a 42-inch waist to 37. But I sure miss that food.

I was in the clubhouse at Rockway Golf Course, and I overheard a kid telling another kid that he'd left his wedge at another course and that no one had turned it in. I went to my car and got him one, and he was so happy he jumped all over me. I do this often, especially with kids you can tell are a bit poor and don't get these things from their parents. Very often they start crying, they're so happy.

Crouching down to read a putt is a waste of time. So is plumb-bobbing. You can see all you need standing behind the ball and can feel the slope through your feet when you stand over the ball.

Going through the ball, I feel my right hand is a claw. No hinging of my right wrist at all. I just gather the ball up. No supination or pronation. On the follow-through I shake hands with the flagstick.

Don't hold the club lightly. That's a mistake, because you'll get too wristy. Hold it firmly. You won't hit the ball quite as far, but you'll hit it straighter, which is what this game is about.

If I had a bunch of juniors, I'd teach them to play from the green backward. Short shots first, with emphasis on how to meet the ball solidly. I'd make them touch the green, then walk backward to the tee and touch the tee, and explain why holes are designed the way they are. Then I'd teach them why everything works—why a putter has so little loft, why the sand wedge is thicker on the bottom than a pitching wedge, and why woods are larger than irons. Those things mean something. Then I'd help them feel the game. Whisper when they hit a ball solid, "Did you feel that? That's what you want." After a time—there's no hurry—I'd finally help them learn the game. That's the technical part. That comes last.

I hit so many balls I wore out three sets of irons. I'd wear the grooves down to nothing and then go even farther, so there was a concave area the size of a dime on the sweet spot. Eventually the ball would start to fly a little crooked from catching the sides of that pockmark, and the clubs became illegal because the faces weren't flat.

George Knudson loved to see 2s on his scorecard because they don't add up very fast. It wasn't unusual for George to score eight 2s during the course of a tournament. It wasn't a bad strategy. He was a good fairway-wood player, so he birdied a lot of par 5s, and that combined with his performance on the par 3s made him very competitive.

The heavier the clubs the better. The swingweight on all my clubs is E-3, and my driver weighs 16 ounces. To get them that heavy, I put lead tape under the grips and on the clubhead. I don't like light clubs. They feel like matchsticks to me and tend to wave all over the place when you swing them. Speed is important, but so is mass.

Try smarter, not harder.

Don't change your game for one course. If you visit a course with lots of elevated greens and you tend to hit the ball low, don't make a radical change trying to hit the ball high. It'll wreck your game for a week, at least. Play the game you have, accept whatever score you shoot and move on. There are lots of courses out there, and the one with too many elevated greens isn't a good one. Don't let it goad you into changing.

It's amazing, the money these guys make playing the PGA Tour. It's good for them but bad for the fans, because the players don't need to play very often. They've got a lot, and they know most of the rest is going to the government anyway, so what's the use?

Would I do everything the same way? No. I'd find out more about what the game's about. Why does a ball fly differently out of wet grass than dry grass? Why doesn't the ball fly as far off a downhill lie than a level lie?

To help me relax in the car, I listen to Tony Robbins CDs. I love the self-help stuff. My, what a head Tony Robbins has on his shoulders. He's a huge fan of my Natural Golf method. Maybe he'll let me go to one of his seminars.

Of today's players, I like Vijay Singh the best. I watch him and see how well he gets along with himself. He's not afraid to say what he believes. Of the women, Annika is the best, and for the same reason: She's at ease with herself. Watch her when she makes a bogey. She forgets it and goes to the next hole. She knows she's capable of birdieing the next hole.

Hold the club in the palms, not the fingers. How do tennis players hold a tennis racket? In the palm. How do you hold a baseball bat? In the palms. Everyday items—an ax, a hammer—are held in the palms. They're the most sensitive parts of your body. Why would you want to hold a golf club in your fingers? It'll move all over the place!

At the LaBatt Open in 1955, I finished as second-low amateur. I always tried to give the people a show, teeing my ball on Coca-Cola bottles, that sort of thing. When the tournament was over, Conn Smythe, the famous owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, approached me. "What are you doing this winter?" he asked. "Going back to setting my pins," I said. "Well, I like a guy who has color," Mr. Smythe said. "You're too good to be setting pins." Mr. Smythe gave me $5,000 and sent me to Florida. He let me stay in his place at The Breakers.

At the 1956 Masters, I was on the practice range when Sam Snead came over. He gave me a 40-minute lesson, telling me to hit my irons like a fairway wood, meaning to sweep it instead of hitting down on it. I was in awe, and like a dumbbell proceeded to hit 800 balls. My right thumb swelled up so big I couldn't hit a ball without terrible pain. I played nine holes and quit. That was the last lesson I took, let me tell you.

I was getting ready to represent Canada in the 1956 Americas Cup in Mexico. I had my team jacket, got my inoculations, had my airline tickets. I was excited. I was the Canadian Amateur champion two years running, and I'd be playing against Harvie Ward, the U.S. Amateur champion two years running. Four days before I'm to leave, the Royal Canadian Golf Association convenes in a special meeting. From that, I received a letter telling me I wasn't a true amateur, and to please return the jacket and airline tickets. I returned them. I wasn't an amateur by their definition, and I sure wasn't a pro. Where could I play golf?

In Canada, they like to keep people down. It's true. They can't stand seeing someone become successful, especially if they once were ahead of you. It eats at them, galls them more than they can stand. Canadians go out of their minds with jealousy and will do everything they can to drag you down.

Your mind is the generator, your body is the motor. The club is the trigger and the ball is a bullet. Take aim and fire!

With a titanium driver I'm hitting it farther now than when I was 35, and that's the truth. It doesn't satisfy me, it bothers me. Do I want to hit the ball farther when I'm 100 than I do now? No, it wouldn't be right. All anyone cares about is hitting it farther—even with the irons. Hitting the ball pure and accurate is more rewarding than hitting it far. Don't forget that, ever.

I've had my fill of competition and dislike traveling. But my game is holding up nicely. You know that show on The Golf Channel called "The Big Break"? I'd win that easily.

Sometimes you need 10 more yards out of a drive. There's only one proper way to do that, and it's turning your shoulders more. It's the only way to keep your rhythm. Every other method—swinging faster or with more effort, changing your ball position or anything else—will cost you accuracy. It has to. Otherwise, you'd swing that way every time.

I put 35,000 miles a year on my Cadillac.That's a lot because I drive slowly, never faster than 60 miles per hour. Why? I'm never in a hurry to get anywhere, and I get nervous driving any faster. I've gotten three tickets for driving too slowly, the last for going 35 in a 50 mile-per-hour zone. The policeman also gave me a lecture, but like I told him, nobody is going to get me out of my comfort zone.

If you get nervous or afraid in tournaments or playing in front of other people, it's because you place too much value on it. You think the competition is more important than it really is. If you stand on the tee and feel like you're about to cross Niagara Falls on a high wire with no safety net, there's no way you'll have enough trust in yourself to pull it off. They say the only way to master that is through experience, and it's true, but all that means is getting to know yourself better. The better you get to know yourself, the more you'll like and trust that person inside. I won a lot of tournaments because I get along with myself real well.

To devalue the importance of competition, I count my money. It's not a bad idea to do it before you get out of your car to play golf. Make sure you have plenty in your pocket—I've carried $6,000 in cash just for this purpose—take it out and count all the bills. A round of golf isn't important when I've got $6,000 in my pocket? Hah!