Moe's in the swing, his own way

March 15, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

NAPLES, Fla. -- Standing on the tee, ready to demonstrate an arsenal of shots, was one of the most talked-about names in the history of golf, although a stranger to the masses. Murray "Moe" Norman, somewhat anonymous and even mysterious, shouldn't need an introduction but he does. He grew up in Canada, still lives there and, except for rare appearances in this country, could be classified a missing person.

A certain celebrity status, in absentia, has come to him and continues to build. When professionals on the tour enumerate the standout strikers of the golf ball they mention such deities as Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan. And, oh yes, then there's "Moe" Norman, who does everything his own way with a swing that's contrary to all elementary precepts of execution.

What Norman -- no kin to Greg -- does with a golf ball can't begin to be duplicated. He has a half-swing, with the club never passing shoulder height, sets the clubhead from 7 to 22 inches behind the ball when he's addressing it and positions his left shoulder almost a half a foot higher than the right as he prepares to swing.

He generates length and incredible accuracy. A pro named Ken Veening said he once saw him hit six practice balls with a driver. Three of them wound up touching in the fairway, looking like mushrooms, and the others were in near proximity. Because of his almost unfailing direction, he's known as "Pipe Line Moe."

His achievements over the last 40 years include winning 25 major championships in Canada, setting 33 course records and three times coming in with official scores of 59. The Royal Canadian Golf Association finally has enshrined him in its Hall of Fame after a prolonged wait. The delay for the honor might best be explained by wondering if the prestigious selection committee ever tried to understand him.

There's reason to regret that his ability has been so late in being recognized. But Moe, although certainly not bitter, is extraordinarily different, a character in his own right. He says some astonishing things. Asked to name his favorite golf swing, he answers, "My own. A lot of people tried to change me, but I tell them let me see you swing and if you hit the ball better than I do then I'll change."

And about the highly accomplished Fred Couples, he says matter-of-factly, almost casually, "His swing is a piece of [junk]. What he has isn't a golf swing. And Corey Pavin, Tom Kite and Greg Norman can take their golf swings and shove them. Pathetic. Modern teaching is wrecking the game. A lot of good players are around, but none of them are good ball strikers."

He does admit the late George Knudson, a fellow Canadian, was something special with the swing and others conversant with global golf will agree. "I believe George smoked himself to death," says Moe. "Doctors told him to stop, but he kept lighting up. What a striker of the ball."

Of Scotch-Dutch ancestry, Moe went to high school in Kitchener, Ontario, later worked in a brewery and says he had "so many jobs that if you name it I've done it." His powering of the golf ball comes from a strength of action generated by his hands and arms. He goes on to explain it's the same motion as a carpenter hammering a nail.

He appears to be beset with some kind of a complex, but there's TTC no doubting his ability. The golf swing happens his way. It hasn't been modeled off something you've ever seen before. Instead of wrapping his right-hand fingers around the club he, instead, places it in the middle of his palm, again like holding a hammer.

Contacting the ball happens at the same place on the club with such consistent repetition that there's a circle worn into the facing. So far as Moe is concerned the toe of the club doesn't exist. The width of his stance spreads out as he moves from short irons to driver. And he can hit 500 practice balls and never dislodge or break a tee.

About money, which he has never had much of, he says, "I don't care about that. You can have money; it never meant that much to me. What's important is 40 million people talk about me every day."

We don't know if Moe ever took a survey but, when pressed, he held to the 40 million figure, mentioning it not once but twice, during an exhibition he staged at the Kensington Country Club.

The Acuchnet Co., manufacturers of the Titleist ball and Foot-Joy shoes, has out of the goodness of its heart agreed to pay him $5,000 a month for the rest of his life. Wally Uihlein, the chief executive officer, knew about Norman and decided his talents should be rewarded.

"That's not bad," he noted. "It's works out to about $90,000 Canadian." So Moe does have an interest in finances, but it's hard to visualize him staying up nights worrying about why he never cashed in to the extent of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and associated millionaires of the fairways.

He's an uncomplicated man, age 55, 210 pounds and 5 feet 7. His most important moment in golf he says was playing in the Masters as an amateur in 1956 and meeting Bobby Jones. "What a thrill that was," he says.

Norman says his "system is the same every time, just like the shot is coming out of a rifle barrel." Without contradiction, he's proof personified that there's more than one way to hit a golf ball. Moe could never be described as a picture to watch, the rumpled way he dresses or the unorthodox swing, but the in-flight results, in a word, are spectacular.

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