By Tim O’Connor
While most of his amateur competitors thought it was a big joke, the job didn’t faze Moe one bit. He needed money so he could play tournaments in the summer and finance the up-coming trip to his first-ever Masters.
Moe said he was “shaking like a leaf” when he received his Masters invitation, signed by Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. So were members of the Royal Canadian Golf Association. They were afraid something bizarre would happen when Norman got to Augusta—and they were right.
Today, people probably would say Norman had Asperger’s syndrome—he was often compared to the Dustin Hoffman character in the film Rain Man—due to his odd ways and savant-like character. He spoke in a high-pitched, sing-song voice; repeated himself—“miss ’em quick, miss ’em quick”; was excruciatingly shy; a social misfit; and had snaggled teeth that resembled a jack-o’-lantern.
He also had a photographic memory, was a whiz at math, and wore mismatched clothes often in need of a washing. “He wore a montage of colors that had no relevancy to each other,” said Irv Lightstone, a close friend of Norman’s who was head professional at Maple Downs GC in Toronto for 45 years.
Norman’s eccentricities drove Canadian golf authorities crazy: He often failed to show for trophy presentations, would sell the first-place prize before the tournament started, and lie down in fairways to protest slow play.
But he also had an otherworldly ability to hit golf balls with amazing precision and consistency, using a homemade swing that defied every sacred tenet of instruction: He started with his arms and legs ramrod straight and the club about two feet behind the ball (see below).
In the two months before the ’56 Masters, Norman toured the southeastern U.S. with Lightstone and Ken Jacobs, another hotshot amateur from Toronto. They competed in top amateur tournaments against the best Americans, including Bill Campbell and Billy Joe Patton.
When Moe finally got to Augusta National, he found it hard to believe he was in a field of the world’s best—players such as Hogan, Snead, Demaret, Sarazen, Ouimet. “I played 45 holes a day,” Norman said. “I was running around there. You don’t get this chance every day.”
There are a number of stories about Norman at the Masters that have become part of the folklore surrounding him. One tale has an outraged Clifford Roberts, the stern Masters chairman, chasing after Moe in the first practice round thundering that he must take a caddie. Norman and Lightstone said it never happened and that Augusta members provided Moe with a caddie for the week at no cost.
It was reported that Moe slept on benches or in Augusta National’s bunkers, but Lightstone said Moe bunked in the Crow’s Nest, the small dormitory on the top floor of the clubhouse, with the other amateurs.
During the first round, Norman “pured” the ball but he couldn’t handle the undulating greens, three-putting six times and settling for a 75. Friday’s round was another horror show on the greens, leading to a 78. After two rounds, he was 18 shots behind leader Ken Venturi. But there was no cut back then, so Moe set off for the range.
He caught the eye of Sam Snead, who, as John Updike wrote, swaggered around the range “like the sheriff of golf county.” Moe said Snead watched him for a while then offered some advice: “You’re coming down way too steep on the ball with your long irons. The secret to hitting a long iron is to hit them like fairway woods. Don’t hit down or try to force it. Hit it like a nice 3-wood. Sweep it.”
Lightstone watched Snead talk to Moe then walked away to catch some action on the course. When Lightstone returned to the range about four hours later, it was dark but Moe was still hitting balls. “His hands looked like they hurt.”
He was flabbergasted at Moe’s overzealous reaction to Snead’s tip. Moe had been hitting the ball beautifully but had lost confidence in his unique swing. “This quest for excellence he had,” Lightstone said. “Golf was all he had in his life, nothing else… In those days, Moe did things that were totally irrational and off the world.”
The next morning, Norman’s hands were blistered, red, and raw. They looked “like hamburger,” Lightstone said, the left thumb split open, the pain at impact excruciating.
In the third round, Norman was paired with veteran Vic Ghezzi, the 1941 PGA champion. But after putting out on the 9th hole, Moe withdrew. “I can’t go on,” Moe told Lightstone, his face contorted in anguish. “I can’t hold the club.”
According to Lightstone, Ghezzi shook his head and said, “This is the Masters. You play on one leg if you have to.”
When word of Norman’s WD made it up north, members of Canada’s golf establishment shook their heads with “I-told-you-so” smugness. When, a few years later, Augusta National stopped extending an invitation to the Canadian Amateur champion, some said Norman’s behavior in 1956 was the major reason.
It wasn’t true. Norman was invited to the 1957 Masters but missed the cut. And according to Kathryn Murphy, executive secretary to the Masters in the early ‘90s, invitations to the Canadian PGA and Canadian Amateur champions, as well as other foreign players, were discontinued because Augusta National was under pressure to make more room for PGA Tour pros in the limited-field event.
But like so much else about Moe Norman, the mistruths live on, as much a part of his legend as his extraordinary accomplishments.
Moe Norman died in 2004 at age 75, having won at least 55 Canadian Tour and other titles, twice winning the Canadian PGA Championship, the Canadian PGA Seniors Championship nine times, and setting at least 33 course records. Irv Lightstone died this past March at age 80.
Excerpted from The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story by Tim O’Connor. He is working on a book, with Todd Graves of the Graves Golf Academy, on Moe’s swing and approach to golf.
Photographs courtesy Golf Canada Archives and Graves Golf Academy