How I Met Moe
Tim O'Connor remembers his fascinating first round of golf with Moe Norman
Tim O'Connor has written a biography of Moe Norman
When my biography of Moe Norman was first published in 1995, one of the most common questions that I was asked was: ‘How did you meet Moe?’
The subtext to their question was: ‘How did you gain his trust?’ The people asking the question knew that Moe disliked strangers. More accurately, he was deathly afraid of encounters with people that he didn’t know. And didn’t trust. That included journalists. Earlier in his career, Moe felt reporters had ridiculed him and made him look foolish by calling him a “golf clown” or “Moe the schmo.”
So questioners were curious how a writer who didn’t know Moe developed a relationship that would lead to writing a book on his life?
My answer starts by noting Canadian golf professional Mark Evershed and a friend of Moe’s. As a golf writer, I had gotten to know Mark—a character in his own right and respected instructor—with whom I had many discussions about Moe.
One day, I casually mentioned Moe to the editor of a magazine that I had done some work with. We talked about Moe’s reputation among hard-core golfers around the world, but that he was not in the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame and that he appeared headed into his old age in poverty.
The conversation ended with: “Fantastic story. We’ll put him on the cover of our April issue.”
Moe Norman was featured in a 1995 issue of Golf Digest magazine
There was one problem. I had never met Moe. Mark was excited about the news, but he warned me that Moe would have to agree to meet with me. Mark said he’d put in a good word for me, saying that I was good guy and that I was a golf writer, who understood the game, and that the article would be positive.
Mark called me a few days later to report that—surprisingly—Moe had agreed to meet me, and even play together. It required me to travel to Florida where Norman hung out every winter. I got myself down to Royal Oak Golf Club in Titusville near Cape Canaveral on the eastern side of Florida.
After greeting me in the parking lot, Evershed brought me over to the patio outside the clubhouse. Moe was sitting in a green plastic lawn chair with a book in his lap. He was wearing a dark blue long-sleeve turtleneck and black dress pants with a crisp crease and cuffs. Mark gently introduced me and we shook hands. His large meaty right hand felt like sandpaper.
Friend of Moe Norman's & Canadian Golf Instructor Mark Evershed tells Moe stories while being interviewed by Producer Barry Morrow
(Without Mark, this would not have happened. For someone from outside Norman’s circle to meet him requires some inside convincing him that the person is all right. I am so grateful for Mark’s kindness.)
Mark started the conversation by describing to Moe the article that I planned to write. Moe didn’t bother with pleasantries such as asking about my flight. He got right to it.
"I'm the best striker of the ball the world has ever known," he said matter-of-factly. "That's not me saying it. Ask all the pro's who's the best. Not the best player, the best striker of the ball. Ben Hogan and I are in a different world that doesn't exist for anyone else for hitting it pure—dead straight, every time."
I was blindsided. Stymied. I honestly didn’t know how to follow that. I thought to ask, ‘If you were so damn good, how come you didn’t play on the PGA Tour?’ But that would have been rude, and I feared offending him. I already knew the answer anyway.
I fumbled around with a few other questions, but I was completely tongue-tied and awkward. I was an experienced reporter, but I had never met anyone so forthright and blunt. I was deathly afraid of offending him.
Seeking a way out, I said we could talk more when we played. We arranged to meet on the first tee in half an hour.
Mark and I met on the first tee. It was a few minutes before our tee time, and no Moe. I was starting to feel disappointed. Before I flew to Florida, Mark warned me that he might not show.
Just then Moe appeared, striding up on the tee, said "Hi guys," and in what appeared to be one continuous motion, he extracted a driver from his bag, poked a tee in the ground and bashed the ball. It surged into the sky like a rifle shot and floated down on the other side of a palm tree beside a lake on the dogleg right.
It looked like he put his drive in the water. ‘That wasn't so great,’ I thought. The ball had just disappeared over the tree when he launched another—over the same tree. Hell, over the same palm on the same branch.
As I hustled awkwardly down the fairway trying to keep up with him like a kid brother, I noticed his turtleneck hugged a powerful chest and a thick linebacker's neck, the back of which was crisscrossed by deep lines. His wide jaw was a mixture of sunburned crimson and brown skin, some peeling off in little hunks.
His teeth were snaggled and sore looking. His grey hair was clipped short at the sides, but longer untamed tufts stick out in various directions on top. In his mid-60s, he looked fit enough to give a Florida gator a good wrestle.
Moe Norman poses during a photoshoot in the mid-1990s—when renewed interest among golf media made him more widely known in the United States
When we get to his golf balls, they were about four feet from each other, and about six feet from the water. Then it occurred to me—he aimed for this spot. He took the shortest route to the hole by playing as close to the water as possible.
He reached out and placed his wedge about 12 inches behind one ball and swung. The ball arced in the air and landed softly six feet from the flag. He hit the other ball. Four feet.
On the second hole, an uphill par-three, his 3-iron streaks toward the flag, but inexplicably falls about 30 feet short. "He needs glasses, but I can't get him to go get his eyes checked," Mark says to me in a whisper.
“This is amazing!” I exclaim to Mark.
“Incredible, huh?” he says.
At the 220-yard fifth hole, another par three, he lashes a four-wood. From the clubface, the ball is locked on to the flag and lances into the green within two inches of the hole. "Ooh, missed again, missed again. Tap-in two, tap-in two. Almost unplayable lie on the green," he says in a light sing-songy voice like Pooh Bear.
As we walk to the green, he spreads his arms and laments:
"I hit it close every time and I get nothing. Freddie Couples can't hit it this good and he gets $200,000."
The joy that I'd felt for the last hour was gone. Pop. Like a balloon pricked by a pin. I was suddenly melancholy, watching him walk up to his ball, stoop over and picked it up. As we walked to the next tee in silence, Moe bounced the ball off his putter. It seemed like a compulsion, something to keep his mind occupied. Perhaps to keep sad thoughts away.
My story was published, and I went on to write a number of other articles, columns and narrated a radio documentary on Moe. Writer Lorne Rubenstein said I had become the ‘Moe maven,’ which is probably why Jim Bradley, whose company distributed golf videos, engaged me in 1994 to write Moe’s biography.
Fortunately, with a large measure of help from Mark, I gained Moe’s trust from the beginning, and I began to meet him a couple times a week to chat.
I’m not a confrontational person, and I’m empathetic and compassionate, which is why I probably ended up as a golf and life coach. I rationalize that I was “too nice” to be a mainstream journalist. With Moe, I strategically saved all my difficult questions about his family, autism and the like until I was almost finished my research.
The book, called The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story, came out in early 1996. I was gratified that people enjoyed the book, especially friends and big fans of Moe, most of whom were understandably curious: ‘How did you get to know Moe Norman?’
Excerpted from The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story by Tim O’Connor.
To book Tim for his webinar "The Feeling of Greatness: More Stories About Golf’s Eccentric Genius," email firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s 45 minutes of heart-warming anecdotes, bittersweet tales and insights about one of golf’s greatest legends.