Producer Barry Morrow on retrospective insights into Moe Norman's “hidden” gift: the ability to land a golf ball precisely where he wanted it to land
Moe Norman's memorial marker at Memory Gardens, Ontario, Canada.
For decades, speculation over what was wrong with Moe Norman has been a topic of idle conversation. And by “wrong,” I’m not referring to Moe’s game, I mean his brain.
At the heyday of his mercurial career, Moe was largely regarded (and dismissed) as Canada’s “Golf’s Clown.” He was known to be, at turns, fun-loving or petulant, chatty or tight-lipped, a public show-off or a secretive recluse. He was perhaps all of those things. But he was no clown.
When the superb golf writer David Owen made Moe Norman famous throughout the golfing world with his comprehensive story on Moe in a 1995 issue of Golf Digest, a new kind of empathy began to emerge around Moe and his struggles inside and beyond the ropes. Owen’s instincts and sympathetic pen opened new ways to look at golf’s “troubled genius,” and critics began to fade into the shadows as others attempted to understand Moe more than fault him.
Audrey Maue, along with her golf professional husband, Gus, were among those who knew Moe best. Lifelong friends and more, they became Moe’s surrogate family when he needed one most. In Owen’s article, Audrey recalled the time she and Gus went to see the movie Rain Man, then came home wrestling with new thoughts.
"Rain Man" won four Academy Awards in 1989, including Best Picture (Mark Johnson) and Best Writing (Barry Morrow). Photo from IMDB
“It just seemed like a light was turned on. I had always known that Moe was different, and I had known a little about autism, but I had never thought about it in connection with Moe. I don’t know that he’s ever seen a doctor, about that or anything else, but everyone who knows him who saw the movie felt the very same way.”
At the time, so did this writer. In 1988, I had been inspired to write the movie Rain Man after befriending a middle-aged fellow, a “prodigious savant,” named Kim Peek. Kim had any number of autistic-like mannerisms or traits, like repeating words (echolalia), avoiding eye contact, long silences while staring into space, inappropriate social interactions, emotional outbursts, and the like—all common mannerisms of being, in today’s parlance, “on the spectrum.” To me, most of that seemed to match the Moe that Audrey Maue was talking about—“The Rain Man of Golf.”
Of course, the impressions movie-goers took from Rain Man came to them not from Kim, but through Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant. And, as Moe’s friends could see, there were any number of similarities between that fictional character and the Moe they knew, not to mention the Kim they did not. There is one wrinkle, though. Kim Peek was not autistic. And neither was Moe. They were variations of a condition known as Acquired Savant Syndrome.
Can I say this with certainty? Nope. Before having a life-threatening car accident toward the end of his life, Moe had only once been seen by one doctor—at his birth. Never did Moe undergo any sort of psychological evaluation, hence no diagnosis, nor am I aware of any findings upon his death, if indeed there was an inquiry.
True to form, Moe took his secrets with him.
As a team of NASA doctors (and other medical experts) concluded after doing extensive research into the neurological workings of Kim Peek’s brain, he was essentially a “one-off,” a fascinating, if baffling, exception to the rest of us. As one lab-coated scientist confided to me, Kim’s brain was constructed like no other; his brain processes and massive memory were a true medical marvel. Kim, this scientist concluded, was likely “unique in all of human creation.”
So what about Moe? Well, I’m no doctor, but the late Darold Treffert was. As a psychiatrist and world-renowned expert on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Savant Syndrome, he was also the medical consultant for Rain Man, and consequently my friend. Several years ago, but still long after Moe’s death, I asked Dr. Treffert to render an opinion—was Moe autistic?
Dr. Darold Treffert (left) was interviewed by Producer Barry Morrow (middle) for the Moe Norman documentary at The Treffert Center in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. To learn more about Treffert's legacy, click here.
I sent Darold everything I had on Moe, including interviews, newspaper articles, videos from Graves Golf's library, Tim O’Connor’s seminal biography of Moe, and personal accounts from Moe’s siblings that I had gathered during my research for a (still-to-be-realized) Moe movie.
After weighing things over several months, Dr. Treffert called to say that, with a “high level of certainty,” he believed that Moe was indeed a savant, but not autistic.
More precisely, Moe was an “Acquired Savant,” meaning his neurological condition stemmed not from congenital origins, but later, from an injury to his brain. There are any number of ways in which a brain can be injured, but when savant traits emerge as a result, they are deemed to be “acquired.”
The key to solving the mystery of Moe, Treffert said, lay in an old, two-inch newspaper report of a sledding incident in which 5-year-old Moe suffered severe injuries to the left frontal portion of his head. From that point on, according to the anecdotal recollections of family members, Moe was “different.” He withdrew from the world and became a loner, finding his refuge in mathematics, card playing, and sports, especially in golf, which he pursued with rabid obsession. All the quirks that Moe is known for today emerged post-accident, along with a phenomenal memory and one very rare “hidden” gift that he, perhaps, alone possessed: the ability to land a golf ball precisely where he wanted it to land.
What made Moe particularly fascinating to Dr. Treffert was the fact that those remarkable gifts typically displayed by persons with Acquired Savant Syndrome fall into categories that are either “quantitative” (numbers, facts, etc,) or “creative” (artistic, musical, etc.). With rare exception, according to Treffert, do such talents manifest in competitive, athletic, hand-eye coordination activities like golf.
Moe Norman performs a balancing act with a golf club and ball at a tournament in Quebec.
When it came to golf, indeed all aspects of his life, Moe was destined for that road less traveled. He was a golfer the likes of which the golfing world had never before or since seen, and he did it “his way” because that was the only road open to him. Like the late Kim Peek, and maybe a little like you and me, he was unique in all of human creation.
Producer, Director, and Oscar & Emmy-winning Screenwriter Barry Morrow leads the production team of the Moe Norman feature-length documentary.