Book review: The 'Rainman' of golf

When Moe Norman would show up on Tuesday afternoons at the practice range of Canadian Open week, the PGA Tour pros would gather around and watch him. They might be the world’s best players, but they knew they were watching the world’s best ballstriker.

Moe Norman, 1929-2004, was a strange, elfin, legendary figure who treaded the backwaters of North American golf because he was too shy and too self-conscious to pursue it head on. He lived out a sad, shabby, itinerant existence, often sleeping in his car. He looked like he hadn’t been to a dentist in decades and sported worn-out clothes and split-open golf shoes. But when he put a golf club into the big muscles of his anvil-like hands, he hit powerful shots that flew dead straight and landed soft.

In the hands of veteran Canadian golf scribe Lorne Rubenstein, Norman’s life comes to the fore with respect and admiration. The book is part memoir, part biography – a literary genre best thought of as “in search of.” There’s a central mystery to Norman’s life that Rubenstein seeks to explain but ultimately cannot. Was Norman’s ballstriking genius the product of a kind of Asberger syndrome? Did a car accident at age 5 affect

Norman’s brain in some perverse way that he became obsessive in his behavior? Or was he simply on to something special with a swing that started with the club a foot behind the ball?

Having won everything on the Canadian amateur circuit in the 1950s, Norman briefly tried his hand on the U.S. pro tour, but hated playing alongside pros who made no secret of their disdain for his looks and demeanor. The second of his two unsuccessful attempts at the Masters – having qualified as a winner of the Canadian Amateur – ended poorly in 1957 when he turned his hands into a blistered pulp by hitting 800 practice balls after the second round in an effort to try out something that Sam Snead had suggested to him.

Ultimately, Norman eked out an existence teaching at a Toronto-area practice range, playing the occasional tournament or exhibition, or relying upon the largesse of his many admirers. He became the model

for the development of a swing school called Natural Golf, and for the last decade of his life benefited from a $5,000-a-month stipend that Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein arranged for Titleist to pay in recognition of Norman’s unique career.

On a cold day with light snow in Toronto in May 1997, the American Society of Golf Course Architects gathered for a shotmaking exhibition put on by Norman. As usual, he seemed to just pop up out of nowhere, shed his tattered winter coat, and asked in that sing-song repetition, “How high can you hit a 6-iron; how high can you hit a 6-iron?” And then without so much as a warm-up swing, he hit that 6-iron up and down an imaginary ladder at perfect 10-foot intervals that he called at impact: “Twenty feet, twenty feet. Thirty feet, thirty feet.” He did this up to 120 feet and back down.

Rubenstein makes clear in this sad and touching tale that Norman lived a life filled with meaning and purpose. Maybe he suffered a form of autism. Maybe he was an obsessive-compulsive. But he had a special gift, and he built it into a life. He was something of a “Rainman” of golf. It’s an existence that would make a great movie. The key, as Rubenstein emphasizes throughout, is that Norman found a certain inner peace and security just hitting those perfect shots.

“Hope and fear, hope and fear, that’s how people play golf,” Norman said and thwacked another ball dead straight. “Not me. No, not me. I see happiness. I see happiness.”

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