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Golf's Heretic: Mo Norman

The Mad Heretic of Golf Moe Norman Preaches A Revolutionary Swing Technique Known As "Natural Golf"

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A ball soars into space, 275 yards downrange towards a red-flag target. While that missile is still airborne, three more Titleists are launched into the stratosphere with an effortless swing, each shot penetrating a stiff wind and headed for the next zip code.

Seventy-five balls later, after each drive has been blasted into orbit and eaten up airspace on the exact same path, the Wernher von Braun staging this remarkable show sips a Coca-Cola. (He drinks 20 Cokes every day.) He then continues banging out balls, another 300 (down from the 800 of his heyday), all the while laughing and muttering to himself.

"See those shots, of course they're all on the pin, why certainly!" he exclaims. "Other golf teachers? They're just garbage, a bunch of thieves. They're 80-shooters, making millions and screwing up the world."

Coupling these repetitive, rapid-fire reveries with an overly wide stance, a palm grip and a hammer-type swing that defies convention, he's been labeled everything from an "awkward-looking eccentric" (by renowned PGA golfer Ken Venturi) to a mad heretic and a freak.

But before leaving the range for his claustrophobic $400-a-month motel room in Daytona Beach, this ball-busting machine continues to awe onlookers with his sonic booms. At age 66, after sleeping in bunkers and the back seats of cars and selling Canadian Tour trophies to survive, Moe "Pipeline" Norman is finally inspiring devotion.

He has long been a magnificent ball striker, arguably the greatest in history. Recently hailed by Lee Trevino as "a genius, a living legend," the newly appreciated Norman is also the spiritual father of "Natural Golf," a teaching philosophy promising salvation to the game's struggling masses.

"I'm the Michael Jordan, even the Jesus Christ of golf," proclaims Norman, insisting that his swing is so consistently perfect, so geared to never hitting a ball off-line, that he's also the Madonna of the game that all the big boys beg to play with.

"John Daly, Ernie Els, Nick Price, they all ask me to hit balls, since out of the 40 million people playing golf, I'm the only one with the 'secret.' Only Moe has the perfect grip and controlled 365-day-a-year swing. No one else knows the move, the feeling of greatness. While all the teaching from guys like [David] Leadbetter, [Bob] Toski and [Jimmy] Ballard is a pile of crap, artificial strokes for artificial folks, I'm the machine, poetry in motion, the only man on earth who can hit the ball straight every time."

To emphasize his being "an island of purity" in a corrupt world, alone every night in a motel room refining his golf swing and "wrestling with the demons" of traditional golf instruction, he grabs a longer than usual driver. Conventional golfers will place the club in their fingers, using the revered Vardon overlapping grip that creates a two-axis system between the right arm and club shaft. But Norman holds all his clubs with the handle aligned with his right forearm. He keeps his hands separated and awkwardly looks as if he's wielding a sledgehammer.

"Just look at that straight line, the single axis," cries the potbellied Norman, holding his outstretched arm in a single line with the club shaft. "Why am I the best? I have everything working on the same plane during the swing. Unlike the stuff that's always taught--the two-axis rotary motion with the turning hips, shoulders, arms, club and hands--I make it simple with one axis. Less moving parts." Holding onto his trusty driver, Norman again demonstrates what he's perfected over 50 years, ever since he picked up clubs as a teenager in Kitchener, Ontario, and ignored his father calling him "a sissy" for choosing golf over hockey.

"I have my legs far apart, far apart; you need an extra wide stance for the right balance," shouts the beet-faced Norman, wearing a Hawaiian shirt with plain polyester pants from the 1950s. He then yells, "That's it, spread 'em, spread 'em."

Norman places the driver a foot behind the ball, keeps his right leg firmly planted (reducing upper-body motion) and, without taking the customary practice swing, brings his hands to shoulder height. It's a compact swing, without the usual spinning of the hips or shoulders, and certainly not the violent, arching thrust of a John Daly or Greg Norman. Yet it brings results.

"I haven't hit a ball out of bounds in 11 years," Moe Norman claims with a laugh, equally proud of his playing with the same tee since 1989.

"Golf my way is just a walk in the park. I buckle, sit, slide and bump. Just watch!" Breaking down the movements, he flexes his knees (the buckle), assumes a slightly sitting position with his behind extended rearward (the sit), shifts his weight from the right to the left leg, which is well forward of the left shoulder (the slide), and hangs his body back at impact, facing the ball (the bump). "That's it: Buckle, sit, slide and bump," he says.

Repeating this mantra about a dozen times, Norman punctuates each chant with a 270-yard to 280-yard tee shot, all dead on a pin. Like a machine gun, he hits the balls in rapid succession without ever pausing.

That free-spirited approach, coupled with his ball-striking artistry, made him the Gretzky of Canadian golf for three decades. Winning 54 Canadian tournaments in the 1960s and '70s, then seven consecutive CPGA senior championships starting in 1979, he was always an entertaining show, clownishly playing to the galleries by teeing balls atop Coke bottles and women's shoes.

But along with his mythical prowess, Norman was also a mysterious absurdity, his tattered clothes and rotting teeth too easy a target for straight-laced golf traditionalists. Unable to win on the American pro tour ("I just couldn't putt back then," he admits), and ever lapsing into short repetitive speech bursts like Dustin Hoffman's autistic character in Rain Man, Norman was mocked, his swing mechanics never taken seriously by the game's high priests.

But now, in this era of downsizing, Moe's minimalist swing, with fewer body motions, is suddenly gaining new disciples. He violates every rule of conventional shot making-- palming the club, abbreviating swing extension, facing the ball at impact and letting his right hand dominate the action. Norman even looks weird, a John Madden look-alike, wielding longer than normal clubs with twice as fat grips, and swinging like he was pounding nails in an Ace Hardware ad.

Yet that unorthodoxy is also his charm, for the athletic movements of a Jack Nicklaus or a Nick Faldo--demanding the keenest coordination of hips, shoulders, arms, hands and club--are generally too complicated for the Everyman. The average guy will occasionally reach the promised land of blasting balls with a square club face, but for every scratch shooter, there are thousands of slashers struggling in hellish rough.

Their desperation has spawned a multimillion-dollar industry of golf instruction, featuring a supermarket array of swing doctors along with scores of "miracle-working gizmos."

Amid all these traditional tipsters and gurus, it takes a certain leap of faith to discard the teachings of a Harvey Penick or David Leadbetter, men long celebrated for working with the PGA Tour's brightest stars. But for too many weekend golfers, the old-time religion just doesn't work. Instead of improving, they only know the continuing frustration of infernal double-bogeys.

Among these sufferers, Natural Golf (a recent start-up corporation using Norman as a consultant) is sounding a message of hope and redemption. Very 1990s, the catch come-on is, of course, "user friendly," for unlike those Richard Simmons-like contortions in conventional golf, Norman's "less maintenance" system promises "by keeping everything so simple, there's less potential to screw up."

"People laugh at me, but that's OK," insists Norman. "They also reviled another reformer, Jesus Christ. I'm the only person who can make tight fairways seem wide and open. I'm one of a kind."

After that Messiah-like reference, Norman shows that Natural Golf is indeed on the upswing. He gets into his car and drives off, smiling behind the wheel of his new gold Cadillac DeVille.

A few days later I'd enjoy my own taste of "Heaven." But first came a trip to golf school.

Stuck with a 14-handicap, unable to improve even with repeated instruction, I was an excellent candidate for Moe's less-is-more approach. His $100,000 price tag for a month's worth of personalized teaching was a bit too steep for me, so I did the next best thing. I took my troubled swing to a Natural Golf executive camp, checking into The Registry Resort in Naples, Florida, for two days ($1,900--higher for longer visits) of sumptuous beachfront accommodations and a golf overhaul.

Natural Golf will dismantle your entire swing--starting anew with totally different mechanics--so be prepared for a radical break with conventional teaching. That's why Natural Golf advocates like to say their program is best suited for beginners. These unseasoned golfers come to The Registry with little baggage, fewer bad habits--and much less skepticism to overcome.

My own transformation began pleasurably enough. No boot camp wake-up calls. No drill sergeant barking orders to a platoon of wanna-bes on a firing range. Remember, this wasn't one of those oversubscribed "factory" schools where you're given the shaft and told to bomb away. It was an executive camp, so I lingered over breakfast, reporting for work on the putting green at a very manageable 10 a.m.

It's rare that putting, the constant lament of most golfers, gets such early attention. Most schools move right into full-swing mechanics, but according to Peter Fox, the Natural Golf teacher (and corporate communications director) who greeted me, "We want a small number of students to get their feet wet slowly, in an easygoing atmosphere. Putting is a first step, a confidence builder, which will hopefully have students saying, 'Gee, if Natural Golf is right about that, I wonder if they're right about the swing.' "

Natural Golf is such a nascent movement (the firm was founded in 1991 by Jack Kuykendall, an entrepreneur and frustrated professional golfer, who in turn hired Norman to conduct clinics) that it's dependent on word-of-mouth reviews. The learning process must be intimate and relaxed, so clinics are usually limited to three students for each teacher, with an assistant.

Having attended golf camps where large groups moved from one activity to another on veritable assembly lines, I was still surprised to find only one other camper joining me. George Imperial, a New Jersey attorney "naturalized" once before, was so focused on his own putting that he barely watched the magic show taking place around him.

Nearby, a svelte, 30-year-old Oklahoman kept sinking (or lipping) putts--from eight feet, then from 10 feet, 15 feet, 20 feet and beyond. It was Todd "Little Moe" Graves, a player on the Asian and Canadian tours, making everything look easy with an odd, football-shaped putter.

"It's dynamically balanced, center-shafted and zero degrees of loft, so the ball rolls truer," says Fox, showing me a Natural Golf putter, with its uniquely styled fat, square grip. Holding the club tightly in his right hand and positioning it one to four inches behind a ball, Fox continues. "Nerve endings are concentrated in your dominant hand. We engineered the grip so that an optimum amount of space connects with an optimum amount of nerves, sending your brain signals on where to putt."

Instead of using a looping "pendulum" stroke long favored by Ben Crenshaw and other green-side masters, Fox drives into the ball, hitting it with a piston-like motion. "Pendulum putting comes inside the [intended] line of a putt, down to square and back inside again. Yet by taking the shoulders out of putting, using the left arm only as a stabilizer and turning your right arm into a piston, we keep that putter on line longer. Much longer!"

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