Only a few miles from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, a revolutionary form of rocket propulsion is being demonstrated by the self-anointed "Jesus Christ of golf."
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!"
Overthrowing years of St. Andrews orthodoxy for the Orwellian prospect of being "programmed into a piston" wasn't all that enticing--or easy. Fox kept citing Newtonian physics to speed my conversion (my hotel room was also stocked with books and videos stressing the "scientific truths" behind the Natural Golf revolution). To his credit, this former ESPN executive tried to dispel my doubts by encouraging me to stroke ball after ball. But even with his highly personalized attention and coaching--"Take a deep breath, focus, separate the hands and with as much right palm as possible, piston...piston... bang!"--I was a loose cannon, booming balls off the green.
Thankfully, after retreating to The Registry's CaddyMaster's shop for a soothing cigar (this golf shop also arranges lessons and tee times), it was time for lunch. Then I had little trouble with my touch, for whatever mound of salad, fish or dessert I dug into, everything was mouth-watering.
Once the group stopped talking about golf and Norman's erratic driving (in his new Cadillac, that is), we drove to Kensington, a lush private course a few minutes away from The Registry. Waiting for us at the range were a dozen buckets of balls and three golf bags crammed with "ideal mechanical advantage" clubs, specifically designed for the Natural Golf system.
A far cry from the forged or classic irons, which have an expanded "sweet spot" for less proficient players, or the newer cavity-backed clubs, Natural Golf's sticks (a set costs $1,100) are slightly larger than standard length with smaller, more upright heads and much fatter grips.
Fox and his fellow proselytizers insist that conventional, heel-toe weighted clubs are more susceptible to driving the club head back and under the ball on off-center hits, leading to the dreaded slice and a loss of distance. But according to Fox, Natural clubs, with their center of gravity in the club face's center and a shorter lever arm, "produce a solid hit through maximum transfer of energy from the club head to ball."
That is, if you have the "scientifically perfect" Natural Golf swing, your right arm in a single plane with the shaft of the club, hips barely turning, and an abbreviated backswing.
Good-bye to the age-old finger grip, which creates a 45-degree angle with the shaft, and necessitates the rotation of hips, hands, shoulders, club face and shaft, the body moving upwards and backwards to get the club square at impact.
Now it was time to "shake hands with the pin," as Norman constantly quips, by placing the club in the palm as if holding a hammer, forming Natural Golf's much-ballyhooed single-axis system.
"Our power system is the future," insists Fox, with "fewer mechanics, [less strain] on the back, and demanding far less maintenance from executives who have little time to practice." Fox says the conventional swing has "seven twisting motions, seven, all hard on the spine, and with a club face tolerance of two degrees [at impact] to hit a fairway 200 yards away. So many moving parts! The two-axis system is all timing, timing, but what executive can work at developing that timing? But I'm stealing Todd's thunder.... Let's get you started in single-axis."
Once Graves begins hitting wedge shots, all landing 100 yards away on a small floating platform, he urges me to "take a wide, wide stance, heels shoulder-width apart [for greater balance than in the traditional stance]. Bend the knees, sit with your butt, the club resting well behind the ball, and keep that right foot down, down. Keep it down until impact."
Following additional instructions, I body-centered my hands, brought them slightly past hip height on the backswing (the right elbow below the left), then brought my right arm straight to the target line on the downswing, as the right palm was hinged, "hammer-hitting" style, 45 degrees at the wrist. At impact my body was square to the target, facing the ball (none of that violent hip turn that throws the club off square). Pow! Hitting several solid shots, I actually approximate Graves' notion of "paradise."
"What's so beautiful about Moe is his piston motion; his arm and club are always in a single line," gushes Graves. "The usual swing has lots of shoulder turn. Ours feels like an underhanded tossing motion."
Graves continues to monitor my progress, repeatedly preaching, "Keep your right foot down...make short swings...flex the knees...don't try to muscle it...just release the right hand." I didn't understand all his lingo, with such terms as "genetic timing barrier," "pronation" and "sup 45-abduct." Yet I still benefited from the one-on-one teaching, which allows Fox and Graves to rotate between students (at larger golf schools, students receive minimal individualized instruction). I felt reborn. Saved! For instead of my customary low duck hooks and ugly slices, I was booming drives into the heavens.
I was ready to confront The Beast, to try my new Natural Golf skills on Kensington's course, crowded with sand traps and water hazards. This, too, was a departure from the norm, for many golf schools don't have the manpower to supervise students playing 18 holes (six students is the maximum at any executive camp). Yet here I was, grabbing a driver and set to play the perfect game for executives. Fox calls it: "Hit till you're happy."
While I enjoyed a few uplifting moments, particularly on the par-3s where I nailed several irons close to the pin, Fox and Imperial were Moe Norman Revisited. Over the course of this day and the next, their drives were invariably finding that holy ground known as the fairway.
In his own zone, Graves was even more exciting to watch. While Natural Golf's critics say the "hammer" move backswing is too abbreviated to generate maximum club head speed and results in a loss of distance, the five-foot-nine-inch, 160-pound Graves repeatedly put that argument to rest with 275-yard missiles.
Woefully struggling at times, I could only stare at his drives with envy and wonder if I would ever reach such nirvana. It didn't happen at this camp, for Natural Golf is not miracle-working. As with conventional teaching, Natural Golf demands at least a year's commitment and practice, practice, practice.
"Beginners really get it; we're programming guys coming to the game fresh," says Fox. "More experienced players will also dramatically improve. They just have to give it time, have the faith to buy the clubs and to work at it. There are no instant cures."
Also be prepared for sore muscles--and more than a few moments of skepticism. It's not easy switching faiths, experiencing golf's version of Catholics turning to Hinduism. Fortunately, the luxurious Registry with all its amenities will help smooth that transition.
And then there's Heaven. Late that first night, we visited this snappy new cigar emporium; an enormous walk-in humidor complements a warren of private rooms studded with case after case of $125-a-glass wines, microbrewed beers, caviar and chocolates. With so much to feast on, it was difficult to pay attention to a video explaining the science behind Natural Golf.
But as I sat there enjoying an Avo, I did catch one snippet, a reference to Ben Hogan calling Moe Norman's mammoth drives "an accident." Hogan would later recant, urging Moe "to keep hitting those accidents." He apparently realized that golfers would feel blessed to be so accident-prone.
(Natural Golf clinics are staged at The Registry and at various sites across the country with certified teachers. For further information, call 800/219-7307 or Peter Fox at The Registry, 800/891-3258.)
Florida-based writer Edward Kiersh writes frequently for Cigar Aficionado.