Legendary ball-striker Moe Norman passed away years ago, but players around the world—including one beefy major champion—remain devoted to his swing
Words by Jack Williams
Photos by Cy Cyr (unless otherwise credited)
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On an overcast late-March day, 16 enthusiastic amateur golfers sat in a conference room at Eagle Creek Golf Club in Orlando, Florida, their chairs and tables arranged in a U shape that drew attention to one of the room’s four walls. On one side, a sliver of what little sunlight was there snuck in through the blackout curtains, which, in their defense, were doing a fine job of helping bring to life an image being projected onto the main wall.
The photograph was of a graying male golfer in his 50s or 60s addressing a drive toward a flat expanse of fairway that would look rather inviting to any skill level. Along the man’s back, a red line had been drawn running straight from the turf to the sky. Another, traveling down his right arm and along the club’s shaft, created an X in the middle of his spine.
It was around 1 p.m. on the second day of school, and as the golfers exchanged lunchtime pleasantries, in walked the man they all had been waiting to see.
Todd Graves—a golf coach of standard height, wearing your standard golfer’s attire of a visor and a quarter-zip sweater, and with the standard warm Southern accent that someone from outside of Oklahoma would expect someone from Oklahoma, where Graves grew up, to have—addressed the room.
“So, how’s camp going so far?” Graves said softly. “Obviously we’ve measured you, so we’ll need to grade your papers before the end of the day.”
The students, most over the age of 60, laughed. The majority had already been to one of the roughly 250 golf schools Graves’ company, Graves Golf, puts on across the United States every year. They knew the drill.
For five days they would be working on their unique swings. Graves’ company specializes in teaching a variation that runs along a single plane, a swing known by many but practiced by comparatively few.
The next 10 minutes saw Graves address the group as he worked off a whiteboard, like a teacher returning from summer vacation and laying down the ground rules that his pupils had heard umpteen times before. Using the still image as a reference point, Graves refreshed the attendees on the positioning of the body at address, transition, sequencing and, finally, the swing’s finish, with a noticeable repetition of one word.
“There’s a model,” Graves said of the 2-foot-high individual on the wall behind him. “Match the model.”
He went on to explain how many golfers don’t, in fact, have a blueprint for their swings, but “we here have a model. So just imagine what we can do.”
The model. The model. The model.
By this reporter’s watch, it took roughly 17 minutes before Graves finally mentioned the name of the man his pupils had spent years basing their swings upon. So ingrained is he in everything Graves preaches, so familiar is he to a group that sees his methods as the most comfortable, most accurate, most consistent way of swinging a golf club, that Graves’ first reference was a mere mononym.
“So, you can see I have Moe here up on screen, ” Graves said, pointing to the wall behind him.
Moe, aka Moe Norman, aka a golfing-magic grandpa—a man now bordering on the mythical who, to many, was one of the finest darn ball-strikers this game has ever known.
Mention Norman to the golfing public and responses will vary wildly. Some stare blankly, having never heard of a man who started making a living from the game in the 1950s and, despite some early successes, opted to play in his native Canada instead of the U.S. Others, sure, they’ve heard the stories, seen the tapes: the 17 holes-in-one; the 33 course records; the three 59s; the exhibition feats of driving accuracy and distance; those late-career infomercial days. And then there are those who truly light up—who judge Norman not in wins or dollars, but by that immeasurable, elusive quality every golfer craves: a completely unique way of getting that little white ball into a little dark hole.
Take Tiger Woods speaking to Golf Digest in 2005: “Only two players have ever truly owned their swings: Moe Norman and Ben Hogan. I want to own mine.”
To get to where the finest golfer of his generation is putting someone with exactly zero PGA Tour wins on the same pedestal as the man who literally wrote the modern fundamentals of golf, one has to start in Kitchener, Ontario, where Murray Irwin “Moe” Norman was born in 1929.
It was there, in a money-tight, working-class city, that a young Norman struggled through his childhood years. He didn’t get along with the other children in his school, who were said to have bullied him for his shyness, big ears, high-pitched voice and nervous repetition of sentences. A friend later said that, in somewhat of a eureka moment, she watched the movie Rain Man and realized Norman’s traits must be due to autism. But in his biography of Norman, The Feeling of Greatness, Tim O’Connor reported that an expert believed an untreated sledding accident at age 5 may have resulted in the quirks. Norman, who also had an incredible memory and skill for math, remembers being dragged under a car before a tire rolled over the side of his face.
Norman compensated for his childhood loneliness with a manic devotion to golf. Having first played the game with a tree branch, then a hockey stick, he began caddying at age 12 so he could purchase a club. Some days, Norman would spend hours on end hitting his cherished battered golf balls in a field until his hands bled, working out his swing with no coach, entirely by feel.
He didn’t break 100 until he was 16, but at 19, everything finally clicked. “I knew I could hit a golf ball where I wanted it to go for the rest of my life,” Norman later said.
To summarize the Normanian swing technique is no easy feat. A standard-looking golf swing—Rory McIlroy, Lydia Ko, etc.—runs on two planes, where the arms and hands fall below the shoulders at address, often resulting in a backswing that is steeper and on a more upright plane than when a golfer attacks the ball, requiring the body to shift and contort when coming down into impact.
Norman flipped it. Having listened to his body, he aligned himself at address in a position similar to how he would be at impact. As a result, his feet were wide, his hands were high and his arms locked almost dead straight, allowing him to align his lead and trail arms with the club, which he squeezed tightly with his left hand. On drives, Norman would place the clubhead up to 12 inches behind the ball, moving it closer for shorter irons.
From there, Norman would swing, barely past the right shoulder, bringing the club on a single plane back and through—a motion he was able to easily replicate, be it wedge or driver. Ping. Ping. Ping. Those who saw him in action said it looked effortless, if a bit strange. Most importantly, though, Norman’s technique was both accurate and consistent.
Armed with this approach, Norman entered his first amateur tournament, in 1949, where, not having been invited, he turned up on the day, in sneakers, and won by two strokes. He later snuck out early, too shy to collect the trophy.
Over the next seven years, Norman became somewhat of a golf nomad across Canada. Unlike many of the other, wealthier amateurs, Norman didn’t belong to a country club, so he hitchhiked between tournaments, slept on park benches and juggled factory jobs that he risked losing by calling in sick to play in events. He struggled with money, keeping wads of cash in his front pocket and spending winters setting pins at a bowling alley for a few cents a line. He would sell prizes, like TVs and various appliances, that he guaranteed people he would win at amateur events—prior to playing in them.
Victories in the Canadian Amateur Championship in 1955 and ’56, however, essentially forced the CPGA’s hand in granting him a membership card even though he wasn’t personable enough to be an actual teaching pro. Having won his first professional tournament, the 1958 Ontario Open, the next stop was the PGA Tour in America, where the more mainstream myths about Norman’s incredible ball-striking would take root and, ultimately, his unique personality was brought a little too close to the sun.
As David Owen’s 1995 profile of Norman for Golf Digest explained, it was at a tournament in New Orleans where the American dream likely unraveled for Norman, who hit his driver and irons well, but putted poorly. His unique swing often drew laughs from spectators in the U.S., who saw the fast-playing, childlike Norman as something of a goofy sideshow. His appearance was different too: Next to America’s well-dressed and well-heeled stars, here was a man with a high-pitched voice, crooked teeth and ill-fitting clothes.
In New Orleans, Norman finished fourth. But, days later, he turned up at his friends’ home in Florida saying he would never play on Tour again. He gave no reason and returned to Canada. A fellow pro, not naming names, later said Norman had been approached by a group of big-name players who called Norman out for his antics and appearance. Were they threatened by his game? Norman, who struggled with eye contact and human interaction, was said to have been heartbroken to hear players he had idolized say such things.
Back in his homeland, he forged a successful career, winning 55 events, including a stretch in 1966 where he won five professional tournaments out of 12, never finishing lower than fifth. Tales of Norman’s ball-striking grew. In an exhibition match with Sam Snead, Norman, on a hole where players laid up because of the positioning of a creek that dissects the fairway, pulled driver and knocked his ball across the creek’s bridge from more than 200 yards away. He once joked that he had a favorite tee that he had not lost for seven years because he hit it so purely. At another exhibition, Norman hit 1,540 drives in a little under seven hours, all of them longer than 225 yards and landing within a 30-yard-wide zone.
But money troubles were never far away. By the mid-1980s, having won seven consecutive Canadian PGA Senior Championships, Norman was facing car repossession; in 1987, friends had to host a golf tournament in Baden, Ontario, to raise $25,000 to help get him back on his feet. By the early ’90s, Norman, who by all accounts never had a romantic relationship, was living alone in a $400-a-month motel with no phone, making a few hundred dollars here and there for golf clinics.
Gus Maue, a friend who helped set up the fundraising tournament, once said, “When the sun goes down, Moe is a very, very lonely man. He goes back to his motel room and turns on the TV. He’s fine during the day because he can play golf, but at night he doesn’t know what to do.”
Todd Graves was struggling. Having played on the Asian Tour in the early 1990s, the University of Oklahoma graduate’s game was sliding in the wrong direction and his professional sponsorship was coming to an end. Range ball after range ball did little to help. Graves, then in his mid-20s, was left wondering what might come next.
That answer appeared in the form of a videotape, presented to Graves by a former teammate from his college days, Matthew Lane, who had been playing on the Canadian Tour. “You’ve got to see this guy hit balls,” Lane told Graves. “He’s a freak.”
Freak. The word stuck with Graves.
In the grainy amateur footage, which can be found on YouTube today, Norman stands in the half-cut on a course said to be in Canada; a golfer in a red shirt to his right watches. One after another, Norman rips every ball. His swing appears short, his hands high, in front of his eye line.
But it’s the sound that catches the attention most. WHOOSH! Every shot is absolutely pured.
According to Graves, Lane met Norman while playing in Canada and shot the footage himself. “He was one of those myths in the golf world that I had heard about, but never really paid attention to,” Graves says. “It was amazing. That was the first time I had ever seen Moe on video.”
With nothing to lose, Graves says, he headed to the range and dedicated his time to practicing Norman’s swing, lifting his hands and immediately seeing results. Norman himself was in a better place too. After his financial struggles, he began working with an instructional company called Natural Golf, whose founder, Jack Kuykendall, had seen Norman’s swing and, like Graves years later, couldn’t help but wonder. “Oh, my God,” Kuykendall remembers reacting. “Those are perfect mechanics. Why isn’t everyone doing that?”
Kuykendall, a physicist trying to find an easier way to play the game, says he spent roughly two years trying to get in touch with Norman. Having finally met him in person, in 1992, he managed to convince Norman to come on board.
Across the U.S., Natural Golf held clinics featuring Norman as its poster child—one of which Graves attended in Chicago in 1994. After the event, Graves says, he approached Norman for a chat before asking if he could hit a few balls with his clubs. Norman agreed and Graves grabbed an 8-iron. “Hey, looks like me without a belly,” Norman joked, instantly recognizing the similarities in the two swings.
Graves went on to join Natural Golf as a consultant in the mid-’90s—a role that gave him access to Norman and allowed the pair to play together “hundreds of times.” Within a few years, however, Graves had become disinterested in the company’s approach, which, he says, was more focused on hardgoods rather than teaching Norman’s swing. He also had found an ally in his brother, Tim, who began using the single-plane in 1999.
As the brothers played their way across America’s mini-tour circuit—the TearDrop Tour, the Hooters Tour, the Dakota Tour—their swings began to get noticed. In the summer of 2000, Todd and Tim were invited to Santa Ana Golf Club in New Mexico, where they were asked to teach a clinic about their Normanian technique to 10 students.
“We were driving back from that golf school and saying, ‘Hey, it’s easier to teach golf schools than win money in golf tournaments,’” Graves says. “So we started looking at teaching groups of people as a business model.”
In the early 2000s, Graves began slowly separating himself from the work of Natural Golf, which still had Norman under contract. During the early days of the Todd Graves Golf School, as the company was then known, the two brothers taught across the U.S. and toe-dipped their way into different approaches to building a brand. There was a fuzzy instructional video about Norman’s swing, recorded next to an exceedingly loud train track. Then there were the newsletters (like, physical ones), sent out to some of the roughly 2,000 people on the company’s neophyte database.
As they learned the business, Norman remained their North Star. He died of heart failure in a Kitchener hospital in September 2004.
“Moe had a lot to contribute to the game that really never got recognized when he was alive,” Graves says.
Today, Graves Golf is unrecognizable to the first school Todd and Tim put together in New Mexico more than two decades ago.
In the parking lot at Eagle Creek Golf Club, a welcome banner had been erected: The top half featured the company’s logo of a swooping red G; beneath it, there was a large photo of Norman’s face, his chin resting on his hands. A Graves Golf truck sat in the corner of the parking lot. At the bottom of the range, another truck, this one more like a movie-set trailer, had been parked roughly 50 yards from the MoeNormanGolf.com tents and a line of Graves Golf swing mirrors and impact bags. There were seven coaches on site that afternoon.
Having worked on his short game in the morning, Kevin Thoni, a recently retired anesthesiologist from Orlando, was now hitting long irons on the range. Thoni flushed a 6-iron with a nice 1-yard draw, his hands finishing high, just like the Norman model. I congratulated him on the shape. “It’s supposed to be going straight!” he joked.
Thoni said he stopped playing the game about six years ago because a conventional swing was hurting his back. Now, having committed to a single-plane rebuild, he was essentially starting from scratch. Thoni looked at the measuring stick on the ground and asked the coach next to him, James Bell, how far he should be from the ball. Bell checked with another coach, Paul Tessler. “Twenty-six inches?” He was right.
Because Norman’s swing starts in an impact-like position, players mentally calculate how far to stand from the ball at address, depending on the club. With the lead and trail arms dead straight, this measurement tilts the body at 45 degrees. Thoni looked down at the measuring stick he had placed on the ground, its tip next to the ball. He then spread his feet either side of 26 inches, tilted forward and ripped the next ball perfectly straight. “Maybe I should be in a pink shirt,” he chuckled, referencing the matching T-shirts Graves Golf coaches were wearing that day.
Next to Thoni was Bill Miller, a 70-year-old professional fisherman and TV personality with a considerable social-media following. Miller, from Tampa, Florida, said he had stopped playing golf for around 30 years because, like many golfers, life had simply gotten in the way. Due to his age when he was returning to the game, Miller said, he had searched online to find an easier way to swing. He came across references to Natural Golf, which, in turn, led him to Graves’ clinics.
“It’s a process,” Miller said. The previous Saturday, he’d shot his best-ever nine-hole score, which had drawn admiring looks. Other times, he admitted, using such an out-there-looking swing, combined with a few bad holes, could be enough to question everything. Players must commit to the model.
Miller and Thoni are fairly representative of the Graves Golf clientele. According to the company, more than 80 percent of players in its database are over the age of 55. Many look to learn Norman’s single-plane swing because of what it promises: a more consistent way of playing the game that puts less strain on the body. What amateur player who picked up golf in their teens, swung like a wild thing, then abandoned everything while kids and jobs came and went wouldn’t want to come back to a simpler version of the game?
It takes time. And money. Prices for a five-day school run just shy of $3,000. Such schools made up the backbone of Graves Golf’s teaching for more than a decade. Graves says he and Tim still attend around 10 schools a year, in places like Orlando; Phoenix; Chicago; Houston; East Haddam, Connecticut; and Edmond, Oklahoma, the company’s home base.
There, Graves Golf currently has 19 staff, including the two brothers. Elsewhere, 12 coaches across the United States teach single-plane swings under the Graves Golf umbrella.
Many of the coaches I spoke to had their own tales of how they discovered Norman. One said he was shooting in the 120s in high school and had realized “conventional golf swings tend to fix your miss with another miss.” After watching a video of Norman’s swing on YouTube, the coach said, he set about replicating it, going on to shoot a 79 shortly after. Another coach, Pat Pohlen, a former offensive tackle who won a national championship with Notre Dame, found Graves Golf and began using a single-plane swing to help his aging body. The disciples come from everywhere.
As the decades pass, our collective awareness of our former stars can erode. What might the names of Plant and Page mean to someone picking up an instrument for the first time in, say, 50 years? What might Moe Norman mean to Gen Zers picking up a club in just 25?
Graves has a plan, and a new flag-bearer.
“It’s a challenge,” he says, “because Moe Norman is our origin story, single-plane is really the methodology and then Graves Golf is who we are as a kind of parent company.…But single-plane is now more real because of Bryson.”
That mad scientist who averaged 320-plus yards in a calendar year, tore the 2020 U.S. Open to pieces and, of course, uses a variation of a single-plane swing.
When it comes to mesmerizing golf feats, the stories surrounding DeChambeau’s bulking and distance gains have fallen somewhere within the Normanian realm of believability. For years, Graves says, the stigmas he encountered usually revolved around three criticisms: a single-plane swing doesn’t look as pretty as a conventional golf swing, as Norman found out; it delivers accuracy, sure, but not necessarily distance; and single-plane doesn’t win on pro tours.
While one can’t argue with the metrics against which someone judges the first point, the second and third, Graves says, essentially have been blown out of the water: Here you now have the longest hitter on the PGA Tour winning the sport’s biggest events with a single-plane swing.
While not a carbon copy of Norman’s, DeChambeau’s straight arms, wide stance and high hands have brought people to Google to search what the heck he’s doing. Those individuals often find the answer in Graves Golf.
Going forward, Graves is leaning toward pushing single-plane branding. But those on the range at Eagle Creek were still hearing about all things Norman, who will forever remain at the heart of everything Graves Golf preaches.
It was getting close to 5 p.m.; soon the group would be wrapping up for the day. As a final recap, coach Chandler Rusk stood in front of the 16 players sitting on folding chairs under a Norman-branded cabana. Rusk was holding the club in his left hand, his left arm dead straight and at shoulder height, pointing the clubhead at his pupils.
“What did Moe call this?” Rusk asked.
“The rod!” the group shouted back.
Rusk went on to explain Norman’s arm positions before pulling out one of the pupils, Tom, who had a penchant for cigars and, according to Rusk, a pretty good pre-shot routine.
“Tom actually used to be a dancer,” Rusk said. He then watched as Tom looked down the line of sight, approached his shot and, while slowly moving through the Norman swing, counted down: “One, two”—takeaway—“three, four”—top of the backswing—“five, six…”
“See?” Rusk interrupted. “And on eight, he’s hitting that ball!”
There were nods and murmurs of agreement. Then, from the back of the seated cluster, one of the pupils yelled out, “Wait! Isn’t it eight steps for cheerleading?!”