Is there more than one way to swing a club?

In an age of identikit golf swings, Glyn Pritchard recalls the career of Moe ‘pipeline’ Norman, whose technique, style and personality were anything but conventional.

Today there is an accepted orthodox position for every stage of the golf swing, from the grip to the follow through. But is there a real alternative to the current orthodoxy? The only young tour pro trying something radically different is Bryson DeChambeau, who recently secured his first US PGA Tour victory by winning the John Deere Classic and with it a place at The Open.

Unusually DeChambeau took a degree in physics, rather than the customary sports administration, or similar, offered by American colleges for golf scholarships. Based on his knowledge of physics DeChambeau’s irons and wedges are all the same length, 37½ inches, with the same lie and bounce angle. The lie angle requires a very upright stance and DeChambeau keeps the club on the same plane throughout his swing, without turning his wrists.

To watch, DeChambeau’s swing looks very stiff and robotic, but that’s the point. By making the clubs and the swing plane identical in every respect, except for the club’s loft, DeChambeau believes he can eliminate any variables in his swing that could cause bad shots.

Seeing DeChambeau unconventional swing I was reminded of Moe ‘pipeline’ Norman, who died aged 75 in 2004. Hardly anyone in the modern era has heard of Norman, but he was described by Tom Watson as the “guy who can hit it better than anybody.” Lee Trevino said of him, “I don’t know of any person that I’ve ever seen who could strike a golf ball like Moe Norman, as far as hitting it solid, knowing where it’s going, knowing the mechanics of the game and knowing what he wanted to do with the golf ball.”

When viewed on YouTube Norman’s swing seems very stiff, his arms stretched almost to their full extent, a wide stance with nearly rigid legs and an extended takeaway that goes straight back with a curtailed backswing and a follow-through which goes straight down the target line. This regimented one-plane swing allowed him to drill balls with laser like accuracy, often hitting a target repeatedly on the driving range. As he said himself, “I keep everything so simple and I get the same angle of attack on the ball every time.”

Born in Ontario, Norman was self-taught and never took a golf lesson. He won the Canadian Amateur Championship in 1955 and 1956 before turning pro. In his professional career he had 55 Canadian Tour and other event victories, including the Canadian PGA Championship in 1966 and 1974. He held 33 course records and his pipeline accuracy yielded 17 aces.

Yet he never made it on the US PGA Tour, participating in just 27 events and making 25 cuts with only one top-ten finish. The reason for this lack of success was because Norman had an unconventional personality to match his unconventional swing. Today, Norman’s personality would probably be assessed as somewhere on the Autistic spectrum, but in a less enlightened era he was just considered eccentric and weird.

Norman was a sensitive man and to eliminate self-doubt he liked to play very quickly, taking only seconds to make a swing and even over putts. As he said himself, “One look at the target and I’m gone. Miss ’em quick. That’s always been my theme song.” This left no room for the psychological agonising that most tour players now seem to go through during their extensive pre-shot routines.

So playing fast and without inhibitions was the only way Norman could play golf. In public exhibitions and demonstrations Norman told the crowd, “Let your body enjoy the shot. That’s the biggest word in golf, ‘let’. Golf is hitting an object to a defined target area with the least amount of effort and an alert attitude of indifference.”

But his speed of play and lack of reverence did not endear him to the US PGA. At the Los Angeles Open and then the New Orleans Open Norman entertained the spectators by teeing his ball on a cola bottle and was given stern warnings by tour officials. “I was putting on a show, making the crowd laugh. But they told me this was big business, this was the tour of the world; they didn’t care how good I was. I had to tee it up in the normal way.” With that Norman returned to Canada in 1961, although he did play in five Senior PGA Tour events from 1981 to 1984.

Tiger Woods has commented that only Ben Hogan and Moe Norman ‘owned’ their swings. To see Norman’s swing in action check out his videos on YouTube and let’s hope that Bryson DeChambeau has more success on tour with his unconventional swing.