The Pipeline and The Scientist – Moe and Bryson

There is nothing new in the game of golf.

Bryson de Chambeau (‘’The Scientist”) is a polarising golfer in terms of both method and reputation. He progressed through the privileged pathway of College golf in the United States. He earned a physics scholarship to Southern Methodist University and won both the NCAAA individual championship and the US amateur in 2015. He joined a select class of five who have won both these events in the same year (including Nicklaus, Mickelson and Woods).

Almost 60 years earlier in 1956, Moe Norman (‘’Pipeline Moe’’) won the Canadian Amateur Championship. He defended it successfully in 1957. Norman grew up in poverty near a tyre factory in Kitchener Ontario with the acrid smell of smoke and burning rubber in his nostrils. His father regarded golf as a game for ‘’softies’’. Moe had to hide both his love of the game, and his ill-matched golf clubs, from his parents. He faced other challenges. Norman was mercilessly teased as a child and suffered head injuries at the age of five in a sledding accident when he slid under the wheels of a car. These injuries went undiagnosed and untreated. It is also possible that Norman had a form of mild autism.

De Chambeau went straight onto the US PGA Tour after his Amateur win. To cover expenses Norman would often sell his tournament prizes to produce cash. He was coming under pressure from the Canadian amateur body, who were hot on his trail after the 1957 win. To pre-empt the loss of his amateur status Norman turned pro. Life on tour was not easy for the fledgling professional. He could not afford a caddy and would often carry his own bag. He often slept in bunkers at tournament venues around Canada to avoid the cost of a room. He could not afford a car and often hitchhiked to the next tournament.

So where lies the common ground between Norman and De Chambeau?

It is in their method. Both players developed a distinctive method that eliminated variables by reducing the number of moving parts in their swings. The common denominator is their unconventional set up and a ‘’single plane’’ approach. Most golfers stand to the ball, allow their arms to hang naturally, and then introduce another angle at the wrists. (supination). The wrist bend inevitably creates two planes in the swing. Norman and de Chambeau address the ball with their wrists high and close to their final ball striking position. Matt Kuchar also incorporates some elements of a single plane in his swing.

There is an additional common factor in their approach to gripping the club. Norman believed that it was a mistake to hold the club in the fingers, instead gripping the club firmly in the palm of both hands. De Chambeau achieves a similar result by using exaggeratedly oversized grips. He couples this with the use of identical length shafts in his irons. A comparison of images of both players contains some striking similarities. Swing analysts have commented on these. It is tempting to imagine De Chambeau studying the Norman method in his search for ball-striking perfection.

Despite his range of handicaps Norman is remembered as a likeable character who was capable of outstanding achievements on his home turf in Canada. His appearance and manner were unacceptable on the US PGA Tour when he arrived there to play in 1959. He wore long sleeved shirts buttoned to the collar, combined with ill-fitting baggy trousers often stopping several inches above his ankles.  His teeth were a dentist’s nightmare, caused in no small part by his Daly-like consumption of endless bottles of Coca-Cola. He often slept in his car. When the Tour reached New Orleans in 1959, he led briefly in the final round, despite typically indifferent putting. He finished fourth, seven shots better than Arnold Palmer. There has been a suggestion that a group of his fellow pros rounded on Norman in the locker room and chastised him for his appearance, on course demeanour and his clowning around with the extra-long tees he favoured. The vulnerable Norman immediately took this to heart and escaped back to the Canadian Tour. He won at home five times from 12 starts in 1966 and amassed 55 career wins there in total.

Sir Bob Charles has first-hand memories of playing with Norman in Canada. ‘’I played with Moe twice in Canada. The main feature of his game was his driving. The closer he got to the green the worse he became, and he was a poor putter.  On a short par 4 he was likely to use his wedge off the tee and driver for his second. He was never overly long off the tee but was more than adequate in length with his fast backswing. He believed in dragging the club long and low with very stiff wrists and a short backswing. He was a very good striker of the ball and an extremely straight driver. Moe would always repeat himself and say everything twice, which took some getting used to. He lived out of his Cadillac, did not have a bank account and paid cash for everything. Despite his quirks he got on with everyone and was a likeable guy.’’

How good a ball striker was Norman? Tiger Woods has compared him with Hogan and the late Sam Snead called him the ‘’best ball striker’’ he had played with. Norman has also been compared in the quality of his ball striking with a largely self-taught Lee Trevino.

Norman and De Chambeau could not have come to golf by more divergent pathways. They share elements of an unconventional, but effective method. De Chambeau has become a controversial figure in his short time on the Tour. He refuses to yell ‘’fore’’ and his petty, over publicised feud with Brooks Koepka reflects poorly on the pair.

Moe Norman’s legacy is one of innovation in ball striking and method. He has been admired by golfers for overcoming a challenging upbringing, poverty and an element of mental illness. He has affectionately been called golf’s Rain Man.

The innovative De Chambeau has already claimed his first major, but how he will be perceived by followers of the game in the future, remains to be seen.