Norman Swenson Jr. was called many things by many people: “golf’s ultimate gentleman,” for example, and “the Indiana Jones of Golf.” Perry Swenson Livonius called him “Dad.”
Norman learned to play golf at Carmel Country Club, a family-oriented club on the growing southside of Charlotte, North Carolina. His mother introduced him to the game, and he was instantly addicted, becoming a standout on the East Mecklenburg High School golf team before playing collegiately at Wake Forest University in 1965-69.
Wake Forest was a powerhouse squad, and most of his teammates went on to the PGA Tour, but Norman put golf aside after graduating to pursue a business career. He found that career – and his wife — in the portrait photography business.
Readers of a certain age may remember when traveling photographers would come to town and set up studios in local chain stores. Among the photographers in Norman’s sales region was a talented photojournalist, Shelley Perry.
“When Norman was in the area, he’d take the photographers out to dinner. He tried to teach us all to shag. I was smitten,” Shelley said.
Norman and Shelley married in 1975. They had three children – Ashley, Norman III (“Swen”) and Perry — and settled in a house on the 16th hole of Carmel Country Club. Each of their children was differently gifted, and a perfect blend of their parents.
Perry, the youngest, inherited Norman’s athleticism and interest in golf.
“She was his clone,” Shelley said. “They looked alike, had the same mannerisms and were always up for an adventure.”
The portrait photography business was good to Norman, and he retired at 50. That gave him time to pursue some new interests — and return to golf. He loved everything about the game. He was a student of its history and curated one of the world’s largest private collections of golf memorabilia. And he particularly loved the competition.
“Norman couldn’t wait to turn 55 to play senior amateur events,” Shelley said.
In his last 10 years, Norman played in over 300 events around the world, including two U.S. Senior Amateurs, six British Senior Amateurs and two Senior British Opens. He was the two-time Mexican Senior Amateur champion and also won the European Senior Amateur, New Zealand Senior Amateur and Bermuda Senior Invitational.
Norman also loved the camaraderie. Sportswriter Jay Flemma shared a comment from a fellow opponent of Norman’s: “Norman could beat your pants off on the golf course and you’d feel like he just gave you a Christmas present.
“You couldn’t wait to get back out there and lose to him again so you could just share a great day on the course with him.”
Norman brought that energy as a golf dad. Perry started playing the game around age 6 and began to excel in state and regional competitions.
“Dad was my coach, my mentor and my best friend,” Perry said. “He didn’t just tell me what to do to develop as a golfer; we did things together.”
As a teenager, Perry developed a false sense of confidence on the golf course. It didn’t last.
“I went to my first AJGA national tournament and finished dead last,” she said. “It was my first experience playing with girls my age who were shooting in the 60s. And it was the first time I met girls who went to the IMG Academy.”
When she got home, Perry researched the Leadbetter Golf Academy at IMG Sports Academy, in Bradenton, Florida. After a family visit to the academy, she enrolled as a full-time student.
“After my first year at Leadbetter, I went from dead last in an AJGA tournament to winning my first national tournament,” she said. “I think it was less about the technical aspects of golf and more about being comfortable. The girls at Leadbetter were the top players in the world. We did everything together, and they just pulled me along.”
There were a lot more wins to come. Perry was one of the top recruits from the high school class of 2001 and attended the University of Texas, where her team was Big 12 Conference champions. She graduated cum laude in 2005 with a degree in finance and turned professional that summer, playing on the LPGA’s Futures Tour (now the Epson Tour) and earning several LPGA sponsor exemptions.
Life on tour “started really fun and ended not so fun,” Perry said. “We had a great group of girls out there. That first year, everything was new. We went four-wheeling in New Mexico and explored Niagara Falls in New York. We just had so much energy.
“But I don’t think people realize how expensive it is out there. I was making cuts and finishing in the top 10, and I was barely breaking even. I used to keep a spreadsheet on my expenses and stopped because it was so far in the negative.”
After a few years, Perry’s goal of earning her LPGA Tour card began to feel out of reach.
“As golfers, we hold out hope that ‘maybe I’ll win the next tournament.’ It’s like gambling: ‘Just one more.’ But then it was, ‘Gosh, I’m not even making the cut this week or sniffing the top 10.’ I also knew I was racing against time. I’d gotten married and wanted to start another career before having a family.”
“I actually felt a sense of peace and knew my dad was looking down on me. And I realized this is what my dad experienced whenever he played the game.” – Perry Swenson
The week of May 16, 2011, is when everything changed. Perry and her husband, Justin Livonius, were in Rockville, Maryland, where she was playing in a qualifier for the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open. The phone rang at 1 a.m., with her mother and sister on the line with the news that Norman had passed away peacefully, from a heart attack.
The week had begun as a grand adventure for Norman. He and his close friend Kevin Hammer were representing the U.S. and Pine Valley Golf Club at the World Club Championships at Nine Bridges Golf Club in Korea. When they boarded their flight home from Korea on Saturday, May 21, they left with special memories, great stories and new friends.
But a couple of hours into the 14-hour flight, Norman went to sleep and never woke up.
Hammer held Norman’s hand for the remainder of the flight and brought him to Charlotte. He also had the gut-wrenching job of sharing the news with the family.
“I was in shock,” Perry said. “I felt pain unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The rest was a blur.”
But she knew Norman would never withdraw from a USGA event, and knew he’d want her to play.
“The only thing I knew to do in the morning is what my dad would have done: hit golf balls,” Perry said. “I skipped the practice round and found a peaceful spot on the opposite end of the range. I found solace feeling the golf ball hit the center of the clubface and seeing perfect little divots of grass.”
At the qualifier the next morning, she felt a sense of calm.
“I didn’t get upset or angry once,” she said. “It was just me and Justin, walking and talking. I actually felt a sense of peace and knew my dad was looking down on me. And I realized this is what my dad experienced whenever he played the game.”
After the qualifier, Perry and the rest of the family gathered in their mountain home in Linville, North Carolina. On Norman’s desk, they found some articles he’d clipped before he left for Korea. Among them was a devotional, “Choose Joy.”
“‘Choose Joy’ was how Dad lived his life every day, and it was like he was sending us a message,” Perry said. It became the family’s mantra to celebrate Norman’s life – with humor, storytelling and love – and guide their own lives going forward.
Perry left professional golf shortly after Norman died. “I was leaning in that direction, but it solidified my decision,” she said. “I just didn’t have the motivation anymore.”
She has built a successful career in insurance and is well known in the Charlotte community. She and Justin live near Carmel Country Club and are the busy parents of two. Scroll through Perry’s social media and you’ll find a dizzying array of family activities, adventures and crafts. Just like her parents, Perry and Justin want their kids to discover their passions and interests.
Perry doesn’t play much golf these days, but it’s still an important part of her life. “My father taught me to play golf for many reasons,” she said. “He loved the game, but he loved life even more. If anyone asked my father for a favor, he always followed through.”
Norman’s family continues to hear from people whose lives he touched. His acts of generosity, large and small, made an indelible impact.
“You know, people today are more cautious about sharing their contacts,” Perry said. “Dad wasn’t. I think we could all benefit from being more like Dad. I try… every day.”
This is the 12th Father’s Day since Norman Swenson passed away. In tribute to this special bond between fathers and daughters, Perry’s sister Ashley said this at Norman’s funeral in 2011:
“Our dad had an overwhelming zest for life, and he chose joy every morning he woke up! Nothing bad or regrettable ever happened to him — it was all just part of living life. He spent 64 years preparing for this day. He prepared his wife and kids as well as he could. He never left anything unsaid. He told us he loved us every day. He gave us more advice and direction than any of us will ever need. He created an example we want to follow. He created a network of wonderful, loyal friends who will keep his memory alive. He treasured each one of you and he told story after story of your adventures. He wouldn’t want us to be sad. He would want us to tell all his stories. His life was short but it was full. One last thing… we’re pretty sure that he started his bucket list when he was 5 years old, and he came pretty close to ticking everything off. I think he would want me to tell you, ‘He who dies with the most stories wins’… so you better get to work!”
Roberta Bowman held executive roles at Duke Energy and the LPGA. She’s been a business mentor and friend of Perry’s since 2010 and is deeply grateful to the Swenson family for sharing their memories and photos for this article.
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