SPORTS

A master of flight

An affectionate farewell to George Knudson

TRENT FRAYNE February 6 1989
SPORTS

A master of flight

An affectionate farewell to George Knudson

TRENT FRAYNE February 6 1989

A master of flight

An affectionate farewell to George Knudson

SPORTS

TRENT FRAYNE

The picture a great many golf fans will retain of George Knudson is of a guy hustling along the fairway in short, quick strides, cigarette smoke steaming out behind, a wiry frame, a mop of rusty hair, a little smile lighting up a beet-red kisser.

Ah yes, that little smile. It was nearly always there, as though George were relishing a private, warm thought or maybe listening to a different drummer. For a thing about George was that he didn’t seem to need the approval of his peers or the cheers of the throng or even the handshake that goes to the victor. George’s fulfilment was in knowing that he’d damned nearly mastered the complex feat of controlling a golf ball’s flight.

George died of lung cancer last week at 51, a cheerful man accepted by everybody who knows a birdie from a bluejay as the best golfer Canada ever produced. His eight victories on the U.S. Professional Golfers’ Association tour are a Canadian record, and his PGA earnings of $532,157 identified him as one of the world’s top 50 players until skyrocketing tournament purses made prize money meaningless except in money belts.

In 1968, George won the Phoenix Open and the Tucson Open back-toback. If he had won the Phoenix Open in 1988, he would have collected $108,000. The Hawaiian Open has replaced the Tucson event and its winner’s purse is also $108,000.

Instead of collecting $216,000,

George pocketed $20,000 for each of his big wins. In 1969, at the revered Masters, he was in an exciting four-way finish with Tom Weiskopf,

Billy Casper and George Archer. Ar-

cher beat him by a stroke and won it.

This native-born Winnipegger, who learned last Dec. 16 in his room at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto that he had been appointed a member of the Order of Canada, might well have doubled his triumphs if he had put the work into his putting that he applied to the rest of his golf game. But he was a man in an almost passionate pursuit of an unblemished swing, and putting bored him. Prodding a ball

along a carpet with a lifeless pat struck him as unimaginative and dreary. Still, he never disputed that the neglect cost him dearly.

“I got what I deserved,” George said once. He carried that philosophy of cause and effect to everything he did. When doctors diagnosed his illness in June of 1987, he didn’t feel sorry for himself, a smoker for 30 years who had tried many times to break the addiction. “Hey, I smoked those things,” he told his close friend

golf writer Lome Rubenstein. “Who was I to think that cancer wouldn’t get me?”

As a young man in Winnipeg, he was tom between a career as a golfer or as a painter and, a few years before he died, he told friends that he was thinking of building a cottage for himself and his wife, Shirley, in Northern Ontario, so that he could try painting again. With their three sons grown—Kevin, 27, Paul, 24, and Dean, 19—George also had planned joining the Senior PGA Tour, a growing and lucrative circuit for golfers 50 and over.

Chances are he’d have done well there. Fellow pros often waxed rhapsodic about his ability to control a golf ball in flight. Lee Trevino once ranked him with Ben Hogan as one of golf’s purest swingers, and another widely respected pro, Dale Douglass, a current fivetime winner on the Senior Tour, told Rubenstein that George’s reputation was very much alive. “Everybody still comments on what a fine player George was,” said Douglass, “and how many shots he could hit that the rest of us couldn’t.”

One summer day a long time ago, soon after George moved from Winnipeg to Toronto, he stood on a tee at the practice field at the Oakdale Golf Club holding a three-wood in his bleeding hands. He had hit balls all morning, paused half an hour for a sandwich and a glass of milk, then gone back to his imitation of a metronome. Later, he picked up his three-wood and began alternately hooking and fading shots, hitting balls by the dozen and almost always landing them within a few yards of the previous ones. He had Band-Aids on several fingers and blood on several Band-Aids. “The calluses get soft if I take time off,” George said to a guy who had gone there to write a piece about him. “They’ll be okay in a couple of days.” Watching George play, it was hard to escape the notion that hitting the ball just right was its own reward. He never expressed envy of another man’s success, never belittled others’ achievements, was serious about pursuing a perfect shot, but never e took himself seriously, content in his endless quest, wearing that z tiny smile.

u For instance, once amid the fetch| ing beauty of the dogwoods and aza“ leas of Georgia in springtime, he drilled a long hook onto the forest floor

of a stand of pines, setting himself an

impossible position for a decent approach shot to the green. He tried it, though, and—imagine his embarrassment—he missed the ball completely.

He looked up, gazing at his gallery, and his eyes landed on Jack Marks, a Toronto golf writer. Marks felt for him, but George seemed undismayed. “How about that?” he said, smiling his enigmatic George Knudson smile. “My first Masters whiff.”