Cover

MAJOR WINS AND DISAPPOINTMENTS

ROBERT LEWIS April 28 2003
Cover

MAJOR WINS AND DISAPPOINTMENTS

ROBERT LEWIS April 28 2003

MAJOR WINS AND DISAPPOINTMENTS

Cover

Canadians have a long history at golf's big events,

ROBERT LEWIS

TAKE THAT, Mark Twain (“Golf is a good walk spoiled”). And you, Winston Churchill (“Playing golf is like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture”). No longer is golf just another four-letter word, at least not in Canada. As we shrugged off the vestiges of a long, cold winter, images of a young man from Bright’s Grove, Ont., beamed into more than a million homes from the sun-dappled fairways of the Augusta National Golf Club. People who would no more tune in a golf tournament than sip hemlock were glued to their sets, cheering Mike Weir in his quest to become the very first Canadian to win golf’s grandest prize, the Masters. Like Wayne Gretzky and Donovan Bailey and the men’s and women’s Olympic hockey teams before him, the 32-year-old made Canada proud—and gave a major boost to a game that has struggled in the past decade to live up to its storied traditions.

More than that, in a season of war in Iraq and SARS at home, Weir lifted the spirits of an entire country, on the strength of his playoff victory and his own truly Canadian personality. In a land where institutions such as medicare are the icons, notes pollster Allan Gregg of The Strategic Counsel, “he is a new Canadian hero in a country where the Canadian identity is not very rooted in great people or great events.”

Until now, Canadian male professionals have had to be content with only coming close at the summit of the golfing kingdom. In 1969 it was Winnipeg’s mercurial George Knudson, finishing in a tie for second and missing out on the fabled Master’s green jacket by two shots. In 1985, Dave Barr, from B.C.’s Okanagan region, also finished second at the U.S. Open after leading on the last day by two strokes on the back nine.

There have been two other Canadian tri-

umphs in the so-called “majors” of golf. In 1968, Sandra Post of Oakville, Ont., the first Canadian woman to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour, won the LPGA Championship—and was named rookie of the year. She went on to win eight career victories on tour, the same number as Knudson, and became the inspiration for a long line of Canadian woman pros, including such current LPGA stalwarts as Lori Kane of P.E.I. and Dawn Coe-Jones of Campbell River, B.C., the newest member of Canada’s Golf Hall of Fame. And in 1932, when it was counted as a “major,” the U.S. Amateur went to London, Ont., insurance executive Charles Ross (Sandy) Somerville.

MIKE WEIR is no George Knudson. Although he studied the golf swing like a scientist examining DNA, Knudson was a chain-

smoking reed of a man who once confessed, “I used to drink Scotch like it was milk, just to sleep at night.” And he was so committed to perfecting his ball striking that he paid little attention to putting, short chip shots and blasting out of the sand—the skills that Weir mined in his victory.

Admired by his peers as one of the smoothest swingers on Tour, Knudson was his own harshest critic. He once recalled a five-iron shot he had hit a decade earlier in Tokyo. “It was something that I had worked toward all my life,” he told Maclean’s in 1979. “I’ve hit one perfect shot in my life, and that’s one more than most.” Toronto TV producer Bill Johnston recalls caddying for Knudson during the 1961 Canadian Open in their native Winnipeg and complimenting him on a shot. “He put his hand on my shoulder and said, T appreciate the sentiment, but you will never know what a good shot is. For the sake of our relationship, never again comment on my shots, please.’ ”

At the 1969 Masters, Knudson actually shot the best round of the day among the top five finishers, a two-under-par 70. On the 15th and 16th holes on the last day, he made birdie putts of 10 and 30 feet, needing a three on the par-four 18th to force a playoff. His birdie putt stopped two inches short of the hole. His second-place finish earned him $12,333. The next day, the New York Times devoted five words to Knudson’s play.

Barr faced similar issues during his 28year career on the PGA Tour. Although he won two tournaments and a career $2.5 million, he never got the recognition he felt he deserved. When he watched highlights in his motel room after a round, he never saw himself. “The camera would pull away and they’d show some other guy,” he told columnist Trent Frayne in 1985. Even back

home, the dashing Jim Nelford, now a U.S. network golf analyst, would get more ink. “I guess he had an agent,” Barr lamented.

Weir has no such problems—and the Canadian golf establishment is delighted. “For the past 20 years we’ve been dry,” notes Stephen Ross, executive director of the Royal Canadian Golf Association. “Mike Weir has taken a gigantic step for himself, and several strides forward for everyone involved in golf.” Richard Grimm, the celebrated former director of the Canadian Open, adds: “Overall, it’s a tremendous plus for Canadian golf.”

But will it matter in the long run? Golf writer Lome Rubenstein, who had the good fortune to sign a contract for a book about Weir before his Masters victory, is skeptical: “Does it mean the RCGA and corporations are going to put more money into Canadian golf, or are they just going to invest in Mike Weir? Does it mean more kids are going to play on courses for $10? To what extent does Weir’s triumph translate into more people playing the game?”

Good questions. One thing is clear, though. Mike Weir is a quintessential Canadian fellow, well-mannered, respectful of his elders, devoted to his family, committed to persevering against the odds—the kind of guy the image-makers and ad agencies love. And now, perhaps, he is poised to become the greatest golfer this country has produced. There is no accounting for what winning a big one does for a golfer’s confidence. Even coming close gave George Knudson a boost. At Augusta in 1969, he beat Arnold Palmer by 10 shots and Jack Nicklaus by nine. After it was all over, Knudson declared: “I know now that I belong—and that I can, and will, win a major.”

It was not to be. Although he went on to win back-to-back tournaments that season, he left the Tour before contending again for a major and devoted his days to teaching his theory of the perfect swing. Philosophical to the end—he succumbed to lung cancer in 1989 at 51—Knudson once observed: “Golf is the game of a lifetime, one in which you can get better and better.” This month, in the fading light of an Augusta evening, as Tiger Woods helped the new champion don his green Masters jacket, Mike Weir beamed proudly, proof positive that Knudson’s law is one for the ages. I?il

Former Maclean’s editor Robert Lewis is vice-president of content development at Rogers Media, rlewis@rci.rogers.com