Herb, we hardly know you

You’ll see him carrying Ben Curtis’s bag at this year’s Masters. He played football and hockey and drove the Zamboni at university. He is probably the most successful golf coach Canada has ever produced. Yeah, that guy.

John Gordon March 8 2004

Herb, we hardly know you

You’ll see him carrying Ben Curtis’s bag at this year’s Masters. He played football and hockey and drove the Zamboni at university. He is probably the most successful golf coach Canada has ever produced. Yeah, that guy.

John Gordon March 8 2004

Herb, we hardly know you

You’ll see him carrying Ben Curtis’s bag at this year’s Masters. He played football and hockey and drove the Zamboni at university. He is probably the most successful golf coach Canada has ever produced. Yeah, that guy.

John Gordon

If you thought the image last July of virtual unknown Ben Curtis winning the British Open was improbable, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

You want virtual unknown? You want improbable?

Meet Herb Page, the pride of Markham, Ont.

At the age of 51, Page has been the golf coach at Ohio’s Kent State University for 26 years. Although Curtis credited a putting tip from his former coach for helping him win the Open, contributing to Curtis’s success is just one of Page’s noteworthy achievements.

In addition to Curtis, Page has coached a series of excellent players, including some outstanding Canadians from across the country. These northern notables include David Morland IV of North Bay, Ont., now on the PGA Tour, and Nationwide Tour player Jon Mills of Brooklin, Ont., who last year became the first Canadian since Mike Weir to win the Canadian Tour’s Order of Merit.

In recognition of his abilities, Page was inducted into the Golf Coaches Association of America’s Hall of Fame in January. It was just the latest milestone in a most unpredictable journey, a route more circuitous than Jim Furyk’s backswing.

Longtime friend Ted Maude, a Markham golf pro under whom Page worked as a teenager, recalls helping the youngster write applications “to more than 100 U.S. universities. He received only one reply, from Kent State.” Thirty-four years later, it is safe to assume most of those who chose not to reply still regret their decision.

It is just as safe to assume that Page never has, either. At 5-foot-5, he lettered not only in golf as an undergraduate at Kent State, but also in hockey and, astoundingly, in football for a similarly overachieving team that went to the 1972 Tangerine Bowl.

In April, he’ll fulfil another improbable dream: Caddying for Curtis on the emerald fairways of Augusta National at either a practice round or the par-3 tournament preceding The Masters.

long, long way from the tiny farm just north of Toronto where he grew up, a fact that is not lost on him when he tells an interviewer that he has just come from working with this year’s golf team at the university’s US$ 10million indoor multi-sports facility. His current protégés include Ontario Amateur champ Peter Laws of Mississauga, Ryan Yip of Calgary, and Marc Bourgeois of Dieppe, N.B. He is also excited about the opening this summer of a US$1.5-million dedicated golf practice facility at Kent State’s golf course.

“It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was going to the old Don Mills par-3 course with my dad,” Page says, a touch wistfully. “I guess I was about 12, and he told me, ‘You’re not going to be big enough to play in the NHL, but a little guy can be a golfer.’ We used to pull up on Saturday mornings when it was still pitch black and out we would go. My dad never broke 100 in his life but that’s how I started playing golf.”

Page’s father, Sid, died in January, before he could witness his son’s Hall of Fame induction. With little education but great pride and determination, Sid rose to foreman during his 42 years at the Canada Wire and Cable factory. He loved his life, but wanted more for his boys.

“We were never what you would call poor, but we always had vegetables, chickens, cows and pigs on the farm,” Page recalls with a catch in his voice, his father’s death still painfully fresh. “My dad’s claim to fame when we were growing up was that he had raised the meal on the table.”

His more lasting claim to fame is the success of his sons. John is a prominent lawyer in Toronto and Herb ... well, Herb is - or should be - a significant figure in Canadian sports lore.

Although Page admits his golfing ability was just “a little above average,” it, combined with some hockey talent, was enough to earn him a partial scholarship to Kent State in the tumultuous political cauldron that was the United States of 1970.

A little guy can be a golfer.

He arrived in the infamous college town of Kent, just outside of Akron, south of Cleveland, only four months after trigger-happy National Guardsmen had killed four student protesters and wounded nine more during a campus demonstration against the Vietnam war. “I didn’t know anything about Vietnam or Cambodia,” Page says. “I knew Richard Nixon was the president, and that was about it. Later that year, there were empty dorm rooms because kids who didn’t get good grades were sent over to Vietnam.”

Page’s grades were good, but he had to work in the school cafeteria and wash dishes to supplement his meagre scholarship. He would eventually become captain of the golf team. But when the full scholarship arrived in his junior year, it wasn’t because of his golf ability. It was because of another set of improbable circumstances.

One spring day, Page and some friends were watching the football team practise. On a bet, the diminutive recreational soccer player with the “outwardly rotated legs” took a turn at kicking, with enough success that the coach asked him to try out. “I worked all summer and got pretty good,” he says. “Then I got a break and got into a game and made one [field goal], and then made another one to win a game and we got into the Tangerine Bowl. We won the only Mid-American Conference championship that Kent State has ever won. In 1973, my senior year, we went 9-2 and were ranked top 20 in the country.” Seven of his teammates, including Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, went on to the NFL.

At graduation, a measly $1,000 - Canadian, at that! -was all that stood between football’s gain and golf’s loss. Drafted by the CFL’s B.C. Lions, Page couldn’t come to terms with the legendary Jackie Parker and Bobby Ackles over his demand for a signing bonus.

“Thank goodness I didn’t go,” he says. “They called and said, ‘You’re supposed to be here today.’ I said, T didn’t get the cheque.’ They said, ‘We don’t give cheques to fifthround draft choices’.”

Page wanted the $1,000 to fund his post-graduate studies, but he managed without it. After receiving his Masters degree in 1976, he became the head pro at Kent State’s golf course. To obtain his working visa, he turned to a time-honoured Canadian tradition. “I was the manager of the ice arena, running the Zamboni and sharpening skates. Who does that better than a Canadian?”

The following year, he partnered with three local physicians to purchase the 7,000yard Windmill Lakes course in nearby Ravenna, Ohio. Eventually, he and another of the original partners bought the other two out. Page remains director of golf at the upscale public facility where his collegiate team has carte blanche.

Page is justifiably proud of his golf teams, which have included 13 all-Americans. Only 30 teams of almost 300 qualify for the national championship, and Kent State has been there eight of the last 13 years. In 2000, the school finished ninth, its best finish ever. Kent State has also won 11 Mid-American Conference championships and has qualified for the NCAA Regionais in 13 of the last 15 years. Ben Curtis now is the most famous of Page’s golfers, many of whom went on to careers on the PGA or mini-tours or as club pros.

Throughout the years, Page spurred them all with the demand that he wanted to be on the bag if one of them ever made it to The Masters. He stuck to his guns, holding out for Augusta even when Morland offered him the chance to tote his bag when he qualified for the 1995 U.S. Open.

Last July, the day before Curtis left for Royal St. George’s, he spent a couple of hours chatting in Page’s office. Among other topics, he mentioned that a good finish (top five) in the Open would earn him an exemption from qualifying for this year’s Masters. “Get out there and do it!” Page told him. “Get me that bag!”

At a party celebrating Curtis’s triumphant return as the first golfer in 90 years to win a major in his first attempt, the most unlikely of Open champions looked at the most improbable of golf icons

“You’ll be on the bag at The Masters, coach!” he exclaimed.

“It’s a reward for our program, for everyone who ever played for me,” Page says now. “I can’t wait to put on those white bib overalls with Ben’s name on the back, put on my Kent State hat, and walk out there.

“It’s a folklore story that’s come to fruition.”

Herb Page might have been talking about his entire life. ^

John Gordon is Rogers Sportsnet’s golf analyst.