A Paean to our Open
(Pictured above: Sam Snead, 3-time Canadian Open winner)
This blog was going to be about the problems facing the Canadian Open. I may still write that piece sometime in the next few weeks, but since I’m in a good mood at the moment, I thought I’d produce a slightly more positive view about our “national tournament”.
The Canadian Open has had its ups and downs, no doubt about that. But considering that it’s existed since 1904, and is the third oldest event on the PGA Tour (behind the Open Championship and the US Open), that’s a pretty impressive record. The only other non-major tournament that comes close is the Chicago-based Western Open, which was active from 1899 until it evolved into something else in 2007.
The first winner of “our” Open was a gentleman named John H. Oke. I wasn’t there at the time, so I can’t describe Mr. Oke. In fact, there is not one single reference to him on the internet, so I can’t offer even a hint of colour about the man, other than he was English, as were most good golfers then. Mr. Oke won the princely sum of $60 for shooting a smooth 16-over par score of 156 over 36 holes at Royal Montreal. If they played anytime other than June, July, or August, then 16 over would truly have been spectacular.
But the point is, in 112 years, the Canadian Open has built itself a fine and proud history.
Yes, we’ve had some questionable champions in the last 30 years… roughly what you might call the “modern” era. With no disrespect intended, I’m thinking of names like Chez Reavie, Dudley Hart, Bob Murphy, and the controversial Ken Green. Nonetheless, these gents played 72 holes like the rest of the field, and had the lowest score, so no one can diminish their achievement.
We’ve also had some of the greatest names in golf history win our Open: Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour, Sam Snead (3 times), Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Gene Littler, Lee Trevino (3), Greg Norman, Curtis Strange, Nick Price, Tiger Woods. Last year’s winner, Jason Day, may well be included in that special list one day.
As I scroll through the list of previous winners, a few names in particular stand out to me. One is “Lord Byron” Nelson, who, as most of you would know, won his 11th and final victory of an 11-tournament-win streak, at the 1945 Canadian Open at Thornhill Golf & Country Club… a golf course that (to its credit) hasn’t changed a lot in those 70 intervening years.
In 1947, the inimitable Bobby Locke shot 16-under at Scarboro GC, to beat Ed “Porky” Oliver by two shots… Bobby Locke was a colourful, temperamental old boy, one of the great putters of his day, and one of the very first champion golfers to come out of South Africa. Locke won 15 events on the PGA Tour during his career, but is better known today as a (British) Open champion four times from 1949-57.
Arnold Palmer won his first professional tournament at Weston G&CC in the 1955 Canadian Open, a milestone that Weston commemorated with Arnold unveiling a statue of himself there in 2005. And of course, the only Canadian to have won our event, since it became an attraction on the “important tournament” schedule after World War I, was Montreal’s Pat Fletcher, at Point Grey in Vancouver in 1954. A few Canadians have since come close, including Mike Weir who lost in a heart-breaking playoff to Vijay Singh, twelve years ago.
One other name that stands out but doesn’t appear on the Champions list is Jack Nicklaus. Over 20 years, 1965-85, Jack finished second seven times… and the Canadian Open will forever remain the one significant championship that Jack never captured.
I saw two of those losses in person… in 1965, Jack had it in the bag on the back nine at Mississaugua, but then rinsed his ball in the river on the famed “Big Chief” – a par 5 he tried to reach in two – and gave victory to Gene Littler. In ’68, at St. George’s, I’d finished caddying for Orville Moody, and was able to watch Jack and lefty Bob Charles come up 18 on Sunday. Jack was a shot behind on the tee. Charles hit his 7-iron second shot into the green about a foot from the hole in front of a huge crowd, and that was that.
In 1981, having rushed my wife to Toronto General Hospital to deliver our first child, I rushed around the hospital trying to find a TV, ‘cause Jack was tied for the lead with four holes to go. Jack lost (to Peter Oosterhuis), but I’m glad to say we won the day with a fine baby boy.
Great memories from a great history. I’m sure every reader of this column can think of Canadian Open memories of their own. It would be a shame if our Open ever died.