Winning any golf tournament is pretty special but most professionals will tell you that, apart from the majors, winning their own national championship ranks at or near the top of their wish list.
In Canada that has been a wish unfulfilled for sixty years, ever since Pat Fletcher won the Canadian Open at the Point Grey Club in Vancouver back in 1954. Fletcher’s victory came after another long stretch of futility that dated back forty years to Karl Keffer’s win at the Toronto Golf Club in 1914.
(Here’s a trick question that often stumps even the keenest followers of Canadian golf history: Who was the last Canadian born golfer to win the Canadian Open? Most people will answer Pat Fletcher. He was the last Canadian to win the national championship but in fact he was born in Liverpool and moved to Canada as a young man. Karl Keffer was actually the last Canadian born player to win.)
Keffer’s win came at the end of a golden period for Canadians with local pros winning six out of nine championships between 1906 and 1914: Charles Murray (1906 and 1911), his brother Albert in 1908 and 1913 and Keffer in 1909 and 1914.
That’s all we have to show for the 111 year history of the Canadian Open – four golfers with a total of seven victories and the last one over 60 years ago. It’s no wonder Canadian players feel a bit of extra pressure when they tee it up at home.
Mike Weir came closest to ending the foreign domination of our national championship in 2004. After winning the Masters in 2003, Weir was at the top of his game and came to Glen Abbey ranked Top 10 in the world. After three rounds, Weir had a three stroke lead on Vijay Singh, Jesper Parnevik and Cliff Kresge and seemed poised to claim the title.
The pressure on that Sunday afternoon was intense and it seemed like every golf fan on the property was following Weir in the final group. He started off with a double bogey but clawed his way back to another three stroke lead with eight holes to play. Then came the valley – Glen Abbey’s toughest stretch of holes.
Kresge folded early and was never a factor. Parnevik tried to rally but his final round 74 had him going backwards and he finished tied for 9th. Vijay Singh, on the other hand, kept pace with Weir and closed the gap in the valley. Weir produced a shaky three-putt on the 14th and another on the 16th that cost him the outright lead and ultimately led to a playoff.
On the first hole of sudden death (or sudden victory) Weir had another chance at victory. He knocked his second shot onto the 18th green and faced a twenty-five foot eagle putt to win the Canadian Open. He missed.
Then came an even better opportunity as he and Singh played the second playoff hole, the 17th. Weir had a five foot putt to win – a slippery downhill slider. His hands shook as he lined up the putt and the strain on his face was excruciating. Too much pressure. The putt never had a chance of finding the cup.
As he trudged to the 18th tee for another playoff hole, Weir looked drained – like he realized that the five-footer was his last best chance to win the Open and he’d blown it. Sure enough, his tee shot found trouble and after a lay-up, he put his third in the water. Vijay Singh was the 2004 champion.
Mike Weir had to settle for being “low Canadian” that year, a dubious distinction that no-one really wants to win. As Dan Halldorson once remarked, after being told he had won low Canadian honours, “that’s like being the tallest midget”.
Since 2007, the low Canadian each year is presented with the Rivermead Cup, a trophy that bears a long and distinguished record in Canadian golf. But still not something any Canadian really wants, especially at the expense of being Canadian champion.
This year, there will be fifteen Canadians vying to break the streak that started sixty years ago. Led once again by Canadian Golf Hall of Famer Mike Weir, playing in his 25th Open, the list includes David Hearn, Graham DeLaet, Adam Hadwin, Nick Taylor and Roger Sloan from the PGA Tour; Web.com Tour player Brad Fritsch; Golf Canada Young Pro squad members Taylor Pendrith, Corey Conners and Adam Svensson; amateurs Garrett Rank, Austin Connelly and Blair Hamilton; number one ranked PGA of Canada pro Billy Walsh; and Canadian Open qualifier Richard Jung.
That’s a pretty strong crew to try and end the foreign domination of our national championship. Both Hearn and DeLaet have top five finishes on the PGA Tour in recent weeks and are at the top of their game. Several of the young pros and amateurs have racked up victories on other tours as well. Incidentally, Rank and Connelly will represent Canada at the Pan Am Games to be played at Angus Glen GC in Markham the week before the Canadian Open.
It’s been a long futile streak since Pat Fletcher won but it has to be broken sometime. Maybe this will be the year.