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BIRTH OF A LEGEND Add to ...

rube@sympatico.ca

[DROP]inety-nine Canadian Opens have come and gone, and the 100th will start Thursday at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont.

Of the many significant moments in Canada's most important golf tournaments, none has catapulted a player to prominence more than the 1955 Canadian Open, when Arnold Palmer won at the Weston Golf and Country Club in Toronto.

Palmer's win was his first as a professional. He went on to win 61 more PGA Tour events, seven majors, and 10 tournaments on the Champions Tour. Palmer will turn 80 on Sept. 10, and the celebration of his many accomplishments has already started. The Golf Channel is doing a countdown to his birthday, while the United States Golf Association has, on its website, invited people to share their stories about Palmer. The stories have been pouring in.

"The Canadian Open was one of the biggest tournaments in the game," Palmer said recently, on the eve of the 100th playing of the tournament for which Royal Bank of Canada is now the title sponsor. "I was involved in working with various Canadian officials to make it one of the majors. We weren't totally successful, but we did establish it as important."

The importance of the tournament has eroded over the years. The World Golf Championship tournaments and other events such as the PGA Tour's Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, the Memorial in Dublin, Ohio, that Jack Nicklaus hosts and the AT&T National in Bethesda, Md., that Tiger Woods hosts, have usurped the Canadian Open's significance.

The Royal Canadian Golf Association's and RBC's efforts to improve its status are beginning to pay off, but it's debatable as to whether the tournament will return to its former place in the golf world.

Meanwhile, the tournament's history is worth acknowledging and celebrating. Palmer's win was one of the major moments in its middle years, when golf was starting to boom in Canada and the United States.

Palmer beat a strong field at Weston. Sam Snead was there, as well as Jackie Burke Jr. Snead had already won his seven majors, while Burke went on to win the 1956 Masters and PGA Championship.

Palmer wasn't nearly as well-regarded as they were coming into the Canadian Open, although he had won the U.S. Amateur the summer before. Caddies looking for a bag weren't too interested in Palmer. His was one of the last to be taken.

But Palmer shot 64-67-64-70 to win, and 6,000 spectators showed up the final day to watch. They saw a man who showed why he would become known as an aggressive player who would go for broke. That, in fact, later became the title of a book about him.

Palmer was playing with Tommy Bolt in the final round. He hooked his tee shot on the sixth hole, by which time he held a six- or seven-shot lead. Palmer elected to play through a narrow opening in the trees. Bolt wanted him to play safely back to the fairway, but Palmer hit a 6-iron through the trees and onto the green.

"Tommy wouldn't speak to me the rest of the round because I took that shot through the trees," Palmer later said. "But that was my way. My father taught me to go get it. If you're shooting between two trees with a 10-foot opening, and you try to calculate the percentages, you'd be there forever."

Palmer went on to win by four shots, with Burke finishing second. But he left something behind at Weston.

"My putter disappeared from in front of the clubhouse while I was celebrating," Palmer said. "It's never reappeared."

Palmer won the Masters the next year with another putter, and that summer came to the Beaconsfield Golf and Country Club near Montreal to try to successfully defend his Canadian Open win. But Doug Sanders, a 22-year-old amateur from Cedartown, Ga., who had picked cotton for five cents a day when he was 7, upstaged him and launched his own career.

Sanders was playing his first professional tournament. He was the first and last amateur to win the Canadian Open. He shot four rounds in the 60s, closing with a 68 and then beating Dow Finsterwald in a playoff. Finsterwald was not happy to lose to an amateur, but he did collect the $2,400 first prize. He later went on to win the 1958 PGA Championship.

Sanders turned pro after his win, when 10 friends provided him all of $10 each to give him a stake to play for pay. The equipment company Wilson signed him for a $5,000 contract, given what he had shown at Beaconsfield.

"They already knew I could win," Sanders said of the contract Wilson gave him. Sanders went on to win 20 PGA Tour events, but is remembered more for wearing colourful clothes - tangerine goes with matching slacks and shirt, for example - and the raucous playboy life he led after becoming friends with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Sanders, though, is most remembered for the 30-inch putt he missed on the last green of the 1970 Open Championship at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. Had he made it, he would have won. Instead, Jack Nicklaus beat him in their 18-hole playoff.

Sanders has often said that he doesn't think about the putt he missed very often, "only every five minutes or so."

Sanders didn't miss many putts at the 1956 Canadian Open. Canadians interested in the tournament were able to watch the last few holes, because the event was televised for the first time. The final three holes were shown.

The Canadian Open was becoming firmly established in the country's sporting landscape. It certainly helped, of course, that Palmer had fast become so popular and that the event attracted the best players.

Doug Ford was one of those top players who played regularly. He won in 1959 at the Islesmere Golf Club in Montreal and 1963 at the Scarboro Golf and Country Club in Toronto. Ford will turn 87 on Aug. 6. He is the oldest living winner of the Canadian Open.

Told of that fact the other day during an interview from his summer home in New Hampshire, Ford laughed and said: "That's a hell of a record."

He added: "At Islesmere, I was just playing well, and nobody was making a run at me. At Scarboro, I made a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole that got me the win."

Ford, the 1955 PGA Championship and 1957 Masters winner, played with the Canadian legend Moe Norman at Islesmere. He hit what he called a "hard hook" off the 16th tee, and the crowd applauded.

"Moe stood up and said to the crowd that was no way to treat me," Ford recalled. "He was defending me, and I appreciated that."

This was many years before players such as Greg Norman, Nick Price and Tiger Woods would win the Canadian Open. This was when, as Ford said, agreeing with Palmer: "I tell people that the Canadian Open and also the Western Open [in Chicago]were bigger wins in those days than the Masters. The Canadian Open had some fields then."

Some fields, some players, and many stories.

The Canadian Golf Hall of Fame and Museum on the grounds of Glen Abbey pays tribute to the tournament's long and storied history. As Tom Watson demonstrated during last week's Open Championship, there's a lot more to the game than the latest and greatest.

There's the game's rich past.

For the Canadian Open, that includes Palmer, Sanders, and Ford - the architects of its storied middle years.

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