I don’t want to let this year get away without acknowledging one of those round numbers that make one take notice. It made me take notice, anyway. I’m referring to the fact that it was 40 years ago that the ball-striking maestro George Knudson won the last of his eight PGA Tour events. Forty years: Hard to believe, maybe because the image of Knudson striking a golf ball with precision time after time remains so imprinted on my mind’s eye.
Knudson, then 35, won that last tournament at the Silverado Country Club in Napa, Calif. The tournament was the 1972 Kaiser International Open Invitational. Knudson shot 66-69-66-70 and won by three shots over Hale Irwin and Bobby Nichols. He came to the tournament needing to do something big to maintain his exempt status on the 1973 PGA Tour. Winning took care of that matter.
“How sweet it is,” Knudson said after he wrapped up his win.
Knudson never much cared for the itinerant life of the tour player, so it was important for him to be able to set his own schedule. He couldn’t have known, of course, that the win in the Kaiser in the third week of October 1972 would be the last PGA Tour victory of his career. By then, to be sure, he was already playing only part-time.
Knudson won the Kaiser while en route to Japan with his wife Shirley. Knudson loved Japan; just a couple of weeks ago I was walking in Toronto’s Yorkville district with my wife and pointed out Shogun, the restaurant where George and I, along with his dear friends Paul Williams and the late Gary Alles used to meet regularly for lunch. We’d talk about his love of Japan, which he and Shirley visited every year. Inevitably we’d get into the golf swing, and George would tell us that he couldn’t understand how golfers who made their living as tour pros could play without absolute understanding of what they were trying to do with the golf club.
Hitting different shots and controlling the flight of the golf ball excited George. Here’s a clip from his instructional video The Swing Motion . He was an artist of the game, but he also felt he’d figured out the science in a logical manner. George wasn’t cut out for the life on the road, which is why he wanted to find something to which he could devote himself and that didn’t mean he would have to travel and be away from Shirley and their sons Kevin, Paul, and Dean.
“I was strung out all the time, so used to agony I didn’t know it,” Knudson said in his book The Natural Golf Swing, which I helped him write. We started the book in the summer of 1987, right around the time he was diagnosed with lung cancer, to which he succumbed in January 1989. He was only 51 years old.
As for the Kaiser tournament, George wrote that it was t he first time he had “felt joyful after winning. It was the first time I let go to any degree. I had been so locked into what I was doing prior to that. Shirley said it was so nice to see me smiling for having won than for just having performed well.”
George learned a lot from being so tightly wound, and would later transmit the hard lessons he’d learned to students through his wise instruction. “You don’t play golf to relax, you relax to play golf,” he would advise. And, “You have to give up control to gain control.”
He started to teach full-time in the late 1970s, a few years after he won the Kaiser; these were years in which he was still trying to play the tour. But he couldn’t again relax as he did at the Kaiser.
“Never again did I have the feeling I had in Napa,” George wrote. “Maybe I was too immature to handle the lifestyle. But after my three sons reached school age, I couldn’t stand being away from them. And Shirley, of course, couldn’t travel as much with me. I hated the isolation, but I kept at it. I should have left the tour then, but I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
However, he eventually found teaching to his liking, and it kept him involved in and absorbed by golf for the last 10 years of his life. Before this, he won the 1976 and 1977 Canadian PGA Championships, because he knew how to make the ball go where he wanted it to go. He was at home most of the time, rather than on the road. We sat for hours by the pool in the tranquil, open home where he and Shirley and the boys lived in north Toronto, and we’d talk golf and eventually work on his book.
As 2012 winds down, and as I write in Jupiter, Florida while looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, I think of how much George influenced my thinking about golf. I remember the message he left on my answering machine some 35 years ago, after I wrote my first article in a major magazine.
“Just keep writing, Lorne, and good things will happen,” George said. I hardly even knew him then.
One of the best things that happened was that I came to know George. I miss my friend, and today, 40 years after that last PGA Tour win, I wanted to write about him and, perhaps, to help ensure that the current generation of Canadian golfers in particular appreciates what a fine man he was.
George was a gentle man who was a friend to all golfers he encountered. He wanted only one thing for golfers: That they enjoy the game as much as possible. He helped make that possible, because of who he was.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein