OAKVILLE, ONT. - A Canadian had not won the Canadian Open since Pat Fletcher took the championship in 1954 at the Point Grey Golf and Country Club in Vancouver. But 50 years later, in 2004, it appeared that Mike Weir would win the tournament he and his fellow Canadians on the PGA Tour usually refer to as their fifth major. This was at the Glen Abbey Golf Club, where the RBC Canadian Open begins Thursday with Weir and 17 other Canadians entered.
Weir, then 34, was 17 months removed from his win in the 2003 Masters. He took a two-shot lead into the then par-four 16th hole the last round, but three-putted for bogey. He still held a one-shot lead. The spectators who had been cheering for him loudly all day hit a new decibel level as he walked down the 17th fairway, and broke into O Canada. But Weir had not yet won. Weir said later he had been “literally deaf” at times because of the roars, and that he had to yawn to pop his ears in the midst of the frenzy.
Weir ended up losing to Vijay Singh in a sudden-death playoff. Now, nine years later, Weir is at Glen Abbey along with a robust list of talented Canadians. Will this be the year a Canadian golfer wins his country’s most important championship?
“There’s no question that this is the strongest and deepest Canadian field we’re ever had,” Graham DeLaet, the leading Canadian on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes and more than $1.5-million (all currency U.S.) in earnings, said on the practice range.
DeLaet played a practice round on Tuesday with six fellow Canadians that included nine holes with each of them. The players aren’t even the Canadians who, realistically, have the best chance of contending this week. But they are immersed in what tour golfers call the “process” of developing their games. DeLaet, playing his fifth Canadian Open, is a good example that it takes time for most golfers to mature so that they can express their abilities under maximum exposure.
“This is the first time I’ve come to the Canadian Open knowing I have what it takes to get a win,” DeLaet said.
DeLaet explored the experience of playing in front of a home crowd desperate for a Canadian to win.
“You know you will have a ton of support,” DeLaet said. “But at the same time you also have to stick to what you’ve been doing.”
Brad Fritsch, a PGA Tour rookie at 35, used to feel the jolt a Canadian gets when playing the Canadian Open. The Ottawa native didn’t know where he would be playing the next week, as he wasn’t a PGA Tour regular. He’s won $415,984 for 137th place on the PGA Tour money list this year.
“Now I feel this is my tour,” Fritsch said. Still, he added that a player “has to be there” to have a sense of how he will handle a situation such as the one Weir faced nine years ago.
“I can’t imagine what Mike was feeling there,” Fritsch said.
Weir said then, “I wasn’t able to gather my emotions like I normally do.”
Any Canadian in contention come Sunday will need to gather his emotions. Should David Hearn, for one, contend, perhaps he will be equipped to do so given that he got into a playoff two weeks ago at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill. The Brantford, Ont., golfer didn’t win, and, like DeLaet and Fritsch, is still seeking his first PGA Tour win.
Weir has won seven PGA Tour events besides the Masters. Stephen Ames, the 49-year-old Calgarian, has won four PGA Tour events. Adam Hadwin tied for fourth in the 2011 Canadian Open. The 25-year-old from Abbotsford, B.C., has posted two top-10 finishes in his past three Web.com Tour events.
These golfers and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Canadians, will be under the microscope this week. Jim Nelford knows that. Nelford, now 58, shot 68-70 the first two rounds of the 1980 Canadian Open at the Royal Montreal Golf Club. He was in the final group Saturday with Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. In front of boisterous fans, Nelford shot 78. He finished 16 shots behind winner Bob Gilder.
“I don’t care how many sports psychologists you’ve been to, you don’t know what it’s like until you get into that arena,” said Nelford, who will be inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame on Friday evening. “Canadians don’t want to be disappointed. The way the fans react does affect your psyche.”
Still, the number of Canadians coming in this week and playing well could help.
“It takes some pressure off when there are more Canadians [who could contend or win],” Nelford said.
There’s also this. Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, suggested a theory that, if valid, indicates Canadians might flourish very soon.
“This is an underestimated thing in golf,” the thoughtful Australian said, “but if you take the U.S. out of it because so many players are from there, it could apply. Fifteen years or so after [Greg] Norman was the best player in the world, Australia has gone from four to 20 players on the PGA Tour. It definitely went through a sweet spot in talent after Norman. South Africa could have six or seven players in the Presidents Cup this year, about 10 years after Ernie Els was around the top. We’re 10 or so years now from Weirsy winning the Masters.”
Ogilvy’s point was that Canada’s sweet spot could be imminent. “There is a lot of talent in the country,” Weir said Wednesday.
Will that maturity show itself this week? All will be revealed. And should a Canadian find himself in contention late Sunday, spectators could spontaneously erupt into singing O Canada again. But they might be advised to wait until the tournament is decided, and, if all goes well, a Canadian wins the championship for the first time in 59 years.