It wasn't difficult yesterday afternoon to detect the degree to which many people will miss Canadian Golf Hall of Famer Al Balding, who died last Sunday. They filled the Islington United Church for his funeral, and many continued to a reception and celebration of his life at the nearby Credit Valley Golf and Country Club.
Dan Halldorson, a former PGA Tour pro and now the Canadian Tour's deputy director, was there. Bob Panasik and Wilf Homeniuk, pro golfers and Canadian Golf Hall of Fame members, attended. Canadian golf's man about everything, Richard Grimm, was there, as was Marlene Streit, the only Canadian member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Canadian playing and club pros Ken Trowbridge, Gus Maue, Harry Allard, Bob Beauchemin, Herb Holzscheiter, Ron Rayner, Ian Webb, Irv Lightstone and Ken Venning were there to pay their respects to Balding, his wife Moreen, their children Erin and Al Jr., and their four grandchildren. Lou Myles, the clothing impresario, was there. Myles helped Balding look natty on and off the course.
Friends Eric Hanson, Paul Williams, and Eric Baillie were also in attendance. Indeed, a who's who of Canadian golf showed up to say goodbye to a stylish golfer who belongs in a who's who of the game.
"He was a friend of everybody's," Homeniuk, a teaching pro at the Oakdale Golf and Country Club in Toronto, said. Homeniuk's voice was subdued as he spoke about a man who meant so much to Canadian golf and who had accomplished so much.
Balding's successes on the course have been well-documented. He was the first Canadian to win a PGA Tour event, the 1955 Mayfair Inn Open in Sanford, Fla. Balding defeated luminaries such as Sam Snead, Tommy Bolt and Gardner Dickinson. He won three more PGA Tour events in 1957, and at 76 took the 2000 Canadian PGA Seniors Championship when he shot three consecutive 70s.
Balding played elegant golf, even while nagged by ailments and injuries for much of his career. He was tall and swung in balance, time after time. A swing sequence from the middle of his career demonstrates an action any golfer would want.
There's no hint of effort in his swing. Balding's head is behind the ball at impact, and his left arm and club shaft are in a straight line, with his left wrist slightly bowed. Balding achieved this advanced position after reading Ben Hogan's first book, Power Golf, and then hitting thousands of balls while, he said, "hitting and holding," through impact. No wonder his swing was languid, yet powerful.
But Balding also had his golfing demons. He and the late Stan Leonard were partners in a World Cup in Australia, where Balding had a tough time getting out of bunkers. He suffered bewildering periods when he felt it was impossible to make a putt from three feet. Eventually he learned to relax and let his subconscious take over, allowing his flair for the game to flow through.
Balding spoke of "the battle within," and to his everlasting credit, he faced the battle and, for the most part, conquered it. His performance while winning that 2000 Canadian PGA Senior Championship left observers nearly speechless. There's poetry in those numbers -- 70, 70, 70.
But there was much more to Balding's contributions than his wins. Worden Teasdale, a former president of the Royal Canadian Golf Association, came into Balding's family when the golfer married Moreen, his cousin. Teasdale didn't speak much at all about Balding's many wins, but instead emphasized his off-course contributions.
Balding was a strong supporter of the Easter Seals Society of Ontario, which helps physically challenged children, and started a tournament to raise money for the organization. He became a friend in this way to boys and girls who gave him as much as he gave them -- the Timmys and Tammys of the organization.
Kevin Collins, the first Timmy, read Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd. The Rev. Cathy Dilts referred to Balding's war service and some hearing problems that resulted. She explained that they might have led some people to think Balding gruff at first. But maybe he simply wasn't hearing them.
Eventually, he did. He heard, and he helped.
"He took me to Markland Woods [a Toronto-area course where Balding worked for a time] and watched me hit balls when I was starting on the Canadian Tour," Panasik recalled. "He said I have a bit of a lean at impact, and that I don't turn, but that I make adjustments. Then he said nobody could beat me on the tour. I felt like a winner when I went out. I won a few tournaments and led the money list."
Balding was particularly close with the late George Knudson, who was 13 years younger than him. Knudson's wife Shirley attended the funeral. It's more than 17 years since Knudson died in January, 1989, when he was 51.
Balding visited Knudson in the hospital regularly in his last days. He sat at Knudson's bedside, holding his hand.
That was Balding, there when somebody needed him. As his casket was borne out of the church on a gorgeous summer afternoon yesterday, Streit, for one, wiped away tears running down her cheeks. She wasn't the only one.