One in a series of previews for the April 6-9 Masters
In 2003, by the time Mike Weir became the first Canadian (and first lefty) to win the Masters (or any men’s major, for that matter), two of his countrymen, widely recognized as among the best ballstrikers of all time, had tried and failed.
Can we blame the “Canadian curse”?
On the 72nd hole of the 1969 Masters, George Knudson missed a birdie putt. The resulting par left him in a tie with Billy Casper and Tom Weiskopf, a shot back of winner George Archer.
That Knudson, who would win eight times on Tour, would never prevail in his seven appearances at Augusta National (three top 10s) came as no surprise to those who knew his game. Jack Nicklaus was blunt: “He had a million-dollar swing and a 10-cent putter.” Lee Trevino said, “If he had been the putter that (Tom) Watson or I was, or any of the other guys, hell, George Knudson would have won every tournament he ever played in.”
Moe Norman, now almost as mythological for his personality as his ballstriking, was invited to play in the 1957 Masters as the reigning Canadian Amateur champion. We can blame Sam Snead for never knowing how “Pipeline Moe” would have fared on those nefarious putting surfaces through four rounds. Norman took a driving-range tip from Snead to heart after the second round, hitting an estimated 800 balls until his hands bled. He had to withdraw after nine holes the next day due to that injury.
Knudson and Norman suffered from what could be called “the Canadian curse,” afflicting great swingers with the inability – or indifference – to master the short game, especially putting. Quantifiably, Canada has had proportionately more great swingers than most countries. But, as has been famously said, putting is a game within the game. You can’t expect to dominate without both.
Norman said as much in a 2004 interview with Golf Digest.
“I hated putting, and so did George Knudson. We played against each other in many betting games where putting didn't count. If you missed a fairway, you owed the other guy $20. If you missed a green, you owed $20. If you hit the flagstick, you won $100. When we got to the green we just picked up our balls and went to the next hole.”
Norman and Knudson fell in love with ballstriking, to the detriment of what arguably is the most vital facet of the game. They were not alone. The late Dan Halldorson could dissect a course with his iron game but stumbled on the greens, a flaw that led to him winning only one official Tour event in his lengthy career. Weir worked around mediocre putting (he was 97th on Tour in putting in 2003) to win his Masters.
Graham DeLaet, widely admired for his tee-to-green game, continues to struggle with his putting and chipping. He took a brief hiatus last season, citing “incredible anxiety” about his short game. He missed the cut in his only Masters appearance in 2014, in no small part to that weakness. The Canadian curse strikes again?
But there may be a “great white north hope.”
Adam Hadwin, posting a 59 at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January and his maiden PGA Tour win at the Valspar Championship in March, wields every club in the bag with equal dexterity. It wasn’t always so.
In earlier days, “he couldn’t get it in the hole if the hole was the size of a crater,” his father Gerry, who is the head professional at Ledgeview Golf Club in Abbotsford, British Columbia, told the Toronto Star after the Valspar victory. Even more galling: Gerry is a great putter.
“I said to Adam, ‘If I could will you my short game, I would.’ ”
The alternative was to put in endless hours on the practice green and in a putting lab run by Brett Saunders and Scott Rodgers. That hard work, along with a left-hand-low grip on an Odyssey Tank Cruiser V-Line putter, led to vast improvement. He ranks sixth on Tour in strokes gained putting.
Hadwin joins the 46-year-old Weir, making a presumably ceremonial appearance courtesy of his past-champion’s exemption, and Mackenzie Hughes, who won the RSM Classic in November, as the Canuck contingent at Augusta.
Based on his recent record, Hadwin should be a factor at this Masters. But whether the Champions Dinner menu next April features poutine, peameal bacon, tourtière and beaver tails. . . . Well, we’ll see, eh?
John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @gordongolf