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Historicist: Birth of a Golf Superstar

An unknown Arnold Palmer kicks off his career into gear at the Canadian Open.

Photo of the Arnold Palmer statue at the Weston Golf and Country Club by Jesse Hirsh  From Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo of the Arnold Palmer statue at the Weston Golf and Country Club by Jesse Hirsh. From Flickr via Creative Commons.

In late August 1955, Arnold Palmer arrived at Weston Golf and Country Club, along the banks of the Humber River on the outskirts of Toronto, for the Canadian Open as a relatively unknown rookie who had yet to win a tournament. He stepped off the course with his first professional victory, which served as a launch-pad for the golf legend’s career. Embraced by Toronto spectators over the course of four dominating rounds that August, Palmer showed glimpses of the playing style and personality that would endear him to millions of golf fans in the decades to come.

After winning the U.S. Amateur golf title, Palmer turned professional in November 1954. The following spring he and his new wife, Winnie, travelled from tournament to tournament “like a couple of golfing gypsies” in a car, as Ian Cruickshank put it in Karen Hewson’s The Open Golf Championship of Canada, 1904-2004 (Key Porter Books, 2004).

(Left: Photo of Palmer golfing during his service in the U.S. Coast Guard in April 1953. From Wikimedia Commons.)

From his hometown in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the two drove to San Francisco for the U.S. Open, then to Portland and Vancouver, and to PGA tournaments in Minnesota, Milwaukee, Toledo, and Chicago before arriving in Weston for the Canadian Open, where, to save money, they camped in a field behind the course superintendent’s shed.

Although in his early PGA career Palmer put together a strong round here and there, his inconsistent play kept him from winning any tournaments or even earning much money. The growing frustration at his lack of success was, according to Cruickshank, led to conversations with Winnie about his leaving the professional circuit to earn a steady pay-cheque as a club pro in Pennsylvania.

“I failed to play well there,” Palmer recalled of the Tam O’Shanter Open in Chicago in early August in his autobiography, A Golfer’s Life (Ballantine Books, 1999), “but I felt my game was getting closer to really clicking—a hunch that proved correct the very next week in Toronto at the Canadian Open.”

View of Weston Golf and Country Club grounds, between 1960 and 1980, with CNR bridge in distance. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 9256.

Located in a park-like setting on the outskirts of town, near Royal York and Dixon Road, the Weston Golf and Country Club had its roots in a four-hole circuit laid out by some friends in 1909. Over time, the course was expanded, and in 1920 Willie Park, Jr., noted Scottish golf course designer, was retained to lay out a new 18-hole course. It earned a reputation not only for being one of the premiere courses in the country, but also for its fast greens. When the 6,408-yard course—short by PGA standards—was selected to host the 1955 Canadian Open, some observers felt that with the Weston course’s forgiving bunkers and minimal rough, the four-round tournament’s greatest hazard would be Toronto’s hot and humid weather.

As an official stop on the PGA Tour, the Canadian Open attracted a large number of top-flight players, resulting in a level of play at the Canadian Open that pro golfer Doug Ford said compared favourably with that at the Masters. Pre-tournament reports gave the odds of success to the big names among the starting field: all-time great Sam Snead, Ed “Porky” Oliver, Jackie Burke, Jr., Tommy “Thunder” Bolt, and Canadians Stan Leonard and Al Balding. Not yet the golf legend he would become, Palmer didn’t even merit mention.

Toronto Star (August 18, 1955).

Toronto Star (August 18, 1955)

He was hardly noticed by the caddies, either, when it came to finding someone to carry Palmer’s bag. “Among the caddies,” a golf club historian later recalled, “it was strictly a case of ‘Arnold who?’” Eventually, Ray Slater, an amateur player and member of the Weston club, was assigned.

The relatively unknown rookie started turning heads, though, by shooting a 64 in the first round for eight under par. Palmer expected the eight-under-par score would be good enough to secure the lead, but Charlie Sifford hit a new course record of 63 to assume top spot on the leaderboard. A 67 on the second day, and another 64 on the third, however, put Palmer in a commanding lead going into the final round.

Globe and Mail (August 18, 1955).

Globe and Mail (August 18, 1955)

In the Star (August 20, 1955), sportswriter Jim Hunt expressed surprise that the hitherto inconsistent player had turned in some of the best golf seen in 46 years of Canadian Open play:

Arnold can’t explain what turned him from one of the pack to the leader in one week. His putter is hot but it’s been hot before and he didn’t win a tournament. He is driving well but he’s done that before. But never before has every part of his game worked together as it is this week. And it’s possible it never will again.

“This Palmer is a cool, able golfer,” one reporter said. Another added: “He is a healthy hitter, but not the longest. His winning edge came about more or less as percentages born of a solid swing, a hot putter, and Arnold’s strength and condition to take almost unbelievably humid heat.”

Toronto Star (August 20, 1955).

Toronto Star (August 20, 1955)

By the third round, Toronto golf fans had adopted Palmer as their own, with a gallery of spectators 4,000-strong following the rookie golfer from hole to hole, lining the fairways and encircling the green. “I don’t think that I could’ve had any more rooters if I had been playing in my home town,” Palmer said of the supportive fans immediately after the tournament. The spectators foreshadowed the immense crowds, nicknamed “Arnie’s Army,” which would trail the superstar at competitions in the years to come.

Beyond the cheers of encouragement, the Toronto spectators helped Palmer in another way. Three times, Palmer’s shots went careening off course, and three times the ball struck an onlooker and dribbled back into play. Heeding his caddie’s advice for the first time in the third round, on the seventh hole Palmer swung his four-wood with enough vigour to launch the ball straight over the green and into the crowd. The ball struck one spectator square in the forehead, then dribbled back onto the green. “[The] chap, with a dent right between his eyes from a Palmer shot, brushed the injury aside,” James A. Barclay quotes an onlooker saying in Golf in Canada: A History (McClelland & Stewart, 1992), “and utilized the occasion to request Palmer’s autograph when the latter rushed up to enquire his condition.” Palmer didn’t seek Slater’s advice again.

Globe and Mail (August 20, 1955)

Globe and Mail (August 20, 1955).

On Saturday, August 20, 6,000 spectators showed for the final day of the tournament. With a five-stroke lead and within striking distance of the record lowest cumulative score for the Canadian Open, Palmer was nervous in the lead-up to his tee-off time, just after noon. “The pressures here that year were probably as much as anything I had experienced in my life up to that point,” remembered Palmer, who played the final round with Fred Hawkins and Tommy Bolt.

The pressure, it seemed, was getting to him, when off the tee at the fifth hole—or sixth, depending on who you ask—Palmer snap-hooked his drive into the woods. Spotting his ball lying by a dead tree, Palmer was contemplating his next shot when Bolt impatiently bellowed from afar: “For God’s sake, Arnie. Chip it out into the fairway. You’ve got a six-stroke lead!” Bolt was infamous for his club-throwing tirades—including a number of tantrums the day before which had prompted his caddie, feeling abused, to quit, abandoning the golfer on the back nine. But, that season, Bolt had struck up a friendship with Palmer—10 years his junior—taking the rookie under his wing as he adjusted to the PGA Tour.

“Tommy,” Palmer replied sternly. “You mind your own business and I’ll mind mine.” Fearing a two-stroke penalty for receiving advice from someone other than his own caddie if he took the shot Bolt suggested, Palmer set to heaving a fallen tree out of his path, with the assistance of a course marshall, knowing that there was no penalty for removing a loose obstacle. Grasping his six-iron, he tried straight for the green through a gap in the trees, salvaging a double-bogey on the hole.

“Tommy wouldn’t speak to me the rest of the round,” Palmer recalled to golf writer Lorne Rubenstein in the Globe and Mail (August 17, 1985). “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.”

Such aggressive play—spurning safe, conservative shots for high-risk, high-reward gambles—would become Palmer’s trademark on the course, and a central to this appeal for his millions of fans over the duration of his career.

Globe and Mail (August 22, 1955).

Globe and Mail (August 22, 1955)

Over the remainder of the afternoon, he potted a birdie on the seventh and sank a long-distance putt for a birdie on the ninth hole to help solidify his lead. Gradually, over the course of the final round, Palmer said, the pressure he felt eased and his confidence grew.

Thousands crowded around the 18th green—and many more watched at home on television—erupting into a thunderous cheer as Palmer sank his putt for par, finishing the day with a 70 and a total, four-round score of 265—two off the Canadian Open record. “Palmer picked up his ball,” Rex MacLeod reported in Globe and Mail (August 22, 1955), “kissed it and threw it into the crowd.” Then the exuberant golfer embraced his wife, Winnie.

Winning his first professional tournament, Palmer earned $2,400—a large proportion of the $7,958 he would earn his rookie season—and was presented with the Seagram Gold Cup. Burke, who finished second, four strokes behind Palmer, proved prescient with his post-tournament statement to the press. “I think you’ll be hearing a lot about Arnold from here in,” he said.

If his colleagues on the pro circuit were impressed, so too were the staff at the Weston Golf and Country Club. “All the rest of the players, they wanted this, they wanted that, they wanted this,” Herman Gregor, who earned $1 per hour as a clubhouse attendant, recalled to Dave Feschuk of the Star (September 13, 2005). “Arnie never demanded anything. He was a gentleman always. He treated me like a human. He didn’t look down on me as a steward.” At a time when $5 tips were typical, the tournament champion slipped a folded-up $100 bill into Gregor’s hand, and telling him: “A little donation, because you’ve been so good to me.” When Slater, the caddie whose advice led to a spectator’s head contusion, couldn’t accept cash tips because he was an amateur golfer, Palmer instead paid his club dues for the following season. And Palmer even remembered to thank the green-keeper in his victory speech. Such instances exemplified the small-town Pennsylvanian’s life-long reputation for humility, and the down-to-earth character that made him so popular to legions of fans.

(Above right: Photo of Palmer with Canadian Open trophy by Gordon Powley. From the Toronto Star [August 22, 1955].)

After the festivities, Palmer and Winnie set off with Bolt and his wife for brief holiday at a fishing retreat near Peterborough before heading to the next tournament stop in Montreal. “I was the new Canadian Open champion, I’d won my first PGA tournament, and, sitting on the end of a small dock fishing and drinking cold beers in the beautiful summer dusk,” Palmer wrote of the brief respite in his autobiography, “I couldn’t have felt happier or more at peace.”

Once Palmer got to Montreal, however, he discovered that his putter was missing and telephoned the Weston Golf and Country Club. Gordon deLaat, the club pro, called Slater, Palmer’s caddie, who confirmed that he’d returned the putter to the bag after the 18th. An underhanded souvenir hunter had apparently swiped the club from the golf bag during the celebrations. deLaat enlisted Milt Dunnell in the hunt for the missing putter, asking the venerable Star sportswriter to solicit for tips in his newspaper column. In the end, according to deLaat, a Weston club member spotted the putter on the grounds of the Scarborough Golf Club, and it was returned to Arnold in Montreal. However, Palmer contends, in a July 2009 article by Rubenstein, that his putter never reappeared.

Taking confidence from this first tournament win at a golf course in Toronto, Palmer would be catapulted to golf super-stardom. He is widely credited with dramatically increasing the popularity of golf as a televised sport in the late 1950s and 1960s, which, in turn, increased sponsorship of tournaments and prize money. In addition to 62 PGA Tour wins—including seven major championships—and 10 senior tour victories over a 51-year professional career, Palmer was also a savvy entrepreneur, and highly-sought as a golf course designer.

(Left: Toronto Star [August 20, 1955].)

Years later, according to Len Shapiro and Ed Sherman’s Golf List Mania! (Running Press Book Publishers, 2011), Palmer would consider the 1955 Canadian Open among the most important tournament victories of his career, surpassed only by the likes of his 1954 U.S. Amateur title, which he regarded as “the turning point of my career and my life,” and his U.S. Open championship in 1960, in which he overcame a seven-stroke deficit in the final round.

Palmer, who kept mementoes of his Canadian Open win on the wall of his office in Latrobe, returned to the scene of his first victory twice. First, in July 1990, he competed in a skins tournament to celebrate the course’s 75th anniversary. Then, in September 2005, Palmer returned for the unveiling of a life-sized statue—based upon Gordon W. Powley’s photograph of the baby-faced rookie gleefully embracing the Canadian Open trophy—at the Weston Golf and Country Club, and a round of golf in a charity Pro-Am tournament.

“There’s no question that I remember a lot of the golf shots that I made, but I remember more about the shots I made 50 years ago at Weston than I do at most tournaments,” Palmer has said. “It was an event when things started lighting up for me. My putting was pretty good; I was hitting the ball pretty crisply. Things came together pretty much for me in this Canadian Open and it got me started on the winning trail.”

Sources consulted: Lorne Rubenstein, This Round’s On Me: Lorne Rubenstein on Golf (McClelland & Stewart, 2010); and articles from the Globe and Mail (August 18, 20 & 22, 1955; May 7, 1965; June 21, 1977; July 7, 1983; August 17, 1985; December 11, 1989; April 3 and May 30, 1990; May 22, 2004; and February 18, 2005); and the Toronto Star (August 19 & 22, 1955; July 9, 1958; May 30, 1990; September 13 & 14, 2005).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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