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Ranking Canada’s Greatest Golfers

The Canadian magazine ScoreGolf will today publish its issue that ranks the greatest 25 Canadian golfers ever. The panelists, of which I was one, ranked pros and amateurs and put Mike Weir as the all-time greatest. I had him second, behind George Knudson. Next up was Marlene Streit, Canada’s lone member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and a lifelong amateur. Former LPGA Tour pro Sandra Post, the first Canadian to win a professional major, was fourth.
Weir’s selection was by no means unanimous. It’s unimpeachable given that he’s the only male Canadian to win a major. Weir, like Knudson, won eight PGA Tour events. One was the 2003 Masters. Knudson, who died in 1989, tied for second in the 1969 Masters.
It’s a shooting fish in a barrel exercise to pick holes in any ranking. Some aspects of ScoreGolf’s ranking should be up for debate, though. Combining pros and amateurs and men and women is an issue. The ranking could have considered these groups separately, whether or not there are enough players in each category to make up a substantial enough ranking.
It’s impossible to know whether Streit would have succeeded as a tour pro. By the way, Streit, who won the U.S. and British Ladies Amateurs and two U.S. Senior Women’s Amateurs, turned 77 on March 9. She shot 73 a few days later. Streit beat everybody in amateur golf, and is clearly the best female Canadian amateur. Is she a “greater” golfer than Post, who won the 1968 LPGA Championship and eight other LPGA Tour events? The question doesn’t make sense. As Bobby Jones said, a golfer can only beat the golfers against whom he—or in this case, she—plays.
There’s also a strong bias in the list towards golfers who competed after 1950. This tends to be the case in any such list, given the ages of panelists and the tendency to believe that it’s more difficult to win today than in the first half of the 20th century. Gary Cowan is seventh on the list. He won the 1961 Canadian Amateur and the 1966 and 1971 U.S. Amateurs. Cowan, 72, turned pro some years ago. He was ranked so high because of his impressive accomplishments as an amateur. Winning one U.S. Amateur is a superb achievement. Winning two is off the charts.
But what about C. Ross (Sandy) Somerville, who won six Canadian Amateurs and, in 1932, became the first Canadian to win the U.S. Amateur? Bobby Jones said facing Somerville worried him the most of any match in the 1930 U.S. Amateur, which Jones won on his way to taking the then Grand Slam of golf – the U.S. and British Amateurs and Opens. The panel ranked Somerville 13th. I’d say he would be one-two with Cowan as Canada’s best amateur ever. I put Somerville sixth and Cowan seventh on my ScoreGolf ranking.
One omission in particular stands out. That’s the absence of Windsor, Ont., pro Bob Panasik, 69, who won the 1971 and 1972 Canadian PGA Championships and qualified for 10 U.S. Opens. He’s the youngest player to have made the cut in a PGA Tour event. He did that in the 1957 Canadian Open in Kitchener, Ont., when he was 15 years, eight months and 20 days old.
The absence of Ian Leggatt could also be considered an omission, since he won the 2002 Touchstone Energy Tucson Open on the PGA Tour. Leggatt, 45, retired recently and is working for the Wasserman Media Group in Toronto. But if winning once on the PGA Tour should put a player inside the top 25, then what about Ken Black, a terrific amateur who won the 1936 Vancouver Jubilee Open in a field that included Byron Nelson, Lawson Little and Horton Smith? What about Jules Huot, who won the 1937 General Brock Open in Fonthill, Ont., in a field that included Ben Hogan? It’s insulting to Black and Huot to claim it was easier for them to win those tournaments than for Leggatt to win in Tucson 65 years later.
Finally, there’s the big question of Weir and Knudson. Yes, Weir’s Masters win is the trump card here. I opted for Knudson because, to me, he’s the best ball-striker at the highest levels that Canada ever had. He won his eight PGA Tour events without being anything more than an adequate putter. Equipment during the 1960s and early 1970s, when he won his tournaments, was also inferior to what golfers use today.
Barry Van Gerbig, who until a few years ago presided over the Seminole Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla., as its long-time president, was Knudson’s partner in the Crosby, now the AT&T National Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He was at Seminole one day when Knudson was hitting balls. Ben Hogan was also there, and he pulled up in a cart behind Knudson.
“Do you mind if I watch you hit balls?” Hogan asked Knudson.
Enough said, or asked. The rankings are out. The debates are just beginning.


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