Friday, November 05, 2004

The legend of Al Balding near the end?

I wrote this story last summer after spending an afternoon in the backyard of my friend, Al Balding.
Until Knudson, Balding was probably Canada's best golfer -- surely better than the vastly over-rated Moe Norman, who never won anything outside of Canada.
Meanwhile, Balding kept winning even after shoulder injuries pulled him off of regular duty on the PGA Tour.
He's a cranky cat, but even at 80, he has a wonderful golf swing.
I suspect he's down in Florida now, pondering a way to add extra yards to his drive.
So read on....


Robert Thompson On Golf

Father Time catches up to 'Silver Fox': Al Balding won
Canadian seniors' title at 76


We may have seen the last remarkable comeback of the Silver
Fox.

At the age of 80, Al Balding is finally finding it a challenge to play the game that has defined him as an athlete and a person.

Though he still has all the features that combined to give him his nickname, the flowing swing that made him one of Canada's greatest golfers is letting him down.
Heart trouble forced him to have a pacemaker implanted over the winter, and a broken wrist limited his ability to work on his game.
Balding isn't the only veteran Canadian golfer facing health issues. Legendary golf savant Moe Norman felt so ill this winter that for the first time in almost five decades he didn't travel to Florida. Stan Leonard, nearing 90, is frail but still hanging around the range at Vancouver's Marine Drive Golf Club.

Like many of his contemporaries, Balding is struggling to find any solace in the game. Even Sunday matches at Credit Valley Golf and Country Club in Mississauga, Ont., are forcing him to acknowledge
that he can no longer force the ball to do what he desires.

"I like to keep score all the way through, and I'm not about to simply pick up my ball and walk to the next hole," Balding says, adding that chronic bronchitis is making it tough to play a full 18
holes. "Maybe what I'm going to have to do is simply play for fun."

Playing for fun is a foreign concept to a man who thrived under pressure. In 1955, he became the first Canadian to win a PGA Tour event in the United States, taking the Mayfair Open in Florida.

Since starting the game after serving in the Canadian Armed Forces in the Second World War, Balding has remained a competitive golfer for more than 50 years. He recorded two more PGA Tour victories, as
well as a couple of unofficial ones, and took the World Cup playing alongside George Knudson in 1968.

In his prime, his smooth, long swing was said to resemble that of Ben Hogan.

Even when his peers ceased to be competitive, Balding appeared undiminished by the ravages of age.

In 2000, at the age of 76, Balding managed to win the Canadian PGA Seniors' Championship. Two years later, during another senior event, Balding shot 66, 12 shots lower than his age, a feat unparalleled in
the history of tournament golf, according to historians at the PGA Tour.

But competitive golf may finally be in the past.

In an effort to provide full disclosure, I have considered Balding a friend for several years. Following Mike Weir's win in 1998 at the Greater Vancouver Open, I was commissioned to write a piece on past
Canadian PGA Tour winners, including Balding.

I'd been warned that Balding, a guarded man who is not easy to get to know, could be abrasive and difficult to interview. Instead, I found him in a reflective mood, willing to speak at length about his long career and of playing with the likes of Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead. Over the past few years, we have
continued to talk about his career, often while sitting on his patio overlooking Credit Valley's driving range.

But for the first time in decades, Balding isn't talking about playing any tournaments this summer. He is still chipping balls on the range, but full games are few and far between.

Have we seen the last of Al Balding? I've learned not to count him out. While he admits his once great golf game has, for the time being, deserted him, Balding is making plans to fix his ailing
health and get back in the swing once again.

"I think I need to do some more strengthening and more flexibility conditioning," he says. "That'll help me get back."

Here's looking forward to the next comeback of the Silver Fox.

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