Saturday, May 14, 2005

Canadians falter in 2005

Here's my golf column in the National Post from Thursday:
A less than impressive year for Canadian golf: As the Tour nears its mid-point, our big guns are silent
National Post
Robert Thompson Column: On Golf
When it comes to professional golf, Canadians have come to expect a great deal from the players that represent the country. Which is why this year's PGA Tour, at least to this point, seems so disappointing.
Believe it or not, the tour is nearing the halfway mark for its year, and is even deeper into its schedule if you consider that many of the game's best will shut it down following the PGA Championship in mid-August.
With nearly 50% of the year gone, not one of Canada's best male golfers appears to be near his top form. That's not good considering only one of the five on tour -- Calgary's Stephen Ames, a Canadian by way of Trinidad --had what might be considered a great year in 2004.
Even Ames is well off the pace he set last year, when he won for the first time and made US$3.3-million in winnings. This year his best showing is a tie for sixth, but there are lots of finishes well down in the field and a handful of missed cuts thrown in.
Maybe Ames set the barometer too high for himself and got the total of his potential in 2004. There's a good chance that for the occasionally erratic and outspoken Ames, his best year is behind him. He is not a dominant player, requiring finesse and feel to win. If that deserts him, even for a few months, he is not going to win any tournaments.
While many expected a lot out of Ames, no one should have really anticipated much from Brantford's David Hearn, despite all the Canadian golf magazine covers in the spring trumpeting his first year on the PGA Tour. After barely making it through Q-school, Hearn wasn't going to be able to play a regular schedule on tour, especially in high-profile tournaments where demand exceeds the number of available spots during the first half of the year.
Regardless, Hearn's year has been a disappointment, especially after his meteoric rise from the Canadian Tour to winning on the Nationwide Tour last summer. After three straight missed cuts to start the year, Hearn has made three in a row. What does he have to show for it? A total of US$33,647, or not nearly enough to cover his expenses let alone retain his card for next year.
Maybe Hearn is in over his head, and would have benefited from a full year on the Nationwide, golf's minor-league circuit. But many think he is the real deal, and like Mike Weir, who struggled during his inaugural year on tour, Hearn's smooth swing and ability to deal with pressure should eventually lead him to success.
Canada's two often injured golfers -- Glen Hnatiuk of Selkirk, Man., and Ian Leggatt of Cambridge, Ont. -- have hardly made their presence known. Hnatiuk, playing on a major medical exemption for this year, has so far replicated his 2004 season when he suffered from tennis elbow. In nine events he has missed five cuts and made a meagre US$99,479. Worse still, Hnatiuk's putter has gone south. For a guy who isn't overpowering, that's a serious problem.
Leggatt is struggling to return to the form that saw him win the 2002 Tucson Open. Since then he has fought a series of physical problems, including surgery to repair carpal tunnel syndrome. He has missed the cut in his only two starts this year and needs to make US$614,982 in 24 events to retain his card. It appears that making that much will be a struggle for Leggatt, who turns 40 this year.
With Weir it is always a question of expectations. After winning the 2003 Masters, golf fans finally began to see the lefty as a star, a legitimate threat to the likes of Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh.
Last year was a mixed bag for Weir, with strong showings in the British Open and U.S. Open, a second Nissan win in Los Angeles and a disappointing, but unforgettable, second-place finish at the Canadian Open. It was also a year when he missed the cut as defending champion at The Masters, and admitted he struggled with his swing.
After spending the winter renewing his putting stroke, Weir said he was hopeful for a full return to form at the Mercedes Championship. But his final round was spotty, and after a good start, Weir slipped down the leaderboard.
It has not been all bad for Weir. Many would consider earnings of US$1.12-million in five months to be a goof haul. And he is still ranked 13th in the World Golf Rankings.
But Canadian golf fans have come to expect more from Weir and the other Canadians on tour. Maybe success, and wins from Weir, Ames and Leggatt have spoiled us. Now that Canada regularly has had a stretch of years with successful players on the PGA Tour, those expectations aren't likely to be lowered.

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