Canadian golfers give 2017 Masters field a distinctive northern flavour

Chris Zelkovich
Chris Zelkovich

There will be plenty of maple leaves scattered prominently among the iconic azaleas at this week’s Masters.

Okay, maybe not all that prominently considering that there will be only three Canadian golfers in a field of about 100 at the PGA season’s first major. But by historic standards, this will represent a virtual explosion of red-and-white foliage.

The last time there were three Canadians in the Masters field, gas was 35 cents a gallon, the NHL was still contemplating the success of its massive expansion to 12 teams and the first guy named Trudeau had just become prime minister. It was 1968 and George Knudson, Gary Cowan and Al Balding all vied, unsuccessfully, to become the first Canadians to don the green jacket at Augusta.

But while this year’s crop of Canadian Masters competitors — Adam Hadwin, Mackenzie Hughes and 2003 champion Mike Weir — are celebrating this rare accomplishment, they don’t see it as anything unexpected. They also see it as just the beginning of a wave of Canadian golf talent.

“I’ve been saying for years that (Canadian golf) is the best it’s been and it keeps getting better,” Hadwin said in a conference call last week. “We’ve had two Canadians (Hadwin, Hughes) win on tour this year, a number of great finishes, guys playing well on the Web.com and moving on up and guys behind that moving up into the Web.com.”

Success will breed more success, he says, as Canadians on PGA tour will inspire those on the lower tours.

“I think it’s in great hands and it’s just going to continue to get better,” said the winner of the Valspar Championship.

Adam Hadwin chips to the green on the second hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Monday, April 3, 2017, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Even without the Masters breakthrough, these are pretty heady times for Canadian golf. Hadwin is fifth in the FedEx Cup standings, is 46th in the world rankings and has been in contention regularly. Hughes, who is in his first full year on the tour, took his first PGA title in a playoff at the RSM Classic. Then there are old hands Graham DeLaet and David Hearn, who can never be counted out.

Behind them are the likes of 2016 Canadian Open contender Jared du Toit, up-and-comer Corey Conners and a group of other promising young pros. And then there’s 19-year-old Brooke Henderson, one of the top players on the LPGA Tour.

“These are very exciting times,” said Golf Canada interim CEO Jeff Thompson. “The depth is amazing.

“Our mantra is: More Brooke Hendersons, more often, by purpose, not by chance. That’s what we’re aspiring to.”

How Canada has reached this level is a testament to Golf Canada’s Team Canada program, which came on the heels of Weir’s historic Masters win. With a new crop of young golfers tossing aside their hockey sticks and picking up golf clubs to emulate Weir, Golf Canada started to invest more in its program.

It added physiotherapists, psychologists, more coaches and trainers to prepare a new generation for life in pro golf.

“There are no wins without Golf Canada and what they’ve done for me,” Hughes said after his win at the RSM Classic in November. “I exhausted every avenue on that team so that I could to get where I am.”

Mackenzie Hughes of Canada hits from a bunker on the second hole during Tuesday practice rounds for the 2017 Masters at Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia, U.S., April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Probably the biggest weapon Golf Canada gave its charges was an attitude.

“There’s an expectation if you get to the Team Canada level, there are performances expected,” said Thompson.

That attitude has obviously been instilled in the likes of Hadwin and Hughes.

When asked if he was a tad overwhelmed by making his first appearance at the Masters, Hadwin expressed no fear of nerves.

“It’s still a golf tournament,” he said. “It’s no different than any other event. Don’t let that aura or prestige of it make you think that you can’t compete.

“I can fit my game to any golf course.”

While Hughes called being at the Masters “beyond my wildest dreams,” he certainly didn’t sound cowed during a recent media conference call.

“It’s a very good golf course for me because you have to be thinking all the time and I’m usually one of the guys who is thinking all the time,” he said.

That kind of confidence hasn’t always been associated with Canadian golfers, but obviously that’s beginning to change.