Toronto golf club ready to host Open

JON McCARTHY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:12 AM ET

Jack Nicklaus and Bob Charles stood on the 18th tee at St. George's Golf & Country Club with the Canadian Open on the line.

Nicklaus, coming off a runner-up finish at the U.S. Open the previous weekend, was one shot back and, now, had his sights set on our national Open.

Charles, the 1963 British Open champion, was in the difficult position of trying to keep an ornery Golden Bear at bay.

A massive drive down the middle by Nicklaus and a modest drive by Charles meant the slim lefty from New Zealand was first to play his approach shot from the 18th fairway.

"I had a seven-iron to the green," says Charles on the line from Scotland, where he is enjoying the champions events at this weekend's British Open. "I hit it two feet from the hole and with that, Jack Nicklaus promptly missed the green with his wedge -- it was a tournament winning shot."

As expected, St. George's provided plenty of drama for golf fans in the summer of 1968.

More than four decades later, the exclusive St. George's Golf & Country Club in Toronto is back in the mix hosting the 2010 RBC Canadian Open. And a mix is a good thing according to the 1968 champ.

"One thing I did enjoy was going to a different city every year," said Charles. "In all the years I played in the Canadian Open it moved around the country from Vancouver to Toronto and Montreal. We played down in Windsor at Essex. We enjoyed every year going to a different city, it was great."

After a steady dose of Glen Abbey in the '80s and '90s, it seems Canadian Open organizers are beginning to come to the same conclusion. The tournament has made recent stops in Hamilton and Montreal and next year will head west to Shaughnessy in Vancouver.

"An Open championship should go on a rotational system to different cities," adds Charles. "I think it's a step in the right direction."

This week, though, all eyes will be on St. George's beginning Monday with the Mike Weir Charity Pro-Am.

St. George's head golf professional Colin Thompson is confident the PGA players will enjoy the classic Stanley Thompson-designed course.

"Most of the players played parkland old-style golf courses when they were growing up," Thompson said. "Almost every course on tour reminds them of Glen Abbey, which is perfect for executing the event but it's not a classic style. It's an open stadium-style layout."

The rave reviews Hamilton Golf & Country Club -- another classic course -- received after hosting the Open in '06 leads one to believe Thompson might be on to something.

"This goes back to something they love," he adds. "It's tree-lined, and you're not dead if you miss a fairway but it might cost you a shot -- not a triple bogey but a bogey. Plus, you can recover if you hit a great shot, it gives you more options."

While St. George's might be somewhat forgiving off the tee and isn't overly long, she does have a few tricks up her sleeve when the players get to the green. Severe slopes await golfers on nearly every putting surface, placing a premium on approach-shot accuracy and short-game skill.

"You have to leave yourself on the right spot on the green or you will be putting defensively the whole time," said Thompson. "The greens are so undulating that you have to be in the right quadrant to have a chance at making the putts."

As for course strategy, Thompson says the pros better collect all the birdies and eagles they can on the front nine because the finishing holes will put them to the test. He also suggests fans stay tuned until the end on Sunday.

"The tournament is going to be decided on the last four or five holes. Probably the best five finishing holes I've played anywhere.

"The first nine is really a scoring nine and the back nine is sort of a hang on nine."

To Thompson's point, when the seniors tour played St. George's in 1997 only 22% of players hit the green on the par-3 16th.

Superintendent Keith Bartlett is doing his part to make sure Stanley Thompson's crown jewel can push back against today's touring professionals.

The biggest change is the course has been stretched to 7,150 yards, which is no shrimp considering the pros will be playing it as a par 70 (the par 5 fourth hole will play as a par 4 for the pros).

The greens will run at tour speed -- 11 on the stimp- meter -- any faster, according to Bartlett, and the PGA won't have enough pin positions because of the severe undulations on St. George's greens.

And then there's the rough.

The PGA officials want the rough to be a consistent four inches everywhere on the course.

"It'll play a little higher as the week goes on, four inches was our target from the beginning and that's where it will be when we start the tournament," said Bartlett.

After battling the weather in Southern Ontario, which has been hot and dry right out of the gate this season, Bartlett and his crew have hit all their targets, kept the PGA officials happy and are now primping the course for its big week.

Is St. George's ready?

"Well, she had better be," Bartlett quickly answers.

Fans can judge for themselves when the action starts for real on Thursday. The field includes defending Canadian Open champion Nathan Green, two-time champ Jim Furyk, Anthony Kim, John Daly, Sean O'Hair, Rickie Fowler, Camilo Villegas, Hunter Mahan, Luke Donald, Retief Goosen, Tim Clark, Y.E. Yang, Matt Kuchar, Fred Couples, Paul Casey, Ricky Barnes and Scott Verplank.

Let's not forget about a certain left-handed golfer from Bright's Grove. Does fan favourite Mike Weir have a chance to win the Canadian Open at St. George's?

According to Bob Charles he does.

"A left-hander has won there once, there's no reason one can't win there twice. Simple as that really."

Do you hear that, Mike?

It's as simple as that.

jon.mccarthy@sunmedia.ca


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