How the Canadian Open Gave Birth to a King

Golfer Arnold Palmer with Canadian Open trophy

Arnold Palmer embraces the Seagram Gold Cup after his victory in the Canadian Open.

Newly married and almost flat broke, Arnold Palmer arrived in Toronto for the 1955 Canadian Open desperate for success. How victory at Weston Golf and Country Club launched the rise of the golfer who would be “King.”

“Nothing compares to your first win,” Arnold Palmer recalled wistfully of the 1955 Canadian Open. “It was the kicking off point for me. I’ve never forgotten that warm Canadian hospitality.”

Already oozing the talent and charisma that would soon earn him his famous army of fans, golf’s future “King” never looked back after his triumph at Weston Golf and Country Club in Toronto. His collection of more than 90 worldwide championships included four Masters, the 1961 and 1962 British Opens, and the 1960 U.S. Open. Cast as if by Hollywood for the arrival of the television age, Palmer’s leading man looks and swashbuckling, go-for-broke exuberance propelled golf into a new era of international popularity.

Fondly looking back across the decades, Palmer remembered his Canadian Open victory as a tremendous confidence builder at a time when he often doubted his future as a touring professional.

In 1954, following his service in the United States Coast Guard, Palmer briefly grabbed the attention of the golf world with an unexpected victory at the U.S. Amateur. But since turning pro and joining the PGA Tour, the 25-year-old and his beautiful bride, the former Winnie Walzer, had relied mostly on loans from his family in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to survive life on the road. The couple, who travelled to tournaments by car, camped during their week at Weston in a field behind the superintendent’s shed.

Canadian golfer Stan Leonard. (Image: Canadian Golf Hall of Fame)

Vancouver’s Stan Leonard won the Rivermead Cup, awarded to the low Canadian in the tournament. (Image: Canadian Golf Hall of Fame)

Compared to Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and the tour’s other stars, Palmer’s game still lacked finesse. “I was practising my rear end off…beating balls from the rock-hard ground from dawn until dusk,” Palmer wrote in his autobiography, “A Golfer’s Life.” “I could outdrive almost anybody, but I knew I would need a broader range of shotmaking skills.”

Palmer’s hard work paid off with a tie for tenth at the Masters. But since then his play had been hampered by a persistent kink in his shoulder. By the time he and Winnie arrived at Weston the third week of August, Palmer knew he had to win soon on the PGA Tour or look for a job as a club pro. Fortunately, his game felt close to “really clicking.”

Long regarded as one of the jewels of Canadian golf, Weston was designed in 1920 by Willie Park Jr., the winner of the British Open in 1887 and 1889. The valley course is shaped by acres of timberland and the winding Humber River.

Most of the top names in the game gathered at Weston for the 46th playing of Canada’s national championship. The field included heavyweights Snead, Tommy Bolt, Doug Ford, Gene Littler, Jackie Burke Jr. and Art Wall.

Defending champion Pat Fletcher shared the spotlight. The club pro from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, thrilled his countrymen by becoming the first Canadian in 40 years to capture the Open. Fletcher, however, didn’t like his chances for a repeat victory. Too busy with club duties to play regularly, he complained that he only came because he felt obliged to defend his title. “I feel more like going fishing right now,” said Fletcher, who would fail to make the halfway cut.

Other Canadian hopefuls included Vancouver’s Stan Leonard, Toronto’s Al Balding, Kitchener amateur sensation Moe Norman, and Weston’s head professional Gord DeLaat.

A half-century later, DeLaat recalled his first look at the youthful Palmer. “I was in the pro shop and Palmer was talking with the other tour players. He was so outgoing and comfortable that anyone would have thought he had been on the tour for years. Palmer looked so strong you knew he could hit the ball a mile.”

Followed by TV cameras, Palmer shot a torrid 64 in the opening round. For the first time, the CBC broadcast Open highlights across the country. But golf didn’t yet have the ratings clout in Canada to demand two days of primetime weekend play. The Open began on Wednesday and wrapped up on Saturday.

Only the 63 recorded by 33-year-old Charlie Sifford, the first black player on the PGA Tour, bested Palmer, who stood alone in second place. Banned because of his colour from most tournaments in the United States, Sifford, who in 2004 was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, recalled Palmer’s astonishment that someone had managed a first-round score lower than his own.

“Sifford shot 63? How the hell did he do that?” he heard Palmer exclaim in the clubhouse.

“The same damn way you shot your 64!” retorted Sifford.

Toronto Star newspaper clipping showing a photo of golfer Arnold Palmer, winner of the 1955 Canadian Open golf tournament. (Image: Toronto Star)

Newspaper stories heralded Palmer as a rising star. His tournament score of 265 beat runner-up Jackie Burke by four strokes. (Image: Toronto Star)

While Sifford quickly faded out of contention, Palmer fired a five-under-par 67 to take a two-stroke lead over Jackie Burke Jr. at the tournament’s midway point. Tommy Bolt and Jerry Barber sat another stroke back.

Golf writer Charles Price once observed of Palmer,  “He comes onto a tee looking like a prize fighter climbing into the ring ready for a world championship bout.”

His swing clicking and all doubts forgotten, Palmer birdied the first three holes in the third round, then added birdies on the fifth and seventh, the last thanks to a lucky break that has become part of Weston club lore.

Teenager Ray Slater, a Weston member who volunteered to work the tournament, caddied for Palmer. Not once in the first two rounds had Palmer asked him for advice. Now, hoping to reach the par five with his second shot, Palmer turned to Slater.

“What do you think I should play?”

“A four-wood,” Slater replied.

Palmer then launched a towering shot that would have flown the green had it not smacked into a spectator and dropped onto the putting surface. Palmer handed the club back to Slater without a word. It was the last time he asked his young caddy for advice.

Luck and possibly even fate fuelled Palmer’s charge. Three more times during the third round he benefitted when his shots hit spectators. On the 15th, Palmer’s ball bounced onto the green after his tee shot whacked a man on the forehead. On the 16th, his second shot was heading for trouble when it hit someone’s leg and stayed on the apron. And on the 17th, Palmer’s ball bounced back onto the fairway after hitting a fan.

Palmer’s score of 64 gave him a commanding five-stroke lead over Jackie Burke Jr. heading into Saturday’s final round. Only a major collapse could prevent him from collecting the winner’s cheque for $2,400 and the Seagram Gold Cup.

Par, par, birdie, par. Palmer’s nerves held steady through the final round’s opening four holes. But Weston’s demanding par-four fifth had given him trouble all week. Palmer nervously duck-hooked his drive into the trees on the left.

Stomping into the woods, the young Pennsylvanian found his ball blocked by a fallen tree. There is no penalty for moving a loose obstruction. Palmer and a marshal had started to push the tree aside when his playing partner, Bolt, impatiently growled, “For God’s sake, Arnie. Chip it out onto the fairway.”

Palmer fumed, knowing that getting advice from anyone but his caddy meant a two-stroke penalty. “I had already made up my mind to play safe, but after Tommy told me what to do, I was forced to go for the green,” he recalled. “That way, I felt confident I had not received any help from him.”

He hit his next shot solidly, only to watch it catch a branch on a plane tree and drop back into the bush. It took another shot for Palmer to get onto the fairway.

Globe and Mail article about golfer Arnold Palmer winning the 1955 Canadian Open.

Palmer’s victory was front-page news across Canada. (Image: Globe and Mail)

The seemingly insurmountable lead he had built over the past three days threatened to vanish. His fourth shot landed three feet off the back of the green. Then a tentative chip left him with a six-foot downhill putt. Palmer knew he had to make his putt for double-bogey or risk disaster.

Displaying the focus that would earn him seven major championships, he set up to the ball in his soon-to-be-familiar knock-kneed putting stance and holed out.

Palmer’s lead had been reduced to just two strokes over a charging Fred Hawkins, an Illinois pro playing in the same group with Palmer and Bolt. But Palmer birdied two of the next four holes to grab back three strokes, and his cool 20-foot putt for a birdie on the ninth finally put him out of the reach of Hawkins and other challengers.

Trailed by thousands of fans, Palmer felt free to enjoy his victory march through Weston’s back nine. Spectators almost stampeded the 18th green when he sank his putt for par and a final-round score of 70. The new champion picked up his ball, kissed it and threw it jubilantly into the cheering crowd. It had been exactly one year to the day since his triumph in the U.S. Amateur.

Palmer’s tournament score of 265 beat runner-up Jackie Burke Jr. by four strokes. Fred Hawkins stood another stroke back in third, and alone in fourth spot was Stan Leonard, whose sizzling final round score of 65 completed a four-round total of 272 to earn him the Rivermead Cup, awarded to the low Canadian.

Though not yet the King, Palmer embraced his destiny. During the next two years alone, he won six PGA Tour tournaments and nearly $50,000 in prize money. Weston would be Palmer’s lone Canadian Open victory. But he did claim the 1980 Canadian PGA Championship, his last title before joining the Senior PGA Tour.

“It got me on the winning trail,” Palmer recalled gratefully of the 1955 Canadian Open. “My oh my, how my life had changed in just one year.”