Fifth-Major Debate Heats Up

Assuming you’ve all found your way back to your seats, we’re about to dim the lights and present Act Two of Gary Van Sickle’s The Players: NOT the Fifth Major. (For those of you who prefer the Cliff Notes versions of the classics, we recommend Gary’s charticle, “Taking the 5th,” which appeared in the PLAYERS preview edition of SI Golf+.)

Act One ended with Gary lancing the pretensions of the Australian Open. The curtain rises again to the strains of “The Forest Ranger Song” from Little Mary Sunshine.

Like the Aussie Open, the Canadian Open also began in 1904, taking a lengthy break for World War I before resuming. Tommy Armour, the legendary Silver Scot, called the Canadian Open “not the third but the second-greatest championship in the world,” ranking it behind the U.S. Open, possibly because he won it three times (1927, ’30 and ’34). But in the mid-‘30s, what else was there?

Fast forward to 1965 after Gene Littler won the Canadian Open and said, “I never go into any major tournament with the idea that I’m playing well enough to win.”

That’s right, Littler lumped it among the other majors like it was fact. That’s notable. Lee Trevino won the Canadian in 1971, sandwiched between his U.S. Open and British Open titles, a feat promptly christened the Triple Crown. Later, Trevino recalled, “The Canadian Open is one of the world’s oldest championships and I rate it among the top four in the world. The only Open I can’t seem to win is the Mexican Open.”

Ernie Els in Dubai

Ernie Els, a winner of national Opens on both sides of the Atlantic, thinks the British PGA is a big deal. (John Garrity)

Trevino never missed a chance to take a jab at the Masters, a tournament whose course and policies didn’t agree with him, but the Canadian Open did have an impressive run. Its champions included Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Walter Hagen, Locke, Billy Casper and Palmer. Also, the World Series of Golf was then a four-man event for the winners of the four majors, and if a player won two majors in a year, guess who filled in at the World Series? The Canadian Open champion.

Jack Nicklaus played in the Open every year from 1974 through ’89. He finished second seven times, which helped revive the event. After he built the Glen Abbey course near Toronto and it became the tournament’s permanent home in 1977, the event lost its national championship feel and morphed into just another tour stop. Tiger Woods gave it an adrenaline boost by winning in 2000, but even he didn’t return after 2001. When the FedEx Cup series began, the Open was shoe-horned into an unfavorable date and stuck with a weak field. The glory days are long gone… unless RBC can buy a better date.

“Now,” said Toronto Star columnist Dave Perkins, “virtually every reference to RBC rebuilding the tournament carries a line like ‘attempting to restore the Open to its former glory, when it was widely considered the fifth major.’ I think it’s one of those self-fulfilling media prophecies. We keep repeating it as if it were true, therefore it must have been true.”

Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion, which we’ll post Sunday afternoon when the final twosome, Kevin Na and Matt Kuchar, step onto the tee of the island-green 17th.

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