By Peter Mumford
These days when a professional golfer wins a tournament, it’s pretty common to hear them thank their team. Some golfers, such as Jordan Spieth, even speak of their performance in terms of “we’, as in we hit this shot or we made birdie on that hole.
That’s a testament to the help and support he gets not only from caddie Michael Greller, but also from his personal coaches, trainers, nutritionist, sports psychologist, agent and family. There are a lot of people involved in Jordan’s success and it doesn’t happen purely because he’s got a lot of talent.
Recent successes by Canadians on professional tours are not much different. When Brooke Henderson won the Meijer LPGA Classic earlier this month, she described in some detail how much her sister Brittany and father Dave contributed to that win. Dave has evolved from supportive parent to full time coach this year and it was Dave’s detailed routing plan that Brooke felt gave her an edge as she negotiated the fairways at Blythefield Country Club in Michigan.
Even as she acknowledged the support of her family, Brooke was also thankful for the assistance she received from Golf Canada and especially the Team Canada program. Adam Hadwin thanked them too when he won the Valspar Championship in March and so did Mackenzie Hughes after that thrilling Monday morning playoff that saw him win the RSM Classic last fall.
Each of those players, plus dozens of others, have been discovered, developed, nurtured, coached and encouraged by Team Canada over a number of years. They don’t all mature at the same rate, which is why you have a 19 year old (Brooke Henderson) as the winner of four LPGA events, while Hadwin (29) and Hughes (26) took a little longer to find the winner’s circle.
Any discussion about the development of elite professional golfers will eventually raise the age-old question about nature versus nurture. Old timers will argue that talent will always shine through and the school of hard knocks is the best crucible for discovering winners. It sounds like something Sam Snead might have said but nonetheless it was the way things were for many decades on both the men’s and women’s professional tours.
That attitude began to change when a pair of Australian golfers started having success on the PGA Tour in the early 90’s. Stuart Appleby and Robert Allenby were both “products” of the Australian Institute of Sport, a government sponsored high performance program that was committed to turning out world class athletes in a number of disciplines. Each time Appleby or Allenby won a tournament, they would often reference the incredible support they had received from the AIS and their fellow participants.
About the same time, a coach in Sweden named Pia Nilsson was grooming the women’s national team and a young golfer named Annika Sorenstam. Nilsson believed that no obstacle was insurmountable, which eventually led to a program called Vision 54, the idea that it was possible, and perhaps even probable, for a golfer to birdie every hole. She pushed her team of young women to new heights and for a time, Swedish golfers dominated the LPGA, much as South Koreans do today. Sorenstam was clearly the leader and although she never shot 54, she does hold the record for lowest score on the LPGA (59) and is easily the most accomplished women golfer ever.
As the Australians and Swedes recorded successes on professional tours way beyond their relative size, other countries took notice and began to develop their own national programs, copying and improving on what they observed. Canada started with the RCGA High Performance program and men’s and women’s national teams. Both David Hearn and Alena Sharp were members of those teams.
Today, a vast majority of top golfers in the world learned their trade as part of a national program or through the NCAA or both. Of course, there are always outliers. Remember when 17-year old Justin Rose holed his third shot for birdie from the deep rough at Royal Birkdale in the 1998 Open Championship to finish tied for 4th. Based on that performance, Rose made the decision to turn pro the next day. He promptly missed 21 consecutive cuts and struggled for several years before he eventually figured it all out. Today, he’s one of the leading players on the PGA Tour, a U.S. Open champion and the reigning Olympic gold medal winner in golf. Rose was even awarded an M.B.E. by the Queen for his Olympic performance.
Team Canada started in 2003 and grew out of the High Performance program. Its mission is “to produce the best amateur golfers in the world.”
Members of that first team included Graham DeLaet, Craig Doell, Andrew Parr, James Lepp, Ryan Yip and Richard Scott on the Men’s side and Laura Matthews and Lindsay Knowlton on the women’s side.
In the summer of 2007, shortly after former Golf Canada CEO Scott Simmons began his duties, he stated that one of the goals of the Team Canada program was to have five Canadian players on the PGA Tour and a comparable number of women competing on the LPGA – within five years.
Team Canada members have enjoyed tremendous success at many different levels of amateur and professional golf. From World Team matches to the Web.com Tour, women’s Symetra Tour, PGA Tour Canada and PGA Tour Latinoamerica, you can find the names of former Team Canada players. Many of them are still connected to the program through coaching and often touch base with other former members.
Team Canada Women’s coach Tristan Mullaly stresses the relationships that team members develop in the program, which creates a team dynamic for the players to develop not only as individuals, but also as a group of players who learn to support each other and many become friends. You can see it at tournaments where the winner is often doused with champagne by fellow competitors, many of whom grew together on a national team.
In a sport like golf, which is individual, ultra competitive and ultimately lonely, those friendships can be crucial to providing ongoing encouragement and support after a player “cuts the cord” with the national team.
While the road to the PGA Tour and LPGA is littered with golfers who didn’t have enough talent or enough drive, who lacked discipline or couldn’t hack the rigours of elite competition and international travel, there are some that just choose a different life. Not every amateur golfer that becomes a member of Team Canada wants a career in professional golf, although most still want to maintain some connection to the sport.
Lindsay Knowlton, an original member of Team Canada won the Ontario Amateur Championship in 2005 and attended Ohio State University where she was an All American. After graduation, Knowlton decided she didn’t want to play professional golf and went to work for TaylorMade adidas Golf, eventually developing her own instruction brand. Today, Iron Lady Golf helps women get comfortable with golf through instruction, coaching, seminars and retreats.
Likewise, Garrett Rank, a member of Team Canada from 2012-2014, eschewed a professional golf career to pursue his dream in another sport, as an NHL referee. Rank still competes at a very high level, is a two-time Canadian Mid Amateur champion and has represented his country at a number of international events.
Stephanie Sherlock (Team Canada 2006-2010) did play on the LPGA for several seasons but the rigours of travel weren’t for her. Today she teaches at Simoro Golf Links, just outside Barrie.
From that original Team Canada and it predecessors, only DeLaet, Hearn and Sharp are playing professional golf at the highest levels. Others had different success: Doell remained an amateur and won several Canadian Mid Amateur Championships; Lepp, started his own golf shoe company (Kikkor) and was a finalist on the Big Break; Yip and Parr competed all over the world and still pop up from time to time on a leaderboard; and for a few years, Laura Matthews was the coach of the Oklahoma Women’s golf team.
The current crop of Team Canada members looks very promising. The Young Pro Squad features Albin Choi, Taylor Pendrith and Corey Conners for the men while the women’s team has Augusta James, Anne-Catherine Tanguay and Jennifer Ha. The amateur teams won’t be far behind with stars-in-waiting like Hugo Bernard and Jared duToit, Maddie Szeryk and Naomi Ko, all names you’ve likely seen on provincial and national championship leaderboards for several years now.
There’s no guarantee that all of them or even any of them will make it to the top echelons of professional golf but if they do and one day they happen to be accepting a big cheque and a trophy, you can be sure that Team Canada will be prominent in their acceptance speech.
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag.