How we played the game

Paul Martin and Francis fox deserve credit for bringing Presidents Cup to Montreal

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The Gazette, Friday, September 28, 2007

"If only I could play the game," Stephen Harper said wistfully at the opening of the Presidents Cup at the Royal Montreal Golf Club on Wednesday afternoon.

Well, Prime Minister, take a number. He doesn't play the game that can't be won, but he does know these guys are good. Those aren't weekend players out there, playing what Harper termed "this venerable and honourable game," but 24 of the best in the world, in a major international event televised to 140 countries around the globe.

How the most important golf event ever staged in Canada came to Montreal is a story that Mike Richards, the tournament chairman, could tell. How Montreal and Canada could have lost the event, for want of a mere million dollars, is another story.

As a non-golfer, Harper is in distinguished company among modern prime ministers. John Diefenbaker was a fisherman, and had Harrington Lake stocked. Lester Pearson was a one-time college hockey star, and a lifelong Leafs fan (like Harper). Pierre Trudeau was a skier, and a very accomplished canoeist.

But Louis St. Laurent was an avid golfer, and played with Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower set the golfing standard for modern U.S. presidents, leaving spike marks in the floor of the Oval Office, which John Kennedy had to have redone. Kennedy's golf game was a well kept secret until he won the White House, because he had criticized Eisenhower for playing too much (Ike had a practice green installed on the South Lawn). Richard Nixon liked to take mulligans, but then so did Bill Clinton. Gerry Ford retired to golf-mad Palm Springs in California. The first George Bush likes to play a round in about two hours, which would make him very popular at Royal Montreal, where they don't ask how you played, they ask how long it took.

Among living Canadian prime ministers, there are three golfers, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

Mulroney took up the game after he left office, and plays at Mount Bruno, where he has a locker with the name "B. Mulroney" (the locker room has a run-down look that only the well-off can afford). In Florida, he plays occasionally with his friend Raymond Floyd (who attended his daughter's wedding), and is friendly with Greg Norman. He was golfing just recently with his friend Bush at Paul Desmarais's place near La Malbaie. But the golfer in the family is his son Nick, a scratch handicap who has broken 70 at Mount Bruno.

Chrétien plays at Royal Ottawa in Aylmer. When he was prime minister, golf carts of RCMP details accompanied his group. His handicap was a well- kept secret, but he is serious about the game, and scores in the mid-80s. He occasionally golfed with Clinton (Mont Tremblant was one venue), and once dubbed his many takeover shots Clintons rather than mulligans.

Chrétien is himself no stranger to improving his score. Playing with Tiger Woods in the pro-am at the 2001 Canadian Open at Royal Montreal, Chrétien moved his ball, improved his line and walked across Tiger's putting line on the 15th hole. "Give him a 20 on his own ball," Woods told another member of the foursome. When Chrétien scored a par on the demanding 18th hole, Woods later called it "a legitimate four."

Paul Martin likes golf so much he's building his own six-hole course at his farm at Iron Hill in the Eastern Townships.

And it was on Martin's watch as PM that Canada and Montreal got the Presidents Cup, though there was a little matter of a million dollars in federal funding to be cleared up first.

The PGA Tour always had Royal Montreal in mind for the biennial event, which is held outside the United States every fourth year. They liked the club's history as the oldest in North America and they like it that Richards had successfully organized two Canadian Opens there in 1997 and 2001.

But the PGA wanted $1 million in sponsorship money from both Ottawa and Quebec. And in 2004, stung by the sponsorship scandal, Martin and his office were extremely leery. And if Ottawa wasn't in, Jean Charest wasn't going to put in a million bucks by himself. How many hospital beds is that again? Without the $2 million the Presidents Cup would have gone to another country - China and Japan were very interested.

When it was explained to Francis Fox, then Martin's principal secretary, that the economic benefits of the event for Montreal were $65 million, and that Ottawa would get its million dollars back in GST revenues alone, the file finally moved. "I'll pick up the ball," Fox said at the time. "I'll run with the ball."

So he did. Martin approved the $1 million, as did Charest.

Speaking of the importance of thank yous, as International captain Gary Player was at the opening ceremony, thanks are owed to Martin, whose role wasn't recognized, and Senator Fox, who wasn't even invited.

But without Martin and Fox, it wouldn't have happened. Honour is due.

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