The golfer and the man

They were taking the roses in for the winter at the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto when I visited George Knudson’s last resting place with his wife Shirley. It was hard to believe that it had been ten years since the golfer whom Jack Nicklaus described as having “A million-dollar swing,” passed away, in January 1989. Knudson was a maestro when it came to hitting the golf ball with precision. Players who watched him used to say he was closer to Ben Hogan than Hogan himself. Ten years? He’d been on my mind often. And now, as I think about him again — heck, I find myself thinking about Knudson just about every day — I realize he had a big impact on many golfers. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Canadian Professional Golfers Association recognized Knudson as its golfer of the 20th century.

Shirley and I stood by the headstone for a quiet moment. Knudson was buried under the spreading limbs of a white oak tree, and many of us who were fortunate to call Knudson a close friend used to joke — and still do joke — that this was the first time he found himself under a tree. It was unthinkable that this perfectionist of the golf swing should hit a shot io that sort of trouble.

Ten years had gone by? George was only fifty-one when he died from lung cancer, and had he lived he would now be enjoying the Senior PGA Tour. He had all but left competitive golf when he was in his mid-thirties because he didn’t enjoy the travel at all; George missed Shirley and their three sons, Kevin, Paul and Dean. Now the boys were men — Kevin a commercial pilot, Paul a club professional, Dean an economist. He and Shirley would have been out there with Bob Charles, Miller Barber, Lee Trevino — they would have been enjoying the game at which he toiled while trying to find a better way to strike the golf ball.

Eight times a winner

Knudson had found that way while winning eight PGA Tour events. He tied for second in the 1969 Masters, a shot behind George Archer, when he didn’t make a putt over ten feet until the seventieth hole. He liked to tell a story of how he was feeling when he reached the twelfth tee the last round. As it happened, Knudson had encountered Arnold Palmer in the locker room after the round, and told him the story first. It became a central story in the Knudsonian archives that many golfers — and not only Canadians — carry around in their memories.

“I walked onto the twelfth tee and I was so excited that I couldn’t settle my feet down,” Knudson, a member of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, would say. “But I had to hit the shot. How was I going to hit that shot over Rae’s Creek if I couldn’t settle down? So I just tried to hit it between the bounces of my feet.”

Knudson related his experience to Palmer, who shot back: “What else is new? I feel that way every time I’m in the hunt at Augusta.” Knudson laughed. If you were going to contend in a major, well, you had better get used to the bounces — mental and otherwise.

The guy was really something — simple as that. George had one of those temperaments that seemed placid on the outside, but inside, hidden behind dark glasses he wore to protect his eyes from the sun, he felt plenty. He smoked two or three packages a day to ward off anxiety, and he was on friendly terms with more than a few hotel bars in tour stops across America. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1987 Knudson said, not holding back — he never did hold back — “Who was I to think I wouldn’t get lung cancer from smoking? It’s a filthy, stinking habit.” He quit then and there, but the damage had been done.

I had gone off to the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco that June. We had started work on a book a week earlier, sitting by the pool at the Knudsons’ home in north Toronto, where their backyard sloped down to a wooded ravine. He wanted to tell the story of how he came to leave cold Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he had been born, and how he had struck out to study Hogan; how he had come to believe that the golf swing was subject to the laws of nature — centrifugal force, inertia. Hence the name of his book: The Natural Golf Swing.

Stricken with lung cancer

When I returned home from Olympic there was a message from a friend on my answering machine. “Have you heard about George?” the fellow asked. I didn’t know what he meant, but found out right away. George had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I called him and the first thing he said was, “I’m going to have my bad days and my good days. But we’ll work on the good days when I’m not tired from the chemo. We’ll get the book done.”

We did get the book done. Many a night George would call me because he had found a better way to say something. He became an enthusiast of the English language, examining the nuances of words the way he liked to examine the nuances of the golf swing. Does a golfer “transfer” his weight from the forward foot to the back foot, or does he “shift” his weight? Of such details was his book borne. I loved every minute of working on the book with him. It was a privilege to do so.

The book came out in 1988, and George was proud of it. He was helping people through words, and even while he was undergoing treatment he never refused a phone call from somebody who wanted to talk about his book, his ideas. He answered letters, elaborated on the pleasures of the game. Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula was his favourite course in all the world; he liked nothing better than playing a practice round early in the morning for what was then the Bing Crosby Pro-Am, setting out in the fog and watching it lift over the sea and then feeling the sun on his back as he played along. Knudson had studied art as a young man; he had become an artist of the game, of the swing, of the better ways of playing it.

Give up to gain control

“Never do anything at the expense of balance.” That was one of his favorite sayings. “You have to give up control to gain control.” That was another. George meant that that the golfer who tries to control the club becomes tense, and doesn’t let the club travel on an uninterrupted path. Control is compromised in this way. The idea is to let things happen by setting the club in motion during the backswing motion, the “loading” motion as he called it. “The purpose of the loading motion is to gather energy,” he wrote. “We do so by transferring weight to the right foot while rotating the body around the trunk.”

“You have to give up control to gain control.” I keep thinking of that. Earlier this winter of 2000, I came across a comment that the Senior PGA Tour player John Jacobs made; he said that the sentence, “You have to give up control to gain control,” was the single best statement he had ever heard about golf. It’s a Zen koan, in a way. Let go to go. Lose to gain. The message was implicit in something else George liked to say. “You don’t play golf to relax, you relax to play golf.”

George was a teacher. I’m sure that the wonderful, late golf writer Charles Price would have agreed that he was one of those individuals he called “golf people.” He spoke softly but carried weight, transferred golfing wisdom, even life wisdom, to people he encountered. I didn’t know him very well at all when I wrote my first article in a major magazine. That was in 1979, when I wrote an essay on golf for the magazine Toronto Life. George left a message for me after he read the piece.

“Okay, Rube, you’ve got your foot in the door now,” George said. “Just keep writing and good things will happen.”

A wonderful golfer — and person

I’’ve met some wonderful people in golf — teachers, wise men and women who have learned from their experiences in the game. Knudson was one of those wonderful, golf people — the best friend a young man trying to make his own way in the game could have.

I was at home on January 24th, 1989, when word came through that George had died. He had often projected mental images of Cypress Point onto the wall of his hospital room so that he could relax. Only a couple of months before George had finished a short videotape that he was sending to the PGA’s teaching conference in Dallas; he couldn’t be there. His ideas, his words, could. In the spring of 1988, he had played the Legends of Golf tournament in Austin, Texas although he had been unable to practice and felt quite weak. But he wanted to see Sam Snead and Tommy Bolt and Johnny Pott, his partner. Hogan showed up at the tournament and told George his swing looked as good as ever.

George birdied the first hole he played, but he wouldn’t play any more competitive golf after the Legends. A legend in golf would soon pass from the scene.

The Knudson family asked if I would deliver the eulogy at George’s funeral, which I of course considered an honor. I’d called Dale Douglass, one of George’s contemporaries and by then already a five-time winner on the Senior PGA Tour. He said: “Everybody still comments on what a fine player George was and how many shots he could hit that the rest of us couldn’t.” Art Wall, said, simply, “He had class. The players respected George. They knew how great he was. That’s not a word we use too much, but it applies in his case.”

Now it’s years later. I’ve been rereading letters that continue to come in about George. Here’s a beautifully expressed sentiment.

“Let’s hear it once more for George and the principle of balance,” John Frederitz writes.

I also think of an E-mail I received recently from Jim Kaat, who won 16 Golden Gloves as a professional baseball pitcher. Kaat is an avid golfer, and I played with him this winter at the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Florida. “Stand tall and finish in balance,” Kaat advised me. He’d read the Knudson book long ago and believed in what the maestro had said.

So yes, let’s hear it once more for George and the principle of balance.

“We can get so much out of golf,” George wrote. “I know I have, and I’d like to see the same for you. Golf is the game of a lifetime, one in which you can get better and better.”

I’m learning to give up control to gain control. It’s a powerfully liberating idea. And George Knudson was a powerfully liberating human being — a gift to the game, and to more people than he ever knew, or can ever know. I’d wager, in fact, that his name comes up on the Senior PGA Tour week after week: George was that good. A good person, a good player. Amend that: A great person, a great player, and a great teacher.