Sportswashing and the Calamity of Canada’s Municipal Open: Part 1

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Of late, sports-washing has been a hot and much debated topic, from LIV Golf’s Saudi connections, to the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United and their subsequent rise into the top 4 of the English Premier League, to the potential takeover of Manchester United by a Qatari conglomerate. Far from a phenomenon born sometime recently, though, the practice of sports-washing traces back centuries and centuries, to the original Olympic Games, according to Paul Christesen, a professor of Ancient Greek History at Dartmouth. Mired in a long, costly, and seemingly catastrophic war against the Spartans, Christesen notes that, in order to boost the morale of his people, an Athenian politician, Alcibiades, opted to enter several chariot racing teams in the Olympiad of 416 B.C.E. His teams subsequently swept the podium, and in the eyes of both their rivals and, as importantly, their own, suddenly they no longer seemed a defeated and downtrodden nation. 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “sports-washing” as “the practice of an organization, a government, a country, etc, supporting sport or organizing sports events as a way to improve its reputation.” But, I think, it’s safe to presume that in a typically naive, hardy-har-har Canadian fashion, most Canucks would view sports-washing as something foreign, something we wouldn’t dare do here – oh no, not here, eh, in the innocent land-of-milk-and-honey that is supposedly our dominion. According to the definition of sports-washing, however, the practice very much occurred during the 1967 Canadian Open, played at the now extinct Montreal Municipal Golf Course and won by the criminally underrated Billy Casper. 

3-time major Champion, Billy Casper (courtesy: wiki)

A scan of the roster of past Canadian Open hosts reveals a litany of now widely esteemed club names: Royal Montreal, St Georges’s, Mount Bruno, Toronto Golf, Hamilton, Westmount, Shaughnessy, Rosedale, and, even, Glen Abbey. Intermingled into such Canadian golf club royalty are other clubs that, in most cases, nevertheless remain well-thought-of in their regions or cities, most of which are located away from the venerable international media solenoids of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver: London Hunt, Royal Ottawa, Rivermead, St-Charles, Cherry Hill, Essex, Riverside, Niakwa. As well some that have fallen on harder times of late, or have drifted out of the national spotlight, for a variety of reasons, usually financial or taste-related: these include, Kanawaki, Lakeview, Richelieu Valley, Pinegrove, Angus Glen (both North and South). 

Yet, Montreal Municipal sticks out like a sore thumb among the roster, not only for its now-long-forgotten name, but also and mainly because of the significance in wider-Canadian lore of the year when it hosted the world’s best: 1967. Expo 1967. 

(courtesy: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

Writing for Sports Illustrated, Alfred Wright provided a poignant glimpse of the pomp and glitz surrounding the golf. “The $200,000 Canadian Open, or Omnium Canadien, or Expo Open, as it came to be known somewhere along the line,” he remarked, “had all the makings of one of pro golf’s happiest 1967 stopovers. Thrusting out of the St. Lawrence River only a few brassie shots away was the razzle-dazzle of spires and domes and interplanetary whatchamacallits of Expo 67. Montreal, the swinging city, was straining under carloads of footsore parents and their clamorous offspring, dogged oldsters and hirsute hippies—every last one of them cranked up for the time of their lives. Out by the golf course, motels and drive-ins had sprung up like dandelions on a commuter’s front lawn. Even Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were coming to the Expo. It seemed the ideal occasion for some wonderful golf and a gay old time to boot.”

Wright noted that, in preparation for the event, Montreal’s forward-thinking, crime-busting, corruption-fighting, hard-line, and sober mayor at the time, Jean Drapeau, took 600 000$ from the city’s treasury to remodel the existing golf course – supposedly a perfectly fine, if unspectacular Albert Murray design – and another 100 000$ from the same source to show the R.C.G.A. that they “were serious” about hosting, by adding this sum to the already standing purse. In turn, Montreal’s Seagram Distilleries, then the world’s leading manufacturer of alcohol, matched the city’s 100 000$, bringing the total purse up to 200 000$. Eventually, 49 of the top 50 money earners from the previous PGA Tour season showed up to Montreal’s Parc Maisonneuve, where the golf course was located, next to the eventual site of the Stade Olympique, the home base of the 1976 Olympic Games. 

scorecard from the event (courtesy: The Golf Auction)

Expo 1967, in which this extremely-well attended Canadian Open was subsequently packaged, was, according to Craig Moyes and Steven Palmer, “a prism through which the idea of the nation could be refracted and recast in original ways. Misunderstood by some scholars as an expensive exercise in official patriotism, while maligned by Quebec intellectuals as a crypto-federalist distraction from the real business of national independence, the fair nevertheless showcased Montreal as the de facto capital of a suddenly modern Quebec engaging with a late-modern world.”

1960 is often cited as a turning point in Quebec’s history, with the beginning of “the quiet revolution” after Jean Lesage’s Liberal Party won the provincial election by a landslide, following the death of Maurice Duplessis, who had been in power since 1944. Duplessis, the head of the Union National Party, had ruled over all aspects of provincial life with an iron fist, bolstered by his belief in a staunchly Catholic and culturally pure Quebec, leading to what has become known as the period of “La Grande Noirceur”, or “The Great Darkness”. 

Initially frustrated by Louis Alexandre Tascherau’s efforts to modernize Quebec’s lagging economy and bygone infrastructure over the course of his reign as the province’s premier throughout the 1920s, and further angered by the onset of the Great Depression, Duplessis and other conservatives formed the Union National Party. Eventually, following a political scandal that forced Tascherau to resign, the U.N. won power in 1936, a victory “that condemned rural Quebec to another generation of wood stoves, gas and kerosene lighting, iceboxes, and no radios or telephones. This anti-technological bent would persist in some form for nearly two decades.” 

Maurice Duplessis, nicknamed “the chief” (courtesy: Canada’s Human Rights History)

Throughout his time in office, Duplessis practiced an isolationist parochialism, intermingled with an anti-Ottawa stance in which foreign investment was encouraged and welcomed, particularly when it came to mining and the pulp and paper industries, two of Quebec’s most important resources. Perhaps the most famous, and symbolic, example of Duplessis’ administration occurred during the Asbestos Strike of 1949, when 5 000 unionized miners in the town of Asbestos, now named Val-Des-Sources, demanded better pay and safer working conditions from the American-owned mining company, the John-Manville Company. Even going against the wishes of the Catholic Clergy, Duplessis sided with the Americans, busing in scabs and policemen to assault the striking miners, who eventually gained merely a fraction of what they were demanding (without any marked improvements to safety standards, which were the worst in the western world at the time, and with many losing their jobs at the conclusion of the strike). 

Miners during the Asbestos Strike of 1949 (Courtesy: History Online)

Moreover, largely because of Duplessis backwards policies, most of which were supported by the provincial Catholic clergy, Quebec lagged behind the rest of the country, economically, socially, and progressively. As William Weintraub concludes, in his wonderful book City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and 1950s, “most members of the clergy, in the 1940s, were deeply suspicious of any social change of any kind, and in resisting change of any kind, they had a strong ally in Maurice Duplessis.” Women, for example, were not allowed to vote in Quebec until 1940, and even afterwards, only begrudgingly so. Uncouth books and films were banned, journalists were muzzled, police brutality and corruption were rampant. Gradually, though, anger began to simmer, particularly among the more worldly youth of the province, until, as Weintraub terms it, the seams burst in the 1960s. 

“When Duplessis died, in 1959, the Montreal Star’s editorial raised the question of whether he had been a dictator,” Weintraub highlights, “many Montrealers had thought him exactly that.” Soon after, Quebec’s new liberal premier, Jean Lesage, in conjunction with progressive and ambitious mayors such as Drapeau, began to try to modernize the province, with the aim that it would sometime soon catch up with the rest of Canada. Nationalizing private electrical companies, lessening the role of the Catholic church in educational matters, revisiting the labor code, and introducing Bill 16 which abolished a married woman’s judicial restrictions by which her legal status was that of a minor, were among the most noteworthy reforms of the “the quiet revolution.”

In Part 2, we will cover the history of the course, what caused Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer (to name just a few players who did) to unleash on the conditioning of the greens and fairways, and explore what came of Albert Murray’s design after the event.


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