Sportswashing and the Calamity of Canada’s Municipal Open: Part 2

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank Ian Murray for providing me with all of the newspaper clippings from the period, as well as his help with contextualizing the story

Under its newly elected, progressive liberal government, in conjunction with ambitious mayors such as Jean Drapeau, investments made into new construction projects accounted for 15% of Quebec’s G.D.P. between 1961 and 1976. In particular, Montreal, still then Canada’s leading metropolis despite the effects of “la grande noirceur”, would undergo a rapid and startling transformation throughout this period. Such changes included a modernized and significantly expanded metro, stretching from the east to the west end of the city; a surge in the construction of sky-scrappers and plazas such as Place Ville Marie, where the Royal Bank of Canada would relocate its headquarters in a move that “shocked the ultra-conservative business community” according to William Weintraub; preparations for Expo 67 and, eventually, the 1976 Olympics, most notably the Olympic Village; a Major League Baseball franchise, the Expos; a plethora of bungalow-laden suburban neighborhoods, replete with all of the necessary amenities to service them, including highways, schools, and hospitals; and a new international, state-of-the-art airport, located well-north of the city, in Mirabel. 

Montreal’s Little Burgundy in the 1960s (Photo Credit: CBC)

Of course, the “Cliche Commision”, formed at the behest of Robert Bourassa’s government in 1974, following the violent pillaging of a construction site at Baie-James, would reveal, at least in part, the extent to which this boom was fueled and backed by blatant and widespread corruption. In the words of Donald Rumball, “the findings of the Cliche Commission on union freedoms in the construction industry have shocked even blasé Quebec with its revelations of corruption, stretching from good old-fashioned graft to shylocking and murder. And widespread strikes, showdowns, and lockouts have brought Montreal’s Olympic program to the brink of abandonment and propelled cost overruns through the roof.”

(Photo credit: MTL Blog)

As Rumball concluded, “two unique elements make any change in the construction industry even more difficult in Quebec than anywhere else in North America: the first being that the province has long held an unenviable reputation for flourishing corruption. Not that corruption doesn’t exist elsewhere – it’s just more blatant in Quebec. The second is that three labor organizations compete for the allegiance of the workers – the QFL, the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CNTU), and the Centrale des Syndicats Democratiques (CSD). The QFL is affiliated to the Canadian Labor Congress. The other two operate only in Quebec, independently of the CLC.” 

Robert Cliche, pictured far left (Photo Credit Constas Magazine)

Corrupt as these construction unions were, however, Rumball also warns that “not all the blame can be laid at the door of the unions – the contractors and the government are just as much at fault. And the construction industry is fertile soil for the seeds these flaws have sown.” Though corruption arguably reached its zenith under Duplessis’ government, something that became one of Lesage’s key-notes during his electoral campaign of 1960, the history of the province, and its projects, are replete with it. And, of course, Expo 67, the flagship event of the period, was not immune from it. 

Still, despite the circumambient ineffectiveness, on the part of the various governments, and even outright hostility, Quebec based private capital markets, which were mostly anglophone, had long managed to prosper. Though the tide slowly began shifting westward beginning in the mid 1960s, it wasn’t until Rene Levesque’s election, and the subsequent full-on rise of the nationalist fervor in Quebec, that Montreal lost its place to Toronto as Canada’s leading hub of business. 

A Painting of Fletcher’s Field, where the Royal Montreal Golf Club was originally located (Photo Credit: Ville de Montreal)

Organized golf in North America began in Montreal, on Fletcher’s Field across which the original links of the Royal Montreal Golf Club were laid out, in 1874. A year later, the Royal Quebec Golf Club was formed, and a number of other clubs followed suit before the turn of the century. Elizabeth Jewett notes that “in all these regions Anglophones outnumbered Francophone players,” and that, as the years passed, a growing number of French golfers began working as caddies or as golf professionals. “In Canadian cities,” she then states, “generally, golf developed on the outskirts of urban areas with a strong Anglo-Canadian presence and increased leisure time among the elite and growing professional, managerial classes.”

In the early years, golf in North America “reflected and nurtured cosmopolitan masculinity. Club membership, long-distance travel to far-off resort golf courses, and golf fashion were class-defined tastes that narrowed inclusion in this masculine golfing identity in both Canada and the United States that required the cultural and financial capital reserved for the upper-middle classes who had the time, money, and behavioural values to play the game. The high cost of a private golf club membership and the process of membership acquisition defined the boundaries of cosmopolitan masculinity. Annual fees, green fees, cost of equipment, and free time reduced the number of people who could afford to play.” 

Public golf didn’t arrive in Canada until the second decade of the twentieth century; when it finally did, Hewitt highlights, “their promoters did not seek to distance them from urban life. These courses provided an outlet for a contemporary movement among many in the new middle classes to promote social betterment and health for working class adults and youths through physical activity.”

Despite prospering in cities such as Toronto, where there were three public golf courses, and New York, golf in Montreal still remained “very much a rich man’s game,” according to a column entitled “The Appeal of Golf” in the September 12th 1921 edition of The Montreal Star. The author of the column insisted that “golf facilities for five thousand of Montreal’s young people would mean an opportunity for these five thousand to spend twenty-thousand hours in the great outdoors, fill their lungs with twenty thousand hours of draughts of pure air, kill millions of microbes and dispels myriads of worries, anxieties, irritations and bad tempers.” 

With an eye ever-turned towards Toronto, astonishment at the lack of public golfing facilities was a common theme in the pages focused on the local golf scene in the Star throughout this period. In the February 11th edition of the same year, a brief column revealed that Ralph Reville, a “well-known golf and official” from Brantford, was stunned at the lack of public golf links. 

Yet, a small coterie of Montrealers sought to erase this void, often after having visited New York City or the U.K., where, in the words of one commentator in the Montreal Star, golf was far more democratic than in their city. One of the leading figures behind the push to bring municipal golf to Montreal was Redvers Mackenzie, who, in november 1922, provided a detailed exploration of the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park course, both of the golf links themselves and its operations. In conclusion, citing Van Cortlandt’s profit of $17 000 the year prior and its projected profit of $30 000 in 1922, the result of a raise in dues, Mackenzie boldly claimed, at the end of his article, that “The Star has long advocated a public course in Montreal. There is no chance of it being a failure. This city could crowd three public courses in two years. The game is in its infancy. Everyone will be playing it very soon if the cost is not too high.” 

In fact, upon being officially proposed in 1920, the idea of bringing a public golf links to the city, namely to Maisonneuve Park, had never been met with outright hostility, nor denial; rather it had been put on the back-burner due to budgetary restrictions, primarily. A brief notice in the January 5th, 1921, edition of paper reveals that E.R. Decarie, then chairman of the Administrative Commision of Montreal, met with R.H. Blumenthal and Alderman Lyon W. Jacobs, and although Decarie thought it was a great and potentially fruitful idea, he could not grant them the funds right away. Encouraged by this meeting, however, the idea continued to simmer in the minds of its backers. 

By May 1923 plans to establish a public links in Parc Maisonneuve were approved, and Albert Murray, then the professional at the Country Club of Montreal, was commissioned to lay out the golf course. In his pitch, Murray assured Jean Crepeau, the director of municipal services for the city, that he could have the golf course ready in “a few weeks”. Before the first shot was struck, in early August, hundreds of golfers were applying for memberships, and another nine holes were already planned, along with a $10 000$ clubhouse. And, in 1927, Murray added another nine holes. 

Alfred Wright’s provocative headline, “Beating 17 Greens and Brown”, for his recap of the 1967 Canadian Open in Sports Illustrated, inspired it would seem by Arnold Palmer’s claim that “if we could disregard conditions, this would be a satisfactory course,” was far from the first one written regarding the conditioning of the golf course, however. As early as 1926, someone writing under the pseudonym “Poor Golfer” lamented that “the fairway are reminiscent of the prairies”, that the rough was “too rough” and thus causing slow play, and that, above all, the golf course needed to be placed under the guise of an expert greens-keeper, not amateurs. 

It would seem that such complaints had little positive effect, because, in 1937, a group of “pay-as-you-play” golfers formed an association to “assault” city hall with their dissatisfactions regarding, among other things, the condition of their beloved golf course in Parc Maisonneuve. These golfers cited the condition of Toronto’s municipal courses as being far superior to theirs, and that, in turn, their play was being harmed by the condition of the turf. They also griped that the city was taking far too much of the money generated by the course and redirecting it towards other ventures. 

Eventually, in 1941, Albert Murray, who had remained involved with the club since designing it, albeit in a limited and sporadic capacity, was named “official counsel.” Charged with improving the golf course, Murray was paid 750$ for the 1942 season. Murray, ever the renaissance man when it came to golf, also gave lessons, provided trick-shot exhibitions, and devised a plan to add another 18 holes to the popular facility, which the city executive committee turned down in 1948, without reason, according to the Montreal Star. In 1954, though, a third nine would be added to the facility. 

Bolstered by a dream and a dogged ambition to elevate Montreal to the world stage, and in turn lift his province once and for all out of the doldrums of the Duplessis years, Drapeau and his advisors turned their attention to the municipal golf course in the shadow of what would soon become the track of land crowned by the sky-reaching arm of the Olympic Stadium. The central theme for the exhibition was “Man and his World”, and, as Roderick Mcleod concludes, “this projected vision made Canadians feel good about themselves and gave the rest of the world a more exciting sense of what Canada was like than it had held previously; instead of a stodgy colony, Canada had clearly become a modern dynamic nation with a complex identity. For Montrealers, however, Expo did much more than give the city an exciting new persona for the world to admire. It also brought the world into contact with an urban population eager for change.”

Unfortunately, even then, the mere mortal daily-fee paying men and women of Montreal could not inhabit the same world as the deities of the links. So, as with its municipal heirs Bethpage and Torrey Pines, a number of modifications had to be made to Murray’s design in order to accommodate Jack, Arnold, and Gary. 

Albert’s grandson, Ian Murray, notes that Daimen “Diamond” Gauthier, the long-serving club professional, undertook the task of reconditioning and toughening the course to national championship conditions. 

Regular play on the Muni (Photo Credit: Ville de Montreal)

As would become common to modifications specifically geared towards hosting the world’s best, Gauthier’s changes would prove to be hit and miss. Wright declared that “unfortunately, money can’t do everything. Montreal’s $600,000 was spent on bending doglegs into the fairways, placing a lot of new bunkers at uncomfortable locations, planting dozens of little pine trees that will be spectacular in another 12 or 15 years and building a fine new clubhouse. So far so good, except that the Canadian springtime failed to cooperate. Not frantic sodding or truckloads of fertilizer could keep the course from looking like one vast stretch of ground under repair.”

Still, the overall consensus was rather positive towards Murray’s golf course, itself; rather, its conditioning was the major gripe, and with valid reason, it seems. Writing for the Globe and Mail, Jack Marks’ article, “Canadian Open Site Draws Blasts from Touring Pros”, chronicles a number of the complaints that were made by the players. “It would be foolish to say that this course is in good shape,” said the ever-colorful Doug Sanders. Homero Blanca revealed that “the greens are bumpy and bad.” And echoing this, Marks wrote that “the fairways are newly crowded with fresh-growth grass, which provides few opportunities to spin the ball. {…} The greens are inconsistent – one is fast, one is slow, the next one is hard, another one soft.”

Muni golfers before the open (Photo Credit: Ville de Montreal)

The seventeenth green, in particular, became a focal point of criticism. So much so that Wright, Marks, and Dick Beddoes, also writing for The Globe and Mail, all extensively commented upon it in their respectives articles. Marks declared that the surface was “barely grassed” and “definitely not green.” Beddoes claimed that, after knocking in a green-side bunker shot, Steve Reid giggled all the way to the eighteen tee, because that “was the safest way to play the hole.” And Wright detailed a humorous exchange between Canada’s George Knutson and Dave Marr. 

“When the threesome of Arnold Palmer, Dave Marr and George Knudson arrived at the 17th, Knudson found himself facing an 18-foot downhill putt for his par. Queasily, he tapped the ball as lightly as possible and then watched it roll 20 feet below the cup. “The trouble with you, George,” Dave Marr said to him, “is that you don’t know how to read the dirt.” Later Marr described 17 as “like putting downhill on a Howard Johnson roof—with the shingles.” To add to this, a thunderstorm, which swept through on Sunday, knocked a large tree-limb onto the green, halting play and further damaging it. 

scorecard from the event (courtesy: The Golf Auction)

On the whole, despite the tremendous strength of the field and the large galleries, the golf, itself, would prove to be largely disappointing. “Perhaps it was the course, and perhaps it was the strain of the players’ renewed brawl with the PGA,” lamented Wright, “but the golf that Montreal’s crowds of 20,000 a day saw was hardly of the championship quality that their good mayor had envisioned. Palmer played some of his most erratic shots in months. Gary Player scarcely made the cut, and Doug Sanders and Masters Champion Gay Brewer both missed it.”

At the very last moment, though, tremendous sporting theater suddenly broke through the clouds that had loomed over the event. Finally finding form after a long-drought, Art Wall, the leading money earner of the 1959 PGA Tour season and that year’s green jacket winner, faced a twenty-five foot putt on the ultimate green to capture his 14th PGA Tour victory. Sitting one ahead of Billy Casper, with glory on his mind and his heart clattering against his rib-cage, he unfortunately knocked his first putt five-feet past; cruel fate then struck, as Wall hopelessly watched Casper drain his own fourteen-foot birdie effort.  

Those faithful five-feet to force a playoff must have looked like fifty all of a sudden, the hole shrunk to the size of a coin; unable to rise to the occasion, Wall missed and Casper was crowned champion. In closing, Wright declared that “there is no better bad-green putter in golf than Bill Casper.”

The 1967 Canadian Open, however, would prove to be a melancholic swann’s song of sorts for Montreal Municipal, the first public club to host a PGA Tour event in North America. 

Although a 1970 newspaper clipping suggests that the course was “the busiest layout” in North America, with eager golfers allegedly lining up as early as 3:30am in order to secure the day’s first tee-times, the golf club became a victim of the preparations for the 1976 Olympic Games. Needing additional room for facilities around the Stade Olympique, the center-piece of the games, much of the golf course was annexed; however, a short nine hole municipal golf course survived and is still in use, and the skeletons of the holes are still plainly visible in Parc Maisonneuve, which is now well-populated by frisbee-throwers, cloud-watchers, and dog-walkers.

Montreal Muni, now (Photo Credit: Ville de Montreal)

Returning to the thesis, or headline of this article: namely, that the Canadian Open of 1967 was, in fact, an instance of blatant sportswashing which occurred on home-soil, here in Canada. Obviously, as with any phenomenon, or practice, sports-washing exists on a scale, and I don’t believe that the Canadian Open of 1967, and the Expo 67 in turn, were used to cover, or divert attention away, from crimes that were perhaps as widespread and common as those of, say, the Saudis or the Argentinian Junta (although Quebec’s history with residential schools, among other tragedies, isn’t anything to try to contextualize or lessen, in any way, shape, or form). 
Yet, I believe, there is little doubt that, as the various scholars and commentators I have quoted so far in this piece have proposed and laid out, Drapeau’s plan to attract the PGA Tour’s greatest stars, specifically by way of good fashion monetary allure, was, as the Cambridge Dictionary defines it, “the practice of an organization , a government , a country, etc. supporting or organizing events as a way to improve its reputation”, the definition of “sportswashing.” For Drapeau, for Quebec, for Canada, even, Expo 67 represented a country, at its centennial celebration, trying to shed, once and for all, its frontier mindset, to move beyond its pioneering past, to find its footing, to recast itself as a truly twenty first century nation; yet, in this attempt to shed its colonial mindset, like the vestiges of the golf course that played host to the world’s best, the “razzle-dazzle of spires and domes and interplanetary whatchamacallits” diverted attention away from its shameful foundation of colonialism, of land grabs, of corruption, that we, as Canadians, are still trying to cope with and rectify. In short, Expo 67 and the Canadian Open were part of a repackaging, a refraction and recasting, but not a reconciliation or remediation.


Leave a Reply