LINKS LETTER, 2007 ANNUAL EDITION

ONE SHOT, TWO SHOTS

By Jeff Hopper

In September of 2005, nearing the end of his 14th year on tour, Craig Kanada’s career hung on the edge of his 3-iron.

He had given God an ultimatum.

No kidding.

Every time you’re sure Kanada’s story is the script for a B-grade sports movie, that the Gipper’s about to dig deep for his most inspirational pep talk, flanked by his alcoholic assistant coach and a ball boy in leg braces, you remember you’re talking to a real person. And you wonder, when you actually sit down to write his story, if you should issue a warning: I know this doesn’t sound real, not a lick of it, but believe me, I’m telling the truth. Really.

After all, there’s the rapid-fire romance with a childhood friend that turns into a long, happy marriage.

There’s the late-night inspiration from the team in New Jersey, transmitted into the Texas living room of the guy who grew up in Oregon and went to college at Ohio State. Craig Kanada, if nothing else, has been around. Yet his biggest win came right at home.

There are the back-to-back chip-ins on the last two holes that snatched that win, the 2006 Nationwide Tour Championship, two days after the face of a bunker stared him down and said, “No chance.”

And then there was that day in Idaho where it all nearly ended on a 213-yard par-3 in the wind.

What had brought Craig Kanada to this razor’s edge was, frankly, a whole lot of failure.

On tours of all kinds since 1991, Kanada’s zenith had been the right to play on the PGA Tour in 2001. But with that chance in hand, he had done almost nothing.

“I didn’t play well and missed several cuts by what I perceived as giving them away,” he recalls of that year. “I double-bogeyed the last hole in one tournament and finished bogey-bogey in another tournament to miss the cut by a shot.”

Failure fed failure, and the season faded quickly.

Kanada: “That last day, it had been such a long year, and I was thinking, This might be my last round ever on the PGA Tour.”

It didn’t get better. In 2002, Kanada took up his non-exempt season on the Nationwide Tour, the fate of those who miss the top 125 on the PGA Tour and can’t improve their status at the qualifying school tournament.

“I felt like I was being demoted,” he says. “I was not really motivated. I missed cuts there as well, not in great fashion either. So then I lost all my status.”

Kanada tried to get his privileges back, through the Q-school again. But this time he had to start clear back at the first stage, the beginning of a grueling three-step process. His play was poor and he missed advancing. Just a little over 12 months removed from the PGA Tour, and Craig Kanada had hit what he calls “rock bottom.”

“I had status for nine years in a row there and then lost it all,” he says.

It can be painful to hear Kanada tell these stories, and not so much because they have failure in them. Rather, Kanada is telling these stories after the miracle of 2006—you’ll see there is not an ounce of exaggeration in that phrase—and he is so unused to success that he still sometimes sounds like a man down on his luck. That is, when he isn’t chuckling with gleeful surprise at all that transpired last fall.

But 2005 was not last fall, and Kanada had been toiling in obscurity for nearly three full seasons—the Canadian Tour, the Gateway Tour, Northern Texas PGA Section events, and state opens. Either you really have to love to travel, or you really have to love golf.

For all these years, Kanada had loved golf. His parents had supported him every step of the way through a solid junior golf career. He was recruited cross country, to play for the perennial powerhouse Ohio State Buckeyes. His early years out of college were spent on the road, driving hundreds of miles between tournaments, trying to leap off the junior circuit springboard into a full-fledged career.

That never really happened.

But he did find love along the way.

Craig and Brooke were kids together. Sort of. After all, when you’re seven years old, girls aren’t at the top of your list. So Craig played with Brooke’s brothers, who were closer to his age anyway. It was easy. The two families were neighbors in Portland, Oregon.

But Brooke’s family set off for Houston when she was six, and that was that. The Kanadas visited once or twice, and Brooke’s family would head back up now and then, but she was never anything more than the kid sister.

But in the early days of the Nike Tour (what has become the Nationwide Tour now), Craig had a long trip between tournaments, from California to Mexico. A week off in between, however, gave him a chance to stop in Houston and spend some practice time. He stayed with Brooke’s family, as he had done in previous years, but this time he noticed something entirely different.

“Brooke had just gotten home from Texas A&M, from college, and I was like, ‘Who’s that?!’” Kanada says. “She was always the little sister before, someone just kind of hanging around. All of a sudden she was a young woman.”

They spent four days together that week, and one big shift occurred in Kanada’s thinking.

“Basically, playing professional golf and playing week to week, in a different city every week, and being a Christian, I thought there was no way I was going to be able to meet a girl and keep a long-distance relationship with her and get to know her and her family or anything,” he explains. “So I had basically given that up and was ready to be single for the rest of my life.”

Brooke was a surprise, a very welcome one. “Those four days that I spent there were absolutely amazing in how well we clicked and how much we had in common,” Kanada says. “Twenty-four days later, I asked her to marry me, and we were married later that year.”

Today, they have three sons, and they travel as a team nearly all of the time, with the boys homeschooled along the way. In fact, much of Kanada’s discussion about golf comes with a “we” attached. “’We’ is my wife and I,” he says. He and Brooke have chosen never to be apart more than seven days at a time.

But that “we” turned into an “I” that September in Idaho. Kanada had to reckon with himself, by himself. And he wasn’t sure what to do.

The year had been another disappointing one, with few results worth cheering about—not when there is money to be made and a family to support.

“Playing mini-tours is not very lucrative. We were spending more than we were making,” Kanada says bluntly.

Occasionally, he would have a good tournament and pick up a check that would string them along for a little while. But it was tough, and about to get tougher.

At the Idaho State Open, Kanada showed up hitting the ball “really good,” he says, and he had a good feeling about the tournament. In the practice rounds, his game was sharp. A dozen years in, a professional should have a decent sense of his own game, right?

But come tournament day, Kanada’s game vanished.

“I couldn’t handle the tournament situation,” he says, an awful memory. “I was missing the fairways by 40 yards and hitting them into creeks and out-of-bounds.”

Desperation set in after sixteen, where he missed another fairway, then was errant with a pitching wedge approach and walked away with another bogey. “That threw me over the top as far as my desire to keep playing,” he says.

When he walked up onto the tee at seventeen, a long wait ensued. It was a difficult par-3, and the players ahead were not managing it well.

But the delay gave Kanada something to talk about. With God.

“I gave Him an ultimatum,” Kanada recalls with a wry chuckle, “which I know you’re not supposed to do. You know, you don’t test God! But I was desperate and ready to get an answer, one way or the other.”

So Kanada prayed a rather one-sided prayer. He told God that he needed a sign, and that this next shot was the sign he was looking for.

“If I hit the green in regulation,” he prayed, “I’ll keep playing golf. But if I miss the green, then I’m done. I’m going to quit. I’m going to try and find something else to do, go in the direction that You want me to go.”

Kanada went so far as to explain to God that this was one tough hole. At 213 yards, he would have to hit a 3-iron, “probably my least favorite club in the bag.” The wind was blowing left to right and it was a small, skinny green.

As if God had to be told.

But the prayer ended too soon. The wait continued and Kanada got more and more nervous.

“I kept telling myself, OK, this is it, a shot for my career, right here,” he says. “I was very nervous sitting over that shot when I hit, and I hit it very pure and just hit it straight at the hole and it came off so well and it landed right on the front of the green and rolled back to hole about 12 feet from the pin on the green.

“And I felt so relieved. I was like, Wow! That’s so amazing! Thank You, God.”

Since you have to know, Kanada made the putt for birdie. Not only that, he hit a perfect drive at eighteen, knocked his approach about 10 feet from the hole, and made birdie there as well. Somehow, Craig Kanada had walked into one of the corniest, craziest, coolest golf stories of all time.

And then comes the irony.

That same afternoon, after grabbing a bite for lunch, Kanada went out to practice, and as he stood on the range, he was approached by a young pro, Justin Lee, who had no idea what Kanada had been through.

Lee walked right up to Kanada and said, “Hey, you’ve been on the PGA Tour before. What do you think I need to do? What’s the one thing you did to get on Tour that helped you get out there?”

Kanada stepped back for a minute, and then he found himself saying, “You need to have one shot that you can go back to and rely on and use it in the clutch when you need to and be able to hit that shot under pressure. Whether or not it fits the hole or the situation, you have to go back and rely on that shot.”

Then Lee asked Kanada what that shot was for him. Kanada said, “A little fade.”

And all of a sudden, every light in the golfing universe went on. All season long, Kanada had been trying to hit a draw. He had forgotten his own best shot.

Lee said, “Show me.”

And though he had not tried to hit a fade in six months or more, Kanada set up the shot and hit it perfectly.

“I was like, This is going to be another answer in the way I need to be playing again. I need to get back to golf by hitting shots and not by trying to make a perfect swing,” Kanada says.

Two months later, a rejuvenated Craig Kanada zipped through the first stage of Q-school. During the second stage, winds blew in excess of 30 miles an hour, but his game held together. He had made it to the third stage. He was guaranteed of a spot on the Nationwide Tour, at least. Maybe, just maybe, he’d get back to the big Tour.

At the final stage, in Florida, Kanada missed the PGA Tour, and he was a shot off being fully exempt on the Nationwide Tour, but he went home happy: “I felt excited and eager to play on the Nationwide Tour again. My whole perspective and my whole attitude and my whole look at the Nationwide Tour had turned 180 degrees from 2002, and that to me was a gift from God as well.”

The miracle began slowly. With top-20 finishes in his first two tournaments, Kanada gained the option of playing anywhere he wanted going forward. He filled his schedule—to the brim. By late summer, he was in the midst of an eight-week stretch. It showed. His final round in Cleveland in early September, he shot 79. He probably needed a week off.

Around the bend were two tournaments he surely didn’t want to miss: the Albertsons Boise Open, with its big purse, and the Oregon Classic, back in Kanada’s home state. But first came the Utah Energy Solutions Championship, and if Kanada played there, he’d be committed to an 11-week run. He went home to think it over.

By Wednesday, he felt good, and he figured if he was going to practice anyway, he might as well practice in Salt Lake. He headed to Utah, the same week, one year later, as the Idaho State Open.

But he arrived so late that he had no chance for a practice round on a course that had been revamped since the last time he had played it and he had no caddie.

Early Thursday morning, the tournament coordinators called and said they had found someone to carry his bag. Kanada met him an hour before tee time. He had never caddied before.

“I was trying to warm up and get to know him and make sure he doesn’t do anything incorrectly to cost me a penalty or anything,” Kanada says. “So off we went and I was playing the course blind basically, just the lay of the land. Plus, with elevation, your ball flies farther and you’re not exactly sure how far it’s flying.”

He played conservatively, which yielded an opening 69 all the same. Friday was better: 67.

And now there were some tour caddies available. He hooked up with Boyd Cornwell, one of the more seasoned loopers in the game. They made an agreement for the weekend and started heroically. Kanada vaulted to second place with a 65 on Saturday.

He played with Bryce Molder in the final group. And although Kanada didn’t really mount a charge—he shot 71—Molder found trouble on the front nine, slipped back of Kanada and couldn’t catch him in the end.

Emerging from a five-way tie at one point late in the round, Craig Kanada won his first tournament in 16 years as a tour professional. The ultimate unlikely was holding a trophy one precise year after God held his career in the balance.

“I thought it was a pretty amazing thing, and it made the rest of the year, obviously, a lot more enjoyable,” Kanada says of that Utah win. “It was easier to play golf and I wasn’t so concerned about where I was on the money list, or even trying to make the cut. I was out there just trying to play the best golf I could and it helped me.”

So how relaxed was Kanada going into the season-ending event, the Nationwide Tour Championship?

Not so relaxed that he forgot to count. Kanada, you see, was 32nd on the money list heading into that event. The top 22 players earn playing privileges on the PGA Tour for the following season. The way Kanada had it figured, he would need to finish alone in third or better to make the money it would take to jump ten spots.

And he did all this figuring in the comfort of his own living room, for the Tour Championship was held at The Houstonian, plenty close to his Woodlands home.

He opened with 73, disappointed that he hadn’t played his best.

That night he went home and stayed up far too late for his early morning tee time. The undefeated Rutgers University football team was locked in a thriller with the bigger, stronger Louisville Cardinals. Here was Rutgers’ chance to show they were for real.

“It was a huge game for Rutgers,” Kanada says with a fresh memory little more than a week later. “It kept me up because they were close to winning, and at the end when they did win it, they were doing postgame interviews, and the guys were very happy to win. Just to see that and everything they went through was very inspiring for me and it kept me up even more.”

It was 11:30 before Kanada got to bed. Then he awoke at 3:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep. Not good.

On Friday morning, a door slammed in Kanada’s face almost instantly. His drive on the first tee found the face of a fairway bunker. His only shot was to chip out. He wedged his third onto the green, about 45 feet short of the hole. A short night looked like the lead-in for a long day.

But then Kanada, who missed four straight 6-footers warming up before the round, stepped up and drained the putt. Par.

He birdied two and three and kept on making birdies. By the time Friday ended, he had carded 64, a course record.

Saturday he held his ground, and on Sunday he played in the third-to-last group. But he was starting six shots behind the leader, Matt Kuchar. Five birdies on the front turned Kanada in 31, and Kuchar knew he was coming on.

Kanada was still one back when he got to seventeen, a familiarly long, difficult par-3. This time, he missed the green on the short side, with little chance at keeping the ball within 50 feet of the hole. He decided to land the ball in the fringe and let it run. His shot was true, but the ball didn’t skip, and he was left with a second chip, from about 25 feet.

With visions of Tom Watson at Pebble Beach dancing in his head, the thought crossed Kanada’s mind, OK, maybe I can make a three.

His chip hit short, but kept rolling for the hole. It fell right in the middle, and Kanada knew his goal was all but met. He was tied for second, two shots ahead of fourth.

At eighteen, though, his 5-iron approach came up short. The newly confident Craig Kanada thought big. “Why don’t we just chip in again?” he asked his caddie.

It was a relatively easy chip, a little run straight up the hill, but he had 60 feet to cover, and what’s that they say about lightning?

But Kanada, as we all know by now, did it again.

“When it went in,” Kanada says, “I knew I had my PGA Tour card, then I thought, You know what? I just made birdie. I think I’m tied for the lead. It all of a sudden hit me, and it kind of overwhelmed me. I had to compose myself to get the ball out of the hole because my hand was shaking so much.”

It would have been shaking all the more if he had known what was happening behind him. At seventeen, Kuchar made bogey. Kanada had the lead. And when Kuchar’s seven-footer for birdie at the last missed, Kanada was the winner.

Zero for 16 years. Now twice in two months.

It’s a long time in the telling, this story. And it should be. There has probably never been another story quite like it. But when Craig Kanada gets a chance to catch his breath and talk about something other than shots and scores, he steps back and says every bit of it is in God’s hands.

“I am not result-oriented,” he says. “I leave the results to God. I believe He has purposes for us and places for us to be. I’ve always said that all I can do is gather up all the knowledge I can about the shots and make my best swing, but as soon as the ball leaves the clubface, it’s completely up to God where it goes. He’s affecting the wind, He’s affecting the grass that my ball is landing on, the contour the ball is rolling over. He is in control of all that.

“Whether the ball goes in or not is up to Him.”

If all that sounds like blind faith, put yourself on that seventeenth tee at the Idaho Open next to Craig Kanada. Watch a man wrestle with every year of his adult life, wondering where it all had brought him. Watch him stand nervously over the shot that would determine his future. And watch that ball sail straight to the hole.

For Kanada, there was nothing blind about it. He saw it all with his own two eyes.

COPYRIGHT 2007 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Craig Kanada

    2 Nationwide Tour Wins: 2006 Utah Energy Solutions Championship, 2006 Nationwide Tour Championship

    Best PGA Tour Finish: 10th, 2007 Sony Open in Hawaii