ROCHESTER, New York (Reuters) - David Hearn could win this week’s PGA Championship and go on to capture golf’s three other majors for a career grand slam but would still not be the most famous Canadian to call Brantford, Ontario, home.
Hearn, 34, fired a four-under-par 66 to briefly feature atop the PGA Championship’s first-round leaderboard on Thursday and put himself squarely in contention for a maiden major.
But even if Hearn were to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy high on Sunday, it will never replace the image of Brantford’s favorite son, hockey icon Wayne Gretzky, holding the National Hockey League’s treasured Stanley Cup above his head.
“The Gretzky family is huge in our town for obvious reasons,” said Hearn, who has met the Hall of Fame hockey player several times. “Wayne has been such a great inspiration for everybody in Canada, let alone Brantford.
“I’ll be doing everything I can to make Brantford proud and give them another athlete to cheer for, for sure.”
While there is a lot of golf still to be played before the season’s final major is decided, not since Mike Weir slipped into the winner’s green jacket at the 2003 Masters, has a Canadian golfer created some major buzz.
Playing in his first PGA Championship, Hearn got his round off to a stumbling start with a bogey at the first and finishing it the same way with a bogey at 18.
But in between, Hearn was flawless, carding six birdies to sit one shot back of clubhouse leader American Jim Furyk, who signed off with 65.
“Obviously a little disappointed with the finish, but after that bogey on one, got a birdie right back on number two and that kind of got me back in the direction pretty quickly,” assessed Hearn. “In between that, I hit a lot of good shots, and yeah, really solid round.”
While Gretzky, who now lives in California, was pegged for hockey stardom from an early age - the hockey stick that the 13-year-old used to score his 1,000th minor league goal selling at auction for $38,838 - Hearn would be known in hockey circles as a “grinder.”
He has spent a large part of his career travelling golf’s back roads scratching out a living on the Canadian, Asia and U.S. satellite tours.
But this season, Hearn’s perseverance has started to payoff as he closes in on his first PGA Tour success.
Hearn enjoyed improved form ahead of the PGA Championship, recording a career-best second place finish at the John Deere Classic last month.
He sits 49th on the FedExCup standings and has earned $1 million in prize money this year - a third of his career earnings.
“The John Deere was a step forward for me in my career at this time; to be in contention on the biggest stage, maybe not the biggest tournament on the Tour, but definitely, in the playoff with Zach (Johnson) and Jordan (Spieth),” recalled Hearn.
“I took a lot of positives. I think when I do get in that situation again, I’ll be able to pull from that and I’ll look back at it as a great learning experience.”
Certainly Hearn does not lack from high-profile support or advice.
Gretzky, who at one time sponsored a tournament on the Nationwide Tour and whose daughter Paulina is dating PGA Tour golfer Dustin Johnson, enjoys playing golf and has shared some of his competitive wisdom with Hearn.
Weir, Canada’s most successful golfer, has also taken time to provide Hearn with some valuable career guidance.
“Coming from a hockey background, it wasn’t directly golf related,” said Hearn. “(Gretzky) definitely just shows a good example of how he became successful.
“Mike is at a point in his career now where he definitely wants to give back more and he’s definitely doing a good job of that.
“He’s definitely trying to take on that mentorship role.”
Editing by Frank Pingue