Canada's Spittle finds success on Champions Tour

Based strictly on results, the best Canadian golfer in the world right now is arguably Rod Spittle of Niagara Falls, Ont., who, according to golf writer Peter Robinson, almost called it quits last autumn.

If you go strictly by results, the best Canadian golfer in the world right now was on the verge of giving up the game a few short months ago.

"I was 99 per cent done," Rod Spittle said of where he found himself last fall.

"My five years [trying for full-time status on the Champions Tour] were basically up and that is where I was going to be drawing a line in the sand."

Spittle is not only still playing, he has won — and given the recent run he has put together on the Champions Tour, the 55-year-old from Niagara Falls, Ont., could be the best active Canadian player of any age.

Spittle won the AT&T Championship last Halloween in San Antonio, Tex., finished T16 in the 2011 season opener a couple of weeks ago in Hawaii, and then had a near miss this past weekend in the Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, Fla., losing by a single stroke when Tom Lehman broke a three-way tie with a birdie on the 54th hole and final hole.

Suddenly, Spittle has gone from virtual zero to hero on the 50-and-over circuit. He's near the top in all the important Champions Tour statistical categories and heads into this week's ACE Group Classic in Naples, Fla., as one of the favourites.

"I'm just trying to hasten the learning curve," he said, referring to having to catch up to the many Champions Tour players who spent decades on the PGA Tour while he worked as an insurance broker and played amateur golf.

"The big thing is now I know that I will be playing a couple dozen times [winning in Texas guaranteed him a one-year pass] and that gives me a chance to close the 30-year gap."

To that end, Spittle's most impressive quality of late has been his ability to take advantage when the chips are down. Under the complicated formula that the Champions Tour uses to protect a player's status based on career money, mostly earned on the PGA Tour, it can be extremely tough for a player in his position to reach the big stage. Once there, it's even harder to stay because of limited field sizes and the fact many PGA stars turn 50 and have guaranteed status on the senior circuit.

There are many hard-luck stories of players who earn Champions Tour status, only to promptly lose it and never get it back. For every player, like Spittle, who fights through the tough stretches to win, there are at least 10 who flirt briefly with success, run into trouble getting regular starts and aren't heard from again.

"I'm still having fun and, every time I come out, I'm a little less intimidated and more comfortable … you saw that when I was able to challenge a few times earlier [in 2007 and 2008].

Spittle won two Canadian amateur championships in the 1970s and was part of a gifted group of Canadian players from that era that included Dave Barr, Dan Halldorson, Jim Nelford, Jim Rutledge and recently announced Hall of Famer Richard Zokol. However, unlike those men, Spittle worked for a living — carrying a brief case instead of golf clubs. He sold insurance in Columbus, Ohio, not far from where he starred for the Ohio State golf team. After "semi-retiring" from that line of work, he turned pro in 2005 and started sharpening his game and stoking the competitive fires. That included stretches on mini-tours, pro-ams, Q-school and in Monday qualifying.

Now Spittle is battling players such as Lehman down the stretch and handling himself with impressive poise — the best example coming when he beat Jeff Sluman in a playoff at the AT&T.

Which begs the question, 'Does even Spittle find his journey a little unbelievable?'

"That's an understatement," he quipped.