Leukemia-stricken legend caddies for O'Meara

Paul Henderson caddied for Mark O'Meara during the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday at Augusta National.

Paul Henderson caddied for Mark O'Meara during the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday at Augusta National.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – At a theater where the past is revered and anniversaries are sacred memories, a man who is a smiling and inspirational reminder to an unforgettable moment in our sports history walked on air.

That it revolved around hockey, not golf, mattered not at all. Paul Henderson is a living, breathing hero to Canadians and hockey fans who forever will remember the “Summit Series” of 1972 as a golden time for the sport.

Now on this warm, sultry day at Augusta National, Paul Henderson had a job to do. His first-ever visit to Augusta National Golf Club called for him to caddie for Mark O’Meara in Wednesday’s beloved Par 3 Contest. But before Henderson got the heavy tour bag to the first tee, he had to make his way through a line of well-wishers.

Then again, when you’ve been embroiled in a battle with lymphocytic leukemia for 2 1/2 years and are a few weeks away from another round of chemotherapy, tough tasks are easily put in perspective. That’s why Henderson hardly noticed how heavy the bag was or balked at the smiling faces who slapped him on the shoulders and high-fived him.

“The thrill of a lifetime,” said Henderson, 69, who will never need an introduction to rabid hockey fans, especially those who claim Canadian ancestry.

We are several months away from the 40th anniversary of a series of eight hockey games between Canada and the Soviet Union that mesmerized the sports world. Vivid is the memory of those Game 4 boos in Vancouver as the USSR skated to a 5-3 triumph for a 2-1-1 advantage.

More scintillating, however, is how the Canadians responded after losing the next game in Moscow to get pushed to the brink of elimination; Henderson scored the game-winner in each of the next three contests and by scores of 3-2, 4-3, 6-5 as Team Canada completed a shocking comeback to win the historic match, 4-3-1.

Many can still hear Foster Hewitt’s screaming words, “Henderson has scored for Canada,” and at 19:26 of the final period, the man from Lucknow, Ontario, had put the deciding goal past the legendary Vladislav Tretiak. Goosebumps? Henderson still gets them, which is why he put this Augusta visit in perspective.

“It’s a thrill, the best in my life – next to ‘72,” he said.

A left-winger who scored 236 career goals in 13 seasons for Detroit, Toronto and Atlanta in the NHL, Henderson is more closely identified with what he did in that epic hockey series. Don’t forget, this was at a time of the Cold War and it was an impossible task to ask Canadians to consider another nation as their equal in hockey, particularly Russians. So not only being on the winning team, but being the man who scored an incredible three straight game-winners still fills Henderson with enormous pride.

Then again, his sport these days is golf. In fact, it was under the guise of a golf trip to North Carolina with several friends from Toronto that ushered Henderson into this caddie gig at the Masters.

“My friend, Bruce Simmonds, set it up,” Henderson said. “Bruce is a member at Forest Creek (in Pinehurst, N.C.) and we played four or five days in North Carolina, before coming here.”

Simmonds – a wealthy businessman and considered one of the most important figures in Canadian golf – is friendly with O’Meara, so there was a solid connection to get Henderson to Augusta, and the 1998 Masters champion clearly was thrilled to accommodate.

“Bruce e-mailed me, and I just thought it was something that we should do,” O’Meara. “Paul’s a great story, and I’m glad to help out.”

His toughest job? Henderson laughed. “To quit gushing,” he said. “I mean, I haven’t been able to sleep all week.”

The fact that Augusta’s Par 3 Course is short, requiring mostly 9-irons and wedges, wasn’t going to alter Henderson’s strategy on the bag.

“I’ve already decided,” he said, “I’m not making any suggestions (about club selection). He’s on his own.”

Henderson needn’t carry that philosophy over to his own life and his fight with leukemia, however. Clearly, he has a nation’s love and admiration that strengthens his resolve.

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