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New slot gives Canadian Open another shot at PGA’s best

Attracting an appealing field to golf’s RBC Canadian Open has been a challenge for years. In the eyes of a lot of the world’s best players, Canada’s men’s national championship is presumably just another stock PGA Tour event, albeit one that comes with the hassle of a trip through customs. And since 2007, when the tournament began finding itself wedged between the British Open and the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, it’s been just another stock tour event happening at a moment when many of the world’s best players are hankering for a week off.

So there was understandable optimism surrounding Tuesday’s announcement that the national Open has found itself a new home on the PGA Tour schedule. Beginning in 2019, when Hamilton Golf and Country Club will serve as the venue, Canada’s only stop on the PGA Tour will be contested the week before the United States Open, June 6-9.

First, one possible downside: With the addition of John Tavares to the Leafs and the exit of LeBron from the NBA East, the early weeks of June risk conflicting with Toronto’s presumably annual Stanley Cup run, not to mention the Raptors’ first realistic shot at an NBA final.

Not that Golf Canada CEO Laurence Applebaum, a Toronto-raised sports fan, appeared threatened by the spectre of such a seismic big-footing.

“Tavares loves his golf. And (Raptors all-star and resident golf fanatic Kyle) Lowry — he sneaks on here all the time,” quipped Applebaum, standing in the clubhouse at Glen Abbey Golf Club.

To Applebaum, the new date comes with a bigger upside. Given that it sits the week before the U.S. Open, there’s a hope the Canadian Open could become a reliable major-championship tune-up in the vein of the Scottish Open, which serves as a week-before prelude to the ancient Open Championship.

Adam Hadwin, the world No. 48 from Abbotsford, B.C., who currently ranks as Canada’s best PGA Tour player, figures that’s a distinct possibility.

“Now there’s a lot of guys who like to play the week before a major. So I think you’re going to see some of those bigger names that love to play the week before a major that have maybe not come to Canada before,” said Hadwin, speaking over the phone from sweltering Phoenix. “The biggest name that comes to mind is Phil Mickelson. He always has played the week before a major. Hopefully that continues and the Canadian fans get to see Phil in Hamilton next year … (The new date is) going to help attract players. There’s no way around that.”

Just in case a fresh spot on the calendar isn’t quite enough to lure stars like Mickelson and Henrik Stenson, who don’t typically play the Canadian Open but are in the habit of playing the week before the U.S. Open, organizers have also vowed to increase the purse from this year’s $6.4 million to $7.6 in 2019 (all figures U.S.). The field vying for the former amount will attempt to dethrone two-time defending champion Jhonattan Vegas at Glen Abbey July 26-29.

Throwing money at the problem of wrangling a passable field is nothing new. Appearance fees aren’t allowed on the PGA Tour, but RBC, which is also the title sponsor of the tour’s RBC Heritage tournament, issues regular cheques to a cadre of players under contract to wear the company’s crest while coincidentally showing up at its tournaments. That’s meant Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1 and a flagship RBC “team member,” has become a Canadian Open regular, as have Brandt Snedeker and Matt Kuchar. And as much as it’s a habit of many top players to sit out the tournament that precedes the U.S. Open — Tiger Woods, the sport’s chief needle mover, always has as a pro — a recent trend bodes well. The winners of the past three U.S. Opens have played at the FedEX St. Jude Classic, the tournament that currently occupies the space the Canadian Open is inheriting. That list only includes two men, mind you, among them Brooks Koepka, who defended his 2017 title last month at Shinnecock Hills, and Johnson, the 2016 champion. Still, Applebaum pointed out that fan favourite Rickie Fowler played the week before the U.S. Open in 2017, as did Rory McIlroy in 2012. And even if past behaviour can hardly be considered a harbinger of future plans, the Canadian Open’s current timing was a near-guarantee of certain no-shows.

“We never had a chance of getting Phil Mickelson post-British Open. In 22 years he never played post-British Open. But he’s open to this new week,” Applebaum said. “And that’s a real game-changer for us.”

Date changes, of course, are always spun as positives until deemed otherwise. Back in 2006, remember, representatives of Canada’s governing body spoke favourably about another move on the calendar, the one that took it from early September to its current window. And yet here we are, a little more than a decade later, seeing a once-welcome rejigging as untenable. Where we’ll be a decade from now depends on a lot of things beyond anyone’s control, chiefly the whims of the world’s best players.

It could become a year-by-year proposition. In 2019, for instance, Hadwin acknowledged that the trans-Continental trip between Hamilton and Pebble Beach “could potentially hold back some players,” even if Golf Canada is mulling the possibility of hiring a charter jet to ferry players westward in the same way it’s been paying to haul them here from the British Isles since 2007. But in 2020 the U.S. Open is slated for Winged Foot Golf Club in suburban New York City, a far shorter jaunt from the GTA, where Golf Canada has committed to continue holding the national championship. That bodes better. But as Hadwin said Tuesday, it’s never easy to foresee the next tour trend.

“It’s difficult to say absolutely, ‘We can guarantee all these players,’” Hadwin said. “Everybody’s schedule is different and everybody plans differently. But (the new date is) certainly going to help.”

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