Canadians finding success at all levels as golf’s momentum grows

Mackenzie Hughes. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Sunday in Ontario was cold, wet and windy so Golf Canada’s CEO Laurence Applebaum played a virtual golf round at an indoor simulator. He then rushed home, because there was golf to watch.

But not just on TV.

The Korn Ferry Tour was in a playoff, with its final two holes on a shaky, pixelated stream that came from a media representatives’ phone. The Symetra Tour didn’t have any TV coverage at all. The PGA Tour’s opposite-field event, chock-full of grinders and almost-made-its, was being played alongside a US$10.5-million World Golf Championship.

And Canadians were not just in the mix, but as five different events came down to the wire, there was a chance for a red-and-white sweep of the podium. It was one of those days when golf — not hockey or lacrosse or curling or basketball or tennis or baseball — should have earned all of the national attention.

“I’ll say it was one of the top-10 days in Canadian professional golf history,” Applebaum told Sportsnet. “It wasn’t a major, or a ‘highest-level’ Tour victory, but to see us on the women’s side and the men’s side in contention was really spectacular.”

The breakdown goes something like this.

Michael Gligic was at one point tied for the lead on the PGA Tour at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship. He ended up finishing T4 — his best-career result on the PGA Tour.

Maude-Aimee Leblanc finished T2 on the Symetra Tour, her best-career result there. Leblanc, a long-time part of Golf Canada’s National Team, retired from the game in 2019 and is now back leading the Symetra Tour in driving distance, with more than 309 yards a pop.

Drew Nesbitt finished solo second on PGA Tour Latinoamerica.

Mackenzie Hughes ended up T9 at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play after getting to the Round of 16 — his third top-10 of the season.

And then there’s Adam Svensson, who won that pixelated playoff on the Korn Ferry Tour. It was his second career Korn Ferry Tour victory.

He, along with Taylor Pendrith, are on the fast track to earn PGA Tour cards for 2021-22 as the top 25 on that Tour’s points list get the big-time promotion. Pendrith is second while Svensson is 12th.

Svensson said he made a commitment to himself about five months ago, building a team that would support his day in and day out commitment to returning to the PGA Tour. He was either going to go at things 100 per cent or he was going to quit.

“I built a team in the off-season and worked my ass off. Hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. It’s just very fulfilling when you work that hard and it pays off,” said Svensson. “I was tired of playing well, (then) not playing well. I lost my PGA Tour card and it’s because I wasn’t working hard enough. Now I’m fully committed, and we’ll see where it takes me.”

Applebaum said it’s been neat to see the natural evolution that happens in many other sports come through golf’s “Team Canada.” The former executive with the Women’s Tennis Association took the reigns of Golf Canada in 2017 and has seen the success of the game’s top players first-hand. Usually, he said, a team starts by knocking on the door, and then makes the playoffs, and then goes from the playoffs to the championship, and then, hopefully, wins that championship.

That storyline has already unfolded with Brooke Henderson, who many know as a top contender in majors. But it’s starting to come through for the rest of Canada’s golfing elite.

“There’s a momentum that comes that’s being shared by our female and male Canadian golfers,” said Applebaum. “We’re in the playoffs and competing for the finals.”

Golf is perhaps the most impossible of sports to predict. But it would be hard to imagine days like Sunday being few and far between now.

Take this week, for example.

Corey Conners is defending his maiden PGA Tour title at the Valero Texas Open, while Brooke Henderson is looking to build off a runner-up result at the ANA Inspiration from 2020 (the LPGA Tour’s first major of the season). Pendrith and Svensson are back on the Korn Ferry Tour (along with Stuart MacDonald and Ben Silverman, who finished T28 and T16, respectively, on Sunday — with MacDonald playing in the final group). And there is going to be seven Canadians competing at various events at Augusta National over the next two weeks — three Canadian youngsters in the Drive, Chip, and Putt National Finals, Brigitte Thibault of Rosemère, Que. at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, and of course, Conners, Hughes and Mike Weir at the Masters.

“Mike Weir’s story continues to be so interesting,” said Applebaum of Canada’s lone male major champion, who, at 50 years old, has pivoted to become a vocal leader for this generation of Canadian golfers. “Conversations that Mike and I have had with our new Chief Sport Officer Kevin Blue have just been dynamite.”

So there’s Weir and Conners and Hughes. Adam Hadwin and Nick Taylor, PGA Tour winners, both. Gligic, Svensson, LeBlanc. Alena Sharp. Pendrith. Henderson.

You can keep going.

“I don’t want to call it a ‘golden moment,’ but Sunday was just such a spectacular day for Canadian golf fans,” said Applebaum. “And maybe there’s something special happening for us.”

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