Why golf may have been Canada’s sport of the year in turbulent 2020

It feels strange for something to be celebrated in 2020 — questionable, almost. How? Why? But there’s no doubt in my mind that in Canada these last 12 months, golf was the sport of the year.

“When you look at it from a grassroots perspective — we were able to play. We had one of the most memorable years and more people played golf than in our recorded history, which is an amazing thing,” Golf Canada CEO Laurence Applebaum told Sportsnet.

“When we sat here after the first quarter of the year, we really weren’t sure when things were going to happen … and then we were able to play. We were able to play safely. We were able to play robustly. And all of a sudden we became one of the things people really looked forward to with friends, family, and colleagues.”

Unlike in America, there is no organization here that oversees and tracks rounds played. However, Golf Canada has an online portal where its members can enter scores, and in 2020 they were entering them in record numbers. All of June, July, August, September and October broke previous high marks. Outside of golf-travel companies and courses that sit close to the U.S.-Canada border and rely on American traffic, it was a great year for the sport in terms of who played, and how much.

Applebaum said he and his team were very aware of the economic, physical, and mental hardships so many had to endure this year. That’s why, he said, he felt more responsible for golfers’ safety in 2020.

“People returned to the game, they came to the game for the first time, and the golf courses around the country did an amazing job in welcoming people safely to the tee in a way that we’ve never seen before,” said Applebaum.

One thing that didn’t happen in 2020, however, was the playing of the RBC Canadian Open and CP Women’s Open. The Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada also cancelled its 2020 campaign.

Despite the Toronto Raptors playing out of Tampa, Fla., and rumours swirling that the NHL will have an all-Canadian division in its upcoming season, Applebaum said the organization is still focused on hosting the RBC Canadian Open at St. George’s Golf and Country Club (in Toronto) and the CP Women’s Open at Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club (in Vancouver) in 2021.

“All of our energy is towards these two great sites, and working with officials at every level – city, provincial and federal – to make that a reality,” said Applebaum.

Still, Applebaum said there was plenty for Canadian golf fans to cheer about in 2020 in terms of professional golf.

The sport was one of the first to return to action and, despite a handful of positive tests, the travelling roadshow pressed on. New tournaments were added on both the LPGA Tour and PGA Tour, timelines were pivoted, and golf was played.

The PGA Tour was also the first major sports league to announce its schedule for 2021.

Applebaum’s top three moments of 2020 were seeing four Canadians tee it up at the Masters together (especially after Nick Taylor’s second career PGA Tour victory in February); Brooke Henderson playing so well at the majors (the LPGA Tour’s final two events of the year are happening in mid-December); and to see Mackenzie Hughes go on a wonderful run in the second half of the year, making it to the Tour Championship.

Taylor’s second PGA Tour victory – which came in February at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am after a Sunday battle with Phil Mickelson – all but guaranteed him a spot in the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Everyone with two or more PGA Tour victories are already elected members.

Hughes missed nine of his first 11 cuts to start the season, but he finished runner-up at The Honda Classic right before the three-month COVID-19 break. After that he missed only one cut the rest of the way and had five top-15 finishes to end the season.

He and his wife, Jenna, just welcomed their second child (a son, Cohen Alan) to the family, and Hughes said he can look back on the season-that-was with confidence.

“I started to get on rolls and get momentum going and confidence built up. From there I just started playing golf and not thinking about too many things,” said Hughes of his hot streak.

Hughes’ mom, Sandra, is a nurse back in Hamilton, Ont., and he said he spent the year admiring her and the efforts from all the front-line workers. During the COVID-19 break he said he was able to take on new perspectives from being forced to be home for a long period of time – something he doesn’t get to do as a professional golfer.

Looking ahead to 2021, he’s already excited at the opportunity to tee it up at the Masters, and to keep tightening the screws on a couple parts of his game that he said need improvement.

For the 2019-20 PGA Tour season, Hughes was in the top 10 in two key short-game statistical categories, but he was 168th and 172nd in two key long-game categories.

“I look at the stats and I’m very aware of them, but I know the most important stat is your score,” said Hughes. “There are areas to be better at, but I still had this great season.

“I just need to hit it like my pal Corey Conners, and [keep] putting and chipping the way I am and I should be all set.”

Conners’ fine play (he’s long been known as one of the best ball-strikers on the planet) was a highlight for both Applebaum and Hughes. The native of Listowel, Ont., finished T10 at the Masters — in the process he shot a 65 at Augusta National, the lowest round ever shot by a Canadian at the famed layout – and ended 2020 by finishing outside the top 25 just once on the PGA Tour in the last two months.

Conners and Hughes’ teammate at Kent State University and fellow Golf Canada National Team alum Taylor Pendrith was another highlight for Canadian golf followers. He had five top-three finishes on the Korn Ferry Tour this summer, and is second on that Tour’s yearlong points race.

Next April will mark the first time that Hughes and Conners will get to play in the Masters together.

“I got goosebumps just thinking about it,” said Hughes. “A couple of guys from Ontario, growing up together … it’s just really fun. He’s worked really hard and played well and I have as well. For us to align right there and go to Augusta and drive down Magnolia Lane together, it’s going to be really cool. It’s hard to put into words.”

Like that experience for Hughes and Conners, the whole of 2020 was a year that was hard to put into words.

Golfers in Canada took advantage of the sport, which leant itself perfectly to social distancing. Canadian professionals, meanwhile, thrived on the biggest stages.

So how do you describe success in an indescribable year?

You borrow a term from the sport itself.

“We’re going to pivot to next year, and our goal is to tee it up,” said Applebaum. “That’s our moniker. We’re going to tee it up in ’21.”