Mackenzie Tour cancellation puts careers and lives on hold

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James Allenby plays in the Fourth Round in the Canada Life Championship on the MacKenzie Tour on September 15, 2019 at Highland Country Club in London, Ontario, Canada. (Claus Andersen/MacKenzie Tour)

On Friday afternoon, James Allenby looked at his phone and saw the news he figured was coming eventually – the 2020 Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada season had been cancelled.

But then he got back to work.

The 35-year-old from Surrey, B.C., works the phone and the front desk at the Langley Golf & Banquet Centre, a family-run golf facility with a Par-3 course and driving range. It’s not glamorous, but it pays the bills and has allowed him to continue the touring professional lifestyle for the last decade or so.

“I’m slightly more of an introvert and standing behind a counter and helping person after person for golf or going to the driving range is not the most fun thing for me but I’m trying to make the best of it,” said Allenby, who was the second-highest Canadian on the Mackenzie Tour’s order of merit in 2019.

“It’s a different experience for me, I feel a lot more like a ‘normal’ person, working daily hours. This period of time is just definitely reaffirming the choices that I have made for my life, being a touring professional. Wake up, work, go home, eat, sleep, wake up, [and] go to work again… this mundane way of living right now is just not for me.”

Getting used to that kind of new normal is what it will be like for Allenby and the rest of the players with Mackenzie Tour status, as Friday the Tour announced that, due to border restrictions, mandatory 14-day quarantines and other COVID-19-related factors, the season would not be going ahead.

“With the safety of the communities we play in mind, as well as the well-being of our players, sponsors, tournament-organizing committees, volunteers and golf course staff, we came to the realization that this is the best decision for everyone involved,” said Scott Pritchard, the executive director of the Mackenzie Tour, in a press release of the decision to cancel the season.

What the cancellation has done is left a large group of players in a lurch. What are they going to do this summer?

“I hadn’t seen the news but I had four different people texting me and panicking. ‘What’s the plan? What are we going to do now?’” said Jared du Toit, the Canada Life Canadian Player of the Year on the Mackenzie Tour in 2017.

“It’s certainly disappointing – a lot of guys plan their years around the Mackenzie Tour so it’s going to be tough for a lot of people.”

Like many, du Toit is going to spend his summer cobbling together a mish-mash schedule of mini-tour events, state opens, and Monday Qualifiers for Korn Ferry Tour and PGA Tour events. Du Toit has a Visa to live and work in the U.S., and since the border has been opened to international athletes, it’s likely he’ll get awfully comfortable this summer with the front seat of his car once he heads south from his parents’ place in Kimberley, B.C.

The mini-tour life isn’t for everyone but it can be lucrative enough – at least enough to keep your pro golf dream alive for a year. Most of the events (du Toit says he’ll play the July-August schedule on The Dakotas Tour in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota while there are other Tours in Florida and the Carolinas, as well) feature high entry fees, but also a chance to win a higher prize pool.

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Jared du Toit during final round of the GolfBC Championship, on the Mackenzie Tour–PGA Tour Canada, at Gallagher’s Canyon Golf & Country Club, Kelowna, BC on June 17, 2018. (Chuck Russell/PGA TOUR Canada)

“You need to balance dollars and cents,” said Riley Wheeldon, the third-highest Canadian on the Mackenzie Tour order of merit from 2019. “I’m just trying to make sure it’s all worth it and come up with a schedule to stay competitive and pay some bills.”

Wheeldon spent his winter in Arizona and earned more than US$20,000 in 11 events on the Outlaw Tour so he has a bit of a cash cushion to start this uncertain time. He and his fiancée are planning to drive across to New York to see her family, and there is one silver lining for Wheeldon: he won’t have to miss a Mackenzie Tour event for his September wedding. Still, he knows it is going to be a different kind of summer.

“It’s not ideal, but when I first turned pro I did the drive-around-the-southeastern-U.S. gig before. It’s kind of like going back in time,” said Wheeldon. “I’m just looking at these options I’ve never really considered before, so, we’ll see how it plays out.”

Wheeldon usually plays a handful of Vancouver Golf Tour (VGT) events prior to the Mackenzie Tour season ramping up (it starts each year with a swing through B.C.) and Fraser Mulholland, the commissioner of the VGT, says despite initial apprehension and slight negativity around whether golf should be going in the midst of navigating COVID-19, he says they have hosted six events without issue.

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Riley Wheeldon on the Mackenzie Tour. (Mike Kovaliv)

The Tour, he says, is more of a developmental tour than a mini-tour (its entry fees are much lower, and they pay out in Canadian dollars) but for professional golfers across the country, it, along with the Great Lakes Tour in the Greater Toronto Area, may be the only games in town this summer.

“We’ve had to modify field sizes for almost every event this season,” said Mulholland.

But while Canadian professional golfers still try to chase their dreams, the Mackenzie Tour is actually made up of about 70 per cent American golfers, many of whom are left in the same kind of position as their Canadian counterparts, wondering what’s next.

The pause button has been pushed for someone like Bryson Nimmer, a celebrated collegiate golfer from Clemson who turned professional last year and was to enter his second season on the Mackenzie Tour this summer.

“I’m just trying to find anything I can play or compete in because I don’t have that outlet in Canada this year,” said Nimmer from Hilton Head Island, S.C. “I thought maybe there was a chance we could do some sort of wraparound season like the other Tours were doing, but for us it’s better it isn’t that way. We’re coming from the States and we’re spending money to get up there… we’re spending a lot of money for those six events without an immediate return.”

So golfers with Mackenzie Tour status – and many more who were hoping to earn some via the Qualifying Tournaments that still hadn’t been played – will wait another year to take the first step on the path to the PGA Tour.

Careers and, more importantly, lives are on hold.

Allenby, at 35, is still out there chasing his dream. He always had hope for a 2020 Mackenzie Tour season, he said, and he still had hope even with the border restriction being extended.

“But,” he trailed off, “yeah.”

That’s all he could say. There was another customer he had to talk to.

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