‘New energy in the air’ as Canadian Open a major stop on PGA Tour once again

Rory McIlroy. (John Bazemore/AP)

ANCASTER, Ont. — Just over two years ago, new PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was in the midst of some serious changes. He had just taken over the Tour and he was shaking things up. The schedule was going to change.

Enter Mary DePaoli and Laurence Applebaum, the representatives from Canada. DePaoli, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer of RBC, and Laurence Applebaum, the new chief operating officer of Golf Canada, were lobbying for a new date for the RBC Canadian Open.

RBC sponsors two PGA Tour tournaments. It was investing heavily in professional golfers — Canadians and non-Canadians alike — along with junior programs in the country. They were all-in. To quote an iconic golf movie, they wanted “something, you know, for the effort.”

It worked. The call was made. The Canadian Open would get its new date. And this year, the change is already paying off.

The Canadian Open has become a major stop on the PGA Tour schedule again.

“We expect a full sell-out of this tournament,” DePaoli told Sportsnet Tuesday.

“I think everyone will say there’s just a new energy in the air around the RBC Canadian Open. Anyone who is in contact with this tournament just says it feels very different, and what you can expect to see is that this energy is going to carry forward into years to come.”

After nearly a decade stuck the week after The Open Championship the event is about six weeks earlier, just before the U.S. Open. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely better. The purse increased as well, by more than US$1.5 million.

Monahan, who was the guest of honour at Tuesday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, said the schedule change for 2018-19 and moving forward was born out of the PGA Tour’s desire to have a dramatic finish to its season in August with a run to the FedEx Cup finale.

The Players Championship moved up from May to March, and it was clear, he said, that RBC wanted to step forward for the Canadian Open if a new date presented itself.

“I think it’s the result of a strong partnership, where we understood every step of the way where they wanted to be, and we’re very clear about where we were trying to go with our schedule. It’s exciting to be here,” said Monahan. “There’s a great amount of energy and great excitement for the week ahead.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled to be up here and to be here in the heart of our (PGA Tour) season with an RBC Canadian Open that’s in a great position for a long time to come.”

The date change is already proving to be fruitful in terms of an unexpected addition to the field.

World No. 6 Justin Thomas is playing this week — making his Canadian Open debut. He’s one of four of the top six in the field, including world No. 1 Brooks Koepka, No. 2 Dustin Johnson, and No. 4 Rory McIlroy, who is also making his Canadian Open debut.

The triumvirate was committed previously, and the field was already looking solid. But Thomas, after having to take a few weeks off, including the PGA Championship due to an injured wrist, said he needed reps.

The Canadian Open was the lone event after the Memorial (where he missed the cut) and the U.S. Open, so here he is. He’s now part of the marketing campaign of the tournament — not that it needs it. Two of the tournament days are sold out with the other two getting very close.

Thomas has never been to Canada before, and it hasn’t been the best weather-wise — he spent most of Monday on the practice putting green in a quilted vest and a hoodie from Ralph Lauren done up and tightened — but he’s excited for the week ahead.

“I think it’s something to where if it didn’t come when it does in the schedule, it would probably have an even better field, if that’s possible,” said Thomas. “But the fact that guys are willing to come and play the week before the U.S. Open, as far away as it is from the U.S. Open, I think speaks values.”

McIlroy as well said at the media day last month that his June schedule was looking fairly light — so he added the Canadian Open to try to stay fresh as he looks to the U.S. Open. He would normally never add the Canadian Open to his schedule after The Open in July, since he played host at the Irish Open on the European Tour and would have already played a lot in the summer prior to the PGA Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in years past.

But he’s here. Rory McIlroy is playing the Canadian Open. It’s a nice get for a tournament that for years didn’t have to rely on shouting on the rooftops to get the best players in the world to play — its champions’ list includes names like Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman, and Tiger Woods (Jack Nicklaus famously finished runner-up seven times).

But for every one of those Hall of Famers, there have been a few forgetful ones, at least in terms of golf’s biggest draws. That doesn’t seem to be the case moving forward, however.

Next year’s U.S. Open is at Winged Foot in New York. Guys could drive there if they wanted. The 2020 Canadian Open is back at St. George’s Golf and Country Club — long considered one of the top five courses in the country, and in the mix as one of the top 100 courses in the world.

There’s momentum and excitement. The PGA Tour commissioner said it himself. Senior leaders in both golf and corporate Canada are behind it. The Canadian Open, in the midst of a historical run by a Toronto sports team, is making a dent in the news cycle. The best in the world are playing this week.

“This,” said DePaoli, “is just the beginning.”

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