Teeing up Canadian golf in 2021: Four biggest questions for year ahead

brooke-henderson

Brooke M. Henderson watches her tee shot on the sixth hole during the final round of the LPGA's ANA Inspiration golf tournament at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

Canadian golf had a boom year in 2020. And now, whether you’re a golfer yourself or just a general fan of Canadian sports, there’s much to be excited about for 2021.

The LPGA Tour kicks off this week just outside of Orlando with its Tournament of Champions, while the PGA Tour is returning to the mainland United States after two weeks in Hawaii – where two Canadians played in the Sentry Tournament of Champions for the first time since 2008 and Nick Taylor held the 36-hole lead at the Sony Open.

Ahead of the action picking up, we set the scene for 2021 by answering four big questions in Canadian golf for the year ahead.

Could 2021 be a big year for Canadians on the PGA Tour?

Just a couple of years ago there were more Canadians with PGA Tour status than ever before. While that number has been reduced slightly, it does seem as if the top Canadians on tour are in contention more often.

Mackenzie Hughes made it to the Tour Championship last season (guaranteeing him spots in three of the four major championships in 2021), Nick Taylor won his second PGA Tour title at the AT&T National Pro-Am in February, and Corey Conners had the best finish by a Canadian at the Masters since Mike Weir in 2005. Weir, meanwhile, is having a career resurgence since turning 50 last May, which includes finishes T46 at the Sony Open this past weekend, his best finish on the PGA Tour since 2014.

Conners, Taylor, Hughes and Adam Hadwin (winners, all on the PGA Tour) continue to enjoy a friendly East versus West – Conners and Hughes are from Ontario while Hadwin and Taylor grew up together outside Vancouver – practice rounds at the biggest events in the sport.

The foursome is also in a race to represent Canada at the Olympics, with Conners, Hughes, Hadwin and Taylor all in the mix. Conners and Hughes lead the way.

“I’m really excited for 2021,” Conners, who is eager to play in front of fans at some point this year, told Sportsnet. “I had a solid finish to last year so looking to keep that momentum going. Trying to polish all parts of my game but mostly focused on continuing to be more consistent on and around the greens.”

The other Canadians on the PGA Tour include Michael Gligic, David Hearn, Roger Sloan and Graham DeLaet. DeLaet is on a major medical extension and while there has been no word from his camp about when he’ll tee it up next, there will be an update soon.

What should we expect from Brooke Henderson?

Brooke Henderson played only 10 tournaments in 2020 but finished in the top 10 in six of them, including a playoff loss at the ANA Inspiration – an LPGA Tour major.

Henderson, the winningest Canadian golfer of all time on either the LPGA or PGA Tour, now has a laser-like focus on finding the winner’s circle again in 2021.

“Knowing what we know [about COVID-19] and seeing how things are trending in a good direction on the health side [with vaccines], I’m ready to be back in contention and hopefully get a couple of wins and carry on my streak that I had for a few years there,” said Henderson, who had won twice every year on the LPGA Tour since 2016.

Like some on the PGA Tour, including Rory McIlroy, Henderson said it’s taken longer to get used to playing in front of no crowds. There are usually a strong handful of Canadian snowbirds who cheer her on at events in Florida, California and Arizona in the winter, plus some events in the northeastern U.S. as fans make the quick jump across the border, but she said she’s gotten used to it as best she can.

“Just walking up to the first tee there’s usually that energy and you’re ready for the day,” said Henderson. “Without fans and without the big billboards and grandstands, it doesn’t have quite the same energy, so you have to mentally prepare yourself a bit more.”

Fellow Canadians on the LPGA Tour in 2021 include Jaclyn Lee (who has partial status after returning from an injury), Anne-Catherine Tanguay (who, per the Journal de Montreal, is returning after becoming a mom in July) and Alena Sharp.

Sharp has a special role on the LPGA Tour this year as she is the only full-time player who was elected to the search committee for the Tour’s new commissioner. The LPGA Tour’s long-time leader Mike Whan said in early January he would be stepping down before the end of the year.

Sharp was elected as a player director on the tour’s board in 2019.

“Alena… plays a big role there,” said Henderson. “It’s pretty impressive to be able to play and do all those things.”

The LPGA Tour’s 2021 season gets started Jan. 21 at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions.

Will Taylor Pendrith top the Korn Ferry Tour points list?

Taylor Pendrith played college golf with Hughes and Conners at Kent State University and was also a stalwart on Golf Canada’s junior and amateur teams with the pair. While his career hasn’t quite gotten to the same spot as his long-time teammates, they both know it’s just a matter of time before Pendrith is on the PGA Tour alongside them.

And, barring a total disaster, it looks like that time will be later this year.

Pendrith, of Richmond Hill, Ont., sits second on the Korn Ferry Tour’s season-long points list. Interestingly enough, Will Zalatoris, who is No. 1 on that list, already earned PGA Tour status via the FedEx Cup points he collected at PGA Tour events in late 2020. He got into those tournaments via sponsor exemptions.

The top-25 golfers on the points list by the end of August earn PGA Tour cards.
Pendrith battled a serious shoulder injury in 2020 but the COVID-19 break did him wonders. He was able to rest and rehab then came out of the break on fire, notching five top-3 finishes last summer. He’s taken another nice break from golf back in Canada over the winter but will return to the U.S. soon to prepare for the Korn Ferry Tour’s season-opener on Feb. 18.

Other Canadians on the Korn Ferry Tour include Ben Silverman of Thornhill, Ont., and Adam Svensson of Surrey, B.C. Svensson won a mini-tour event in Florida the first week of January with a first-place prize of US$100,000.

What is happening with the RBC Canadian Open?

One of the biggest questions in the Canadian sporting world is the status of the men’s national golf championship – and as of now, things aren’t that clear.

The RBC Canadian Open was cancelled in 2020, but the host clubs, St. George’s Golf and Country Club and Islington Golf Club, voted to have the event return in 2021. It’s scheduled for June 8-14.

Still, many questions remain about whether professional athletes would be allowed in the country for a week.

So far, the precedent set by the Toronto Raptors, who are playing in Tampa, Fla., and the NHL’s all-Canadian division are pointing towards the need for an alternative solution. But golf’s governing body is still focused on bringing the best in the world to Canada.

A statement from a Golf Canada spokesperson said, in part: “We are working with our partners at RBC and the PGA Tour along with government officials at the city, provincial, and federal level on all related facets of the event.”

This stemmed from the PGA Tour announcing its World Golf Championships event in Mexico would be relocated to Florida for 2021 citing COVID-19 health and safety precautions.

“We are considering every option and contingency to make the 2021 RBC Canadian Open a success and to ensure the health and safety of fans, players, and staff,” the statement continued.

The CP Women’s Open was also cancelled for 2020 but is set for late August at Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club in Vancouver.

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