I’ll confess that a small part of me has been enjoying the chaos and drama surrounding the impending launch of LIV Golf. Watching the professional game often presents challenges for those of us who enjoy the narrative aspects of sport or the personalities of its players. We savor scraps of interesting behavior like they’re three-course meals: Billy Horschel calling Jack Nicklaus “big man,” Max Homa tweeting like a normal person, flaccid beefs sponsored by Michelob Ultra.
The intrigue around the future of the game—the field lists, the player manuals, the pompous open letters, the tidal wave of “emergency podcasts”—has given the sport beyond the sport an unfamiliar charge, the kind I associate with basketball’s Woj bombs or quarterbacks posting cryptic stuff on Instagram. And as someone who looks at golf’s media ecosystem and operations from a distance, the concerns about fracturing the game into multiple inferior, meaningless products—not to mention the cynicism and greed driving the schism—have felt abstract enough to ignore. I was able to maintain that illusion right up until this week. It’s time for the closest thing to my “hometown tournament,” and watching the RBC Canadian Open become another pawn in the battle for the soul of the sport when its return should be celebrated has left me with a pit in my stomach.
It’s been a long, strange decade for the Canadian Open, one largely characterized by weak fields, brutal scheduling, and nondescript winners. Luminaries like Nathan Green, Carl Pettersson, and Tim Clark hoisted the trophy in the early 2010s, when the tournament still held a mid-July spot sandwiched between the Open Championship, a WGC event, and the PGA Championship. Even its venues faced existential threats: Glen Abbey Golf Club, the Nicklaus design intended to serve as the anchor in the Canadian Open rota, was embroiled in development hell for nearly two decades as its owner tried to build thousands of houses on its land. The pervading sense was that like so many other events, a tournament with a proud and lengthy history was becoming little more than a shot at a two-year exemption for the Tour’s dozens of journeymen. If you were making personal lists of tournaments on the chopping block and included this one, I wouldn’t have blamed you; the situation was that dire.
The Open finally began to pick up some momentum at the end of the ’10s with consecutive wins by premier players. Rory McIlroy made a run at a Sunday 59 at Hamilton Golf and Country Club, sprinting away with the tournament in the middle of an imperial stretch of play. Watching him don a Kyle Lowry jersey on the 18th green while the Toronto Raptors made their magical run at the 2019 NBA title was a sparkling moment in Canadian sports fandom.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 9, 2019
Unfortunately, the memories from that tournament needed to last three years: the Canadian Open was hammered by Covid restrictions, left behind while the rest of the golf world returned to normal. Even this new normal isn’t without its complications: some players are conspicuously absent from the field this week thanks to the Canadian government’s vaccination requirements.
Covid policy aside, the conditions should be perfect for the Canadian Open’s return to prominence. This year’s event is being played at St. George’s Golf and Country Club, one of the best courses in the country and an exemplary design by Canada’s greatest architect, Stanley Thompson. The club’s location in Toronto’s west end means the tournament’s hub is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in North America. St. George’s small greens and rolling terrain should make it an ideal tuneup for the U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, a course with even older bones. The top end of the field is the strongest it’s been in years, with five of the world’s top 10 players making an appearance.
It all sounds ideal until you dig a little deeper into the field list and watch its strength drop off like a sheer cliff face. Beyond the five elite players headlining the Open, the tournament will feature another seven of the top 50 players in the world ranking and another eight of the top 100. That means a mere 20% of the best 100 players in the world are making their way to St. George’s. A spot currently occupied by Mark Hensby, D.J. Trahan, or the 61-year-old John Huston could have gone to Dustin Johnson, the 2018 champion—and former RBC spokesman—last seen resigning his PGA Tour membership to get showered with money at the Centurion Club.
And if DJ alone wouldn’t have been enough to strengthen the field, imagine some of the mid-tier players in the LIV London field deciding to prepare for the U.S. Open in Canada instead. Imagine an alternate universe in which this tournament—one of the oldest championships in golf, a tournament with winners like Snead, Hagen, Palmer, Trevino, Woods, and (yes) Greg Norman—had been treated with the respect it deserves instead of being thrown to the wolves. I’m not sure who deserves the blame here or if “blame” is a relevant concept given the myriad challenges professional golf is facing right now. Some of the greatest golfers in the sport’s history have won this tournament on some of the finest courses in this country and its future has never felt more uncertain.
The older I get, the more this aspect of the game matters to me: golf, and golf fandom, as a way to mark the passage of time. When I sit down to watch the Masters for the next 60 years, I’ll remember each of the recent ones—Scottie Scheffler four-putting 18 just because he could, Hideki Matsuyama’s caddie bowing to the course, the tournament played in November—and think about the life I built around those weekends. The Canadian Open is part of that arc, too, and it’s the part that feels most accessible to me in my life as a golfer. I know the cities and neighborhoods in which this tournament has been played. I can nearly see Westmount Golf and Country Club, the 1957 host, from my living room window.
I can even play a few of the courses for myself. Some friends and I made the trip to Glen Abbey last summer, playing an unusually expensive round as someone’s birthday treat. When we made it to 18, we all took a run at one of the greatest shots in Canadian golf history: the 6-iron Tiger blasted out of a fairway bunker, carrying 200 yards over water and leaving himself a short up-and-down to seal the tournament.
Attempting to hit the shot myself has only heightened the sense of incomprehensibility, and I’ll remember that attempt as the moment I could step into his greatness for myself. The Canadian Open has some competition this week. How many more of those moments will we have the pleasure to witness?