In an industry that has seen more than its share of bad news over the past few years, the CN Canadian Women's Open remains one of the few ongoing positive stories on this country's golf landscape.
With golf course construction across Canada at a virtual stand-still, numbers declining at private clubs, tax exemption battles in Ottawa, and little to be excited about in the way of competitive results, feel-good stories are, frankly, rare. But the national women's open has been a success by pretty much any measure, and its track record was partially responsible for springing up another LPGA event set to start this year in Waterloo, Ont.
The CN tournament has enjoyed a six-year run that has exceeded virtually all expectations, but with about 18 months and two events left on its current sponsorship deal, some questions are bound to pop up soon about its long-term viability.
Peeling back the onion a bit more, the contentious break-up between former CEO Hunter Harrison and CN could be a factor moving forward. Harrison was an unabashed supporter of the women's open, hiking its purse to more than $2 million (all figures US) and generally talking it up at every turn. Harrison is now gone from CN for more than two years and his courtship by rival Canadian Pacific has been one of the biggest business stories so far this year in Canada. It reached a boiling point in February when CN suspended Harrison's pension and stock payments.
A CN spokesperson played down the connection between Harrison and his love of golf, saying the company's backing of the event had little to do with any emotional connection its former CEO may have had to the game.
In fact, Harrison apparently had more affinity for four-legged athletes than those with two.
"I didn't know Mr. Harrison because he was gone before I came here," said Louis-Antoine Paquin, CN's manager of corporate communications. "Yes, he liked golf, but his real [passion] was the horses. Horse competitions were his thing."
Golf Canada executive director Scott Simmons acknowledged that change at the top often brings with it a need to convince the new decision makers that sponsorship dollars are well spent. Simmons cited the $250,000 reduction, to $2 million, of this year's purse as evidence that title sponsors will always assess areas where they can control costs. But Simmons maintains confidence that the partnership will continue.
"We'll be talking," said Simmons when asked about a possible extension. "[New CEO] Claude [Mongeau] and I have an excellent working relationship and we couldn't ask for a better partner."
Simmons, while appreciative of the support that Harrison extended in getting the tournament off the ground, also downplayed the perception that his departure and attachment to the event could harm it moving forward.
"Any time you have change at the top it could mean them taking a look [at existing sponsorships]," said Simmons. "All corporations have to be careful with the dollars they do spend. Hunter, I think, wanted to make a splash in [hiking the purse] but I've seen no reason why CN hasn't been anything but happy since."
To be fair, there has been much to be happy about. The CN event has attracted a stellar field and it's generally considered to be perhaps the best non-major on the LPGA calendar. The tournament has attracted all 50 of the top players in the world a couple of times. Technically, according to recent Golf Canada financial statements, it posted a small loss in 2011. In reality, the tournament is in good financial health when its charitable contributions are taken into account, as well as fixed capital costs that the national governing body applies to its bottom line.
Paquin, who came to CN from Tennis Canada, where he helped in the running of the Rogers Cup, says that his company continues to believe that the golf tournament affords his company positive brand exposure.
"We know that the tournament has been a success both on and off the course," said Paquin. "We have a great partner in Golf Canada and we couldn't have done what we've done without their operational expertise."
Paquin agreed that it would be nice to have a Canadian in contention more often - from a competitive standpoint, women's golf in this country is at a decade-long low. But, drawing on his tennis experience and on the men's golf side, he said that not having a Canadian regularly in the mix is not an issue and one that will hopefully be helped by CN's considerable support in the Future Links and Canadian Women's Tour.
So, with so much to be happy about, is an extension in the works?
"It's too early to speculate," said Paquin. "When the time comes we are going to re-assess."
This year's tournament is slated for Aug 23 to 26 at Vancouver Golf Club (CBC will broadcast) and next year's event - the final one under the current sponsorship deal - is expected to return to Royal Mayfair in Edmonton, site of the second CN tournament in 2007.
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