The Canadian Open is right in the middle of the golf drama again
Storied event tees off two days after controversial merger
This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.
The Canadian Open has one of the richest histories of any golf tournament in the world. First played in 1904, it's the third-oldest stop on the PGA Tour, behind only the British and U.S. Opens. Past champions include legends Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino, while Jack Nicklaus was a seven-time runner-up. Tiger Woods' breathtaking 218-yard approach from a bunker to the 18th green to win the 2000 tournament at Glen Abbey is arguably the greatest shot ever hit by the greatest golfer of all time.
But things change, and the Canadian Open diminished in stature as the PGA Tour shuffled it around the calendar over the past few decades. The current slot, right before the U.S. Open, isn't the worst. But most stars still opt to skip it as they prepare for the most demanding of the four majors. The relatively small purse doesn't help either, especially after the Tour did not designate the Canadian Open as one of its new "elevated" events — those with $20 million US in prize money and mandatory attendance for the top players. Less than half that amount is up for grabs this week at Oakdale Golf and Country Club in Toronto.
And yet, for the second straight year, the Canadian Open finds itself at the centre of the biggest story in golf — maybe in all of sports.
Last June's tournament, at a different course in Toronto, happened to coincide with LIV Golf's inaugural event in London. That gave the Canadian Open extra juice as the PGA Tour went head-to-head for the first time with the despised, Saudi-bankrolled rival that was poaching big-name players with absurdly lucrative contracts.
The established tour could not have scripted a better ending as superstar Rory McIlroy, the most ardent of PGA Tour loyalists, shot an 8-under 62 in the final round at St. George's to repeat as champion. Even better, as McIlroy gleefully noted in his post-round TV interview, his 21st PGA Tour victory gave him one more than predatory LIV Golf CEO Greg "the Shark" Norman.
WATCH | PGA Tour-LIV merger came as 'surprise' to McIlroy:
With the flow of defectors having since stemmed, and LIV and the PGA Tour seemingly entrenched in their positions, this year's Canadian Open promised a return to normalcy and a greater appreciation of this age-old tournament.
But that went up in smoke with yesterday's shocking announcement that the PGA Tour had struck a deal with Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund to merge their tours and form a new entity that also includes the European tour. The deal gives the PGA Tour majority ownership and control of the new venture, but the Saudis get to be the leading investor and a "premier" corporate sponsor of the three tours.
In short, Saudi Arabia achieved what it likely wanted all along: to buy a piece of the biggest golf league in the world. This fits with the oil-rich kingdom's current strategy of diversifying away from fossil fuels by buying into global sports and entertainment properties — part of an effort, its critics say, to "sportswash" the country's soiled reputation as a human-rights abuser.
What the merger means for the sport and its players is still mostly unknown — apparently even to those who made the deal, which isn't yet finalized. The tours will continue operating separately until the end of this season (LIV's next event is at the end of the month in Spain). But it probably doesn't make sense for the Saudis to continue propping up a league that has already cost them a reported $2 billion US while failing to generate any revenue, fan interest or a significant U.S. TV deal. Especially when you consider that the whole point of LIV Golf was probably to force a merger with the PGA Tour.
If the LIV Golf League folds, as many expect, it'll be very interesting to see how the defectors are repatriated to the PGA Tour after they were banned indefinitely for jumping ship. Yesterday's announcement promised the creation of "a fair and objective process for any players who desire to re-apply for membership," but we have no idea how that will work.
WATCH | Hadwin disappointed as merger 'overshadows' Canadian Open:
A complicating factor in the re-entry process is the massive guaranteed contracts that LIV used to lure some of the PGA Tour's biggest names. Phil Mickelson reportedly got a $200-million US deal, while Dustin Johnson ($150 million), Bryson DeChambeau ($125 million) and Brooks Koepka ($100 million) were promised nine figures too. Reportedly, the money was not paid up front, so will the Saudis (and their new partners) honour those deals? If so, would players who stayed loyal to the PGA Tour demand a cut too? Again, we don't know.
What we do know is that the golf war is over — even if shots are still being fired. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who will be the CEO of the new venture, is taking the brunt of the attacks. He's been roundly mocked on social media for taking the Saudis' money after scolding the LIV turncoats for doing the same, and yesterday Monahan's players let him have it in real life. A closed-door meeting in Toronto reportedly got heated, with one player calling the commish a hypocrite and others giving standing ovations to suggestions that the Tour needs new leadership.
Meanwhile, there's still a golf tournament to be played, starting Thursday morning at Oakdale. The headliner is McIlroy, who's going for an unprecedented third consecutive Canadian Open title. The four-time major winner from Northern Ireland is ranked No. 3 in the world behind Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm, who aren't playing this week.
When asked about the merger today, McIlroy said he felt like a "sacrificial lamb" for standing against LIV Golf these past couple of years. But he also sounded pretty excited about all the money the Saudis are about to inject into the PGA Tour. "I think this is going to be good for the game of golf," McIlroy said. "It unifies it and it secures its financial future." But, "I still hate LIV," he added. "I hope it goes away and expect that it does."
As for bringing back the deserters, McIlroy said that Monahan emphasized in the meeting that Mickelson, Koepka and company won't be allowed to just walk back in — a stance McIlroy agrees with. "There still has to be consequences to actions," he said. "The people that left the PGA Tour irreparably harmed this Tour."
Other big names teeing it up this week include reigning U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick of England, former British Open champ Shane Lowry of Ireland and England's Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open winner and 2016 Olympic gold medallist who's playing his best golf in years at the age of 42. Other contenders include underrated Englishman Tyrrell Hatton, big-hitting American Cameron Young, Sam Burns of the U.S., and England's Tommy Fleetwood.
A late addition to the field was Michael Block, the 46-year-old club pro who became an overnight sensation by hitting a hole-in-one and finishing tied for 15th against the best players in the world at last month's PGA Championship. The American's heartwarming success at the major netted him some sponsors' invites to ensuing tournaments, but don't expect another Block Party this week. He shot an opening-round 81 en route to finishing dead last at Colonial two weeks ago.
A Canadian has not won this event since Pat Fletcher in 1954. Of the 20 in this year's field, six Canadians have a 1 per cent chance or better of winning, according to the betting markets.
Corey Conners' No. 29 world ranking is tops among them, followed by Adam Svensson (65), Mackenzie Hughes (67), Nick Taylor (69), Adam Hadwin (75) and Taylor Pendrith (115). Conners, Svensson and Hughes have all won on the PGA Tour this season. Read more about Conners in this story by CBC Sports' Myles Dichter.