McCARTHY: Canadian Open shows us what LIV Golf is missing

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When it rains, it pours. That seemed to be the story at St. George’s Golf Club ahead of this week’s RBC Canadian Open. Monday night’s precipitation decided to hang around Tuesday, washing out spectators as well as morning practice for all but a handful of the heartiest golfers.

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As rain fell on the near-empty Toronto course, news poured in from the rest of the golf world. A day after Phil Mickelson announced he would make his return to golf this week in England as a part of LIV Golf’s first event, word came that Dustin Johnson was officially retiring from the PGA Tour as part of his leap to the Greg Norman-led tour. Then came news that Tiger Woods wouldn’t be teeing it up at next week’s U.S. Open; followed by an announcement that the USGA won’t stop Mickelson, Johnson, and the rest of the LIV golfers from competing at the Country Club in Brookline beginning next Thursday.

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This avalanche of golf news had one thing in common, none of it was happening at the RBC Canadian Open. As hall-of-fame Canadian golf writer Lorne Rubenstein pointed out on Twitter on Monday, it’s hard not to feel for the folks at Golf Canada who have poured everything into the return of the RBC Canadian Open after two COVID cancellations.

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“Anyone aware of the efforts tournament director Bryan Crawford and associates have put into making this week’s tournament special after a two-year absence has to feel for them. LIV Golf, DJ, and now Mickelson have hijacked the attention this national championship deserves,” Rubenstein tweeted.

Golf Canada CEO Laurence Applebaum told Postmedia on Tuesday that although there have been surprises, his team refuses to be distracted.

“I’ve never worked on an event this hard for this long,” Applebaum said. “Kudos to our ops team which is led by tournament director Bryan Crawford. Three years to plan the return of the RBC Canadian Open is a pretty special moment for us.”

Somewhere along the line our national open was conscripted into a battle for the future of professional golf. Nothing like planning for a party and having a war break out.

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“I’m maybe a little surprised by the amount of noise that has come out of the Saudi event but I couldn’t be more excited about what we’ve put together and will be serving up to fans all week,” Applebaum said.

The Golf Canada boss also pointed out that daily sales are going great, hospitality is completely sold out, Wednesday’s pro-am is long-since closed, and next year’s pro-am is nearly full.

Around midday Tuesday, the rain finally relented and St. George’s came back to life as Justin Thomas and Matthew Fitzpatrick wandered past the club’s curling rink turned media centre. The top-end talent here this week is undeniable with five of the world’s top 10, including defending 2019 champion Rory McIlroy.

Attracting the world’s best players would seem to be the Achilles heel for the Saudi-backed LIV Golf. So far, they’ve only succeeded in attracting fading stars who seem content relaxing in front of the warm jet in a pool of money instead of swimming upstream to keep up with game’s best.

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The problem eventually facing LIV Golf is what’s on offer beyond cash, for both the player and the fan? Is there a sporting point to watch people play a three-day event for a four-day-old trophy?

While golf’s power brokers are filling their war chests and hiring lawyers in Ponte Vedra and Saudi Arabia, a “proper golf tournament” as McIlroy described it, will be on display here at St. George’s.

“This is the number one tournament on my schedule,” Canadian Roger Sloan said Tuesday. “To be able to play for your national championship means a lot to me. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of pent-up energy, so it’s going to be fun having fans here and Canadians finally get to watch their national open.”

Sloan is 35 years old and looking to spark his season. He’s here with his dad Curtis who he hasn’t seen in three years because of the pandemic. Sloan lives in Houston with his wife Casey and their kids, but this week it’s just a father and son reconnecting. Sloan thinks the LIV league will continue to grow initially, especially after players see some of their peers cashing huge cheques, but he wonders about the long-term sustainability of the rival tour. He also wonders about the point of it all.

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“Lost in all of this is just really the infatuation with money,” Sloan said. “Every conversation about this is how much are the Saudis giving guys to go play on the LIV Tour and what is the PGA Tour’s response and how much more money will it deliver its players. When I chose to play this sport along with a lot of other guys out here it wasn’t really about money, it was to compete in the sport you love against the best players in the world. And that’s where my mind is. … The money aspect seems to be the centre of attention, but lost is just the passion that a lot of people have to compete at the highest level.”

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It might be romantic and overly optimistic to say the magic bullet in this fight will be the spirit of sport and competition, but until LIV Golf can find a reason outside of money to make people care about their events, its long-term success remains doubtful.

Perhaps we shouldn’t feel sorry for ourselves this week at our national open as some eyes stray to England, because the 112th running of this championship has what money can’t buy, and it took a visit with the 322nd ranked player in the world (and his dad) to remind us of that.

You can learn plenty from the calm at the centre of a storm.

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