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How the Canadian Open fits into the golf war | CBC Sports

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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 icons like Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods. Jack Nicklaus never won it, but the Golden Bear was a seven-time runner-up. Tiger’s breathtaking 218-yard approach from a bunker on 18 to win the 2000 tournament at Glen Abbey is arguably the greatest shot ever hit by the greatest golfer of all time.

The Shot notwithstanding, though, the Canadian Open has lost much of its lustre since the late 1980s, when it was moved from mid-summer to September. In 2007 it got bumped to an even less desirable slot on the calendar, the week after the British Open, making it a tough sell for jet-lagged stars. A promising change occurred in 2019 when the event shifted to the week before the U.S. Open, in early June, and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy won it. But the pandemic halted that momentum, causing the tournament to be cancelled in 2020 and ’21.

Now, through a strange and controversial confluence of events, the Canadian Open is suddenly back in the spotlight. As it returns from hiatus this week at St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto, the venerable old tournament finds itself smack dab in the middle of a bitter, cash- and oil-soaked fight for the future of men’s professional golf.

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With the possible exception of Woods’ stunning return from a catastrophic leg injury to play in the Masters, the biggest story in the sport all year long has been a brash start-up’s attempt to disrupt the PGA Tour. Backed by the essentially unlimited resources of oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and fronted by Norman as its CEO, the LIV Golf Invitational Series is luring players (and fans) from the PGA Tour with staggering paycheques and irreverent tweaks to how tournaments are played.

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The rebel tour’s inaugural event tees off Thursday — the same day as the Canadian Open — at the Centurion Club just outside London. A whopping $25 million US will be awarded at each of the first seven stops on the new tour, including $4 million for the individual winner. Both of those figures exceed anything ever offered for a single PGA Tour event, including major championships.

Even better for the players, they don’t have to work as hard for all that money. Instead of the standard 72 holes, tournaments last only 54 (or, in Roman numerals, LIV). Only 48 players are in the field and there are no cuts, meaning everyone gets paid — handsomely. Even the last-place finisher walks away with $120,000. Plus, everyone has an opportunity to double dip from the $5M earmarked for the team competition at each event (12 captains draft teams of four whose scores in the individual tournament count toward the team total).

The cash faucet opens up even wider for the eighth and final event. First, an individual champion is crowned based on results from the first seven stops and the top three players share a $30M bonus pool. Then, for the season finale (to be held at a Trump-owned course in Miami), another $50M gets split between the 12 four-man teams that will compete there, including $16M for the winning squad.

Oh, and we still haven’t even mentioned the fat contracts LIV Golf dangled to poach (or attempt to poach) some of the biggest names in the sport from the PGA Tour. Phil Mickelson reportedly signed for $200M and Dustin Johnson for $125M. According to Norman, Tiger turned down a deal in the “high nine digits.” The 82-year-old Nicklaus says he rejected an offer worth north of $100M to associate himself with the new tour.

The dollar figures quoted in the last few paragraphs are, quite simply, absurd. In a vacuum, it’s hard to imagine anyone turning down that kind of money. And yet, only a handful of stars have jumped ship from the PGA Tour. Among those joining Mickelson and Johnson are former major champions Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, whose average age is 39. Fellow old guys Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter and journeymen Kevin Na and Talor Gooch are some of the other most recognizable names. The highest-ranked player among the defectors is Johnson, who’s No. 15 in the world.

At one time, it seemed like a lot more top players might take the Saudi money and run. But LIV Golf’s recruiting efforts were inadvertently torpedoed by Mickelson when he addressed the elephant in the room in astonishingly blunt fashion. Explaining to golf writer Alan Shipnuck why he was willing to do business with the Saudis, Mickelson said: “They’re scary m——f—ers to get involved with. We know they killed [Washington Post reporter Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

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The backlash from those comments seemed to scare off anyone who was on the fence about jumping ship, and sent Mickelson effectively into hiding for the last few months. The six-time major winner skipped the Masters and declined to defend his title at the PGA Championship before resurfacing this week to confirm he’ll play in the LIV Golf opener. Norman also did his tour no favours when he responded to a question about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of Khashoggi by saying “Look, we’ve all made mistakes…”

Meanwhile, the PGA Tour has taken a carrot-and-stick approach to retaining its stars. It’s no coincidence that this year’s edition of the tour’s signature owned-and-operated event, the Players’ Championship, offered what was at the time the biggest purse in golf history: $20M, including $3.6M to winner Cameron Smith. More recently, the tour drew a line in the sand by rejecting the release requests filed by every player who wanted to compete in the LIV Golf opener, on the grounds that it conflicts with the Canadian Open. The established tour has yet to formally punish anyone who went ahead and jumped ship, but it has threatened discipline up to and including a lifetime ban. Today, Johnson beat the PGA Tour to the punch by resigning his membership, though the former world No. 1 said he still intends to compete in the majors, which are each run by separate entities. Mickelson, who has not renounced his PGA Tour membership, said in a statement yesterday that he also plans to play the majors.

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It’s unclear whether the PGA Tour gave players an extra nudge to show up for its first tournament going head-to-head with its fledgling rival. But the entry list for the Canadian Open is pretty strong, headlined by the winners of the three biggest events of the year so far: Masters champion (and current world No. 1) Scottie Scheffler; sixth-ranked Justin Thomas, who captured his second PGA Championship; and Smith, the Players’ Championship winner who’s ranked fourth in the world. Back to defend his title is the eighth-ranked McIlory, who’s been the most vocal critic of the Saudi-backed tour. Other top names in the field include No. 9 Sam Burns, a three-time winner this season; 2019 British Open champ Shane Lowry; 2018 Masters winner Patrick Reed; and former U.S. Open and Olympic champion Justin Rose. No. 31 Corey Conners and 77th-ranked Mackenzie Hughes have the best chance of becoming the first Canadian golfer to win the men’s national championship since Pat Fletcher in 1954.

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