Pro golf returns to Canada, a bubble boy shines and players react to LIV suspension

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You have to feel for the RBC Canadian Open, being staged this week for the first time in three years only to find itself upstaged on Thursday by a high-priced exhibition in London.

Dating back to 1904, the Canadian Open was the only North American-based PGA Tour event to be canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic due to country’s restrictions on travel.

That’s why it was rather a nice thing to have one of the early pairings at St. George’s Golf & Country Club comprised of three Canadian players—Mackenzie Hughes, Adam Hadwin and former Masters champion Mike Weir. Though it was raining when they embarked together off the ninth tee at 7:02 a.m.—players began their “back side” on No. 9 instead of 10—there was a large gathering of fans to greet them.

“It was awesome. Everyone was out early, which we were off at 7 a.m., [and] I thought there wouldn’t be too many people out that early with the weather,” said Hughes, who had the best round among the trio, a four-under-par 66, and also was low among the 20 Canadians in the field. “It was fantastic and felt it all the way around.”

“It was nice to see so many people here early,” said Weir, who plays primarily on the PGA Tour Champions and had a 72. (The third member of the group, Hadwin, shot 69.) “When you get some momentum, you can feed off the crowd. It’s been a couple years since we’ve been playing. I think everybody’s excited to see all the guys and see the players. So it was great to see the crowd support.”

“The whole day felt like a celebration of golf,” Mark Rolfing, a Golf Channel analyst, said to begin the post-round coverage.

Hughes said that the difficulty of the layout—St. George’s, with its thick rough, was being compared to a U.S. Open test—as well as the charged atmosphere was enough to think about without devoting any energy to the much-discussed LIV Golf event that’s been garnering attention and headlines.

“When you’re on the golf course, there’s obviously a lot of stuff going on, a lot of shots that are challenging that keep your focus. So, there was never any time that I was thinking about anything else other than what was in front of me,” said the former tour winner. “I know there’s a lot of stuff going on overseas and whatnot, but not really bothering me too much.”

Indeed, best to focus on the competition, though not the fact that a Canadian player hasn’t won his national championship since 1954.

Here are three other takeaways from the opening round in Toronto:

Sitting on the bubble at 125th in the FedEx Cup standings and owning just one top-10 finish this season (that in the team event in the Zurich Classic), Wyndham Clark nonetheless said his game is “trending in the right direction.” He proved that with his lowest round of the season, a seven-under 63 that yielded the first-round lead at St. George’s.

Clark, 28, didn’t make a bogey while leading the field in strokes gained/putting to forge a one-stroke lead over England’s Matt Fitzpatrick, with Doug Ghim and Harold Varner two behind.

“Yeah, all around I hit it great,” said Clark, who is 141st on tour in greens in regulation but hit 15 of 18 greens on Thursday. “I drove it pretty good off the tee. I did miss some fairways, but when I missed it, it wasn’t that bad. I hit a lot of great iron shots in there, and I made a good amount of putts from 10 to 20 feet, and I didn’t really miss much inside of 10 feet either.”

Clark’s previous low opening round this year came at The American Express, where he shot 65 and went on to finish 13th, one of his three top-25 finishes. So the importance of a quick start was not lost on the third-year tour player. “That’s all I felt I’ve needed all year was just a little jump start like this where I see some putts and it’s OK. I’m doing the right things, and I’m finally getting rewarded for all the hard work.

“I’m really hoping that we keep going this week with that and leading into next week at the U.S. Open [he advanced through Final Qualifying on Monday] and for the rest of the summer. My game feels good.”

Earlier this week at the Columbus, Ohio, final qualifier for the U.S. Open, Chan Kim executed an impressive 21-stroke turnaround, shooting a nine-under 62 at Wedgewood Golf & Country Club one day after an 83 in the final round of the Memorial Tournament.

Doug Ghim’s bounce back wasn’t quite as impressive, but after shooting 78 Sunday at Muirfield Village Golf Club, he opened with a 65 at St. George’s, and, like Chan, said the challenge just seemed a bit less oppressive than the one at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial. “When you come out from Jack’s tournament and you show up here, the course looks a little easier just because of how difficult it is,” Ghim said.

Though he didn’t finish well in the Memorial, Ghim did gain some confidence from a second-round 68, and it has carried over. With 10 events left in the regular season and sitting 133rd in the FedEx Cup standings, Ghim, 26, needs to start making a push. He has just one top-10 in 20 starts this year—a strong T-6 at The Players—so perhaps Thursday’s opener in Canada keys a late rally.

“To shoot 68 at Memorial and make seven birdies, I think, in one round, it was definitely a big confidence boost because that course is pretty hard,” he said of Muirfield Village. “Everything is starting to come together, and I’m pretty excited about where I’m heading.”

Of course, after their rounds, players were asked their reactions to the news that their fellow tour members are no longer their fellow tour members. For how long, we don’t know because PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan in his memo to players sent on Thursday didn’t mention the duration of the suspensions that he was meting out to those playing in London at the first LIV Golf event.

Those who answered the question left no doubt that they believe the league they are supporting is doing right be members who remain loyal to it. World top-10 players Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy gave the thumbs up to the tour giving Phil Mickelson (world No. 1 in thumbs ups) the thumbs down.

“I’m pleased. I think anybody that’s shocked clearly hasn’t been listening to the message that Jay and everybody’s been putting out,” Thomas, the reigning PGA champion, said. “They took that risk going into it, whether they thought it was a risk or not. Like I’ve said the whole time, I have great belief and great confidence in the PGA Tour and where we’re going and continuing to grow to, and those guys just aren’t going to be a part of it.”

“I think at this point, Jay’s been pretty transparent in terms of he’s just going to act within the tournament regulations and the rules that are set for a PGA Tour member. All he’s doing is basically going by the book,” added McIlroy, who, technically, is the defending champion this week, having won the 2019 Canadian Open. “I think that the majority of the membership that are here this week and that haven’t went and played elsewhere really appreciate that. So, I think he’s done the right thing because these guys have broken rules and done things outside of the tournament regulations, and because of that, there are going to be consequences, I guess.”

That didn’t mean McIlroy didn’t have a certain curiosity about the goings-on overseas. “Yeah, I think like everyone else, I’m intrigued and I’m a fan of golf. Yeah, of course I’ll see it and watch it and see what all the fuss is about,” he said.

That’s not the same as support, mind you. Asked if he had any favorites among the team names in LIV Golf, he replied, “I have no idea. Certainly not going out to buy any team merchandise any time soon.”

No, we can see where he wouldn’t. Besides, they probably don’t need the money.

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