Absent stars par for the course: Only PGA help will ensure names attend Canadian Open

My National Post golf column from today’s paper. The Canadian Open is on this coming week at Shaughnessy…. while we’re at it, Alan McLean, the big South African I played with when I visited Whitewater Golf Club in Thunder Bay, is finally having a strong week of play, surging into the top 10 in Alberta. Go Alan!

Robert Thompson
On Golf
It may have seemed like an innocent game of table tennis, but the back injury Vijay Singh suffered while relaxing with his son is the latest example of how difficult it has become for the Canadian Open to get golf’s top names in its field.
Singh, who hurt his back earlier this week in a game of apparent full-contact ping pong, had to withdraw from this weekend’s Deutsche Bank Championship, where he would have been the defending champion. Though no official word has been uttered, the injury could put Singh’s attendance at the Canadian Open at Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club in Vancouver in doubt.
Although Singh said yesterday he will do his best to make the B.C. tournament, his absence wouldn’t be the first time the Canadian Open has been hurt by the withdrawal of a star. In recent years, big-name players have dropped out of the field as regularly as John Daly changes wives.
Phil Mickelson has promised the Royal Canadian Golf Association he would participate several times, and even agreed to be part of the tournament’s marketing in 2002. He’s failed to show up all but once in more than a decade, withdrawing from the 2002 event at Angus Glen in the days leading up to the event. With Phil, there’s always a feeble excuse — his jet needed some work or a family picnic came up.
Perhaps the worst incidents were in 2003, when the tournament was played at the terrific Hamilton Golf & Country Club in Ancaster, Ont. Dozens of golfers dropped out in the days leading up to the tournament, concerned about SARS. Golfers apparently aren’t well versed in geography and couldn’t figure out that Hamilton was more than an hour from Toronto, and that official travel advisories regarding Toronto had expired more than two months’ previous. Regardless, players such as David Toms and Justin Leonard chose to let the RCGA know they wouldn’t be attending only hours before they were scheduled to arrive. Like Mickelson a year earlier, Toms was used to market the tournament at Hamilton.
Last year’s field was an anomaly since it fell immediately before the Ryder Cup, which was being played a few hours away in suburban Detroit. That meant Mickelson showed up (only to play badly with his new Callaway clubs), as well as a large number of the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Of course, Tiger Woods wasn’t there; these days he apparently only appears in Canada when asked to put on golf clinics by one of his sponsors. He won’t be there this year either.
Singh, who plays more regularly than any of the top PGA Tour players, can’t be faulted if he doesn’t make the Canadian Open next week because of his injury. But his absence only highlights just how weak the Canadian Open field has become.
The RCGA is aware it has a problem. It went so far as to issue a news release recently noting that Jason Gore would be in the field. Gore has been a great story this year, but he’s far from the type of superstar that the casual sports fan can pick out of a police lineup. Otherwise, there are some past champions in the field next week, but few golf fans really care about Mark O’Meara, who hasn’t been a factor on tour for years, or Billy Andrade, who won the 1998 title in a fluke playoff.
So far, the spectators keep coming to the Canadian Open regardless. But one has to wonder how long lead sponsor Bell Canada — or any of the corporations that put up their money to support the event — will continue to open its wallet if the fields are so poor. If Bell suddenly didn’t think it was getting its money’s worth, would another company step up?
The time is ripe for the PGA Tour to mandate attendance at a certain number of tournaments every year. In order to facilitate this, the players could rotate through the events, playing every tournament once every three years. That way Woods, Mickelson, Davis Love III and the like would show up north of the U.S. border at least occasionally.
Only then will Canadians be rewarded by being able to witness the best golfers in the world contest its national open.

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Jeff Lancaster

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