McKenna's golf game…

For my American readers, this might not mean much. But with the resignation of former PM Paul Martin following last week’s election, there’s renewed speculation Frank McKenna, who resigned this week as Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., will run for leadership of the Liberal party. This blog isn’t political, but three years ago I had the chance to tee it up with McKenna as part of my Going For The Green golf and business series. The series ended after three years and 45 executives and CEOs were profiled, but I dragged this one out of the archives to give people a glimpse of McKenna away from the politics and boardrooms. And yes, if TaylorMade is reading, they should send Frank a new driver….

Business, politics and fairways:
Former N.B. premier Frank McKenna’s tidy game
is also a deal-making asset
MONCTON – Even with a golf club in his hands, Frank McKenna still likes to talk politics. Only days removed from the federal election, McKenna seems keen on sizing up the decisions that led to a Liberal minority government, a result that surprised many. But rather than giving his views to a scrum of reporters, he’s holding court at the Royal Oaks Golf and Country Club outside of Moncton.
McKenna starts our game with a big drive down the middle of the first fairway. He then addresses the election.
“I thought Canadians showed a lot of wisdom with this one,” says the plain spoken McKenna, who stepped down as New Brunswick premier in 1997. “They realized the Liberals needed to be spanked, but recognized that Paul Martin is a different man from Jean Chretien. Once the fury was over, the public made the right decision.
“The Conservatives ended up as a viable alternative, which shows the public were strategic. I also think that in the last 10 days the public realized what they wanted. They wanted Stephen Harper to serve an apprenticeship.”
His criticism isn’t totally objective; McKenna spent time on the campaign trail with the Liberals even though he wasn’t a candidate.
Not that he wasn’t prepared to enter the fray, he says as we stand on the tee of the third hole. Martin wanted McKenna as his star in Atlantic Canada, but when Liberal candidates in the Fredericton area refused to step aside for McKenna, he chose not to run. “Mentally, my head was there as a candidate, but I wouldn’t run if someone didn’t step aside. The consolation prize isn’t bad. I have a great life and I wasn’t lusting after a return to politics.”
While he won’t acknowledge an interest in returning to public life, McKenna still keeps close ties with former political allies. For our game, McKenna has invited Ray Frenette, a former cabinet member in his government and the man who succeeded him as premier, and Bob Kenny, a well-connected Fredericton lawyer.
Royal Oaks was designed by Rees Jones, the U.S. architect know as the Open Doctor for his work renovating U.S. Open courses. The course is a fine test of golf: brutish par threes protected by nasty bunkers meet long four-shot holes punctuated by small ponds. Royal Oaks has received several accolades, including best new course in Eastern Canada by Score magazine in 2002.
It was at Royal Oaks two years ago that protesters showed up to rally against one of McKenna’s golf outings. He invited George W. Bush, assorted politicians and CEOs to hobnob for a day.
The protesters came out because Bush and McKenna are both advisors to the Carlyle Group, a massive capital fund with strong political ties and some investments in defence projects.
“It was very strange,” McKenna says. “I’d never considered the attention my involvement with the Carlyle Group would draw.”
The meetings are not meant to draw public attention. Rather, he says the aim is to bring powerful business and political leaders together. Power Corp. chairman Paul Desmarais Sr. regularly shows up, as do representatives of such East Coast families as the Irvings and the Sobeys.
– – –
Even seven years removed from office, the man can’t escape his public. On the second hole, a fan yells out as McKenna strolls back to his cart. “Hey there, Frank,” the man says, before offering an introduction. “It’s John from Chatham.”
The two exchange pleasantries, though it isn’t clear whether McKenna has a clue who the man is. Still, the incident is a sign of McKenna’s continued popularity.
“It is a small province and I love it,” McKenna says as we ride to the fourth tee. “But that also means there isn’t a lot of privacy at times.” As we ride to the 169-yard par three sixth, he muses about the years since leaving office.
“Life after politics was a closed curtain to me, something I never considered. I went hard at politics and didn’t consider what came after. I never expected to receive so many offers.”
He now sits on nine boards, as well as continuing a vibrant law career that brings him to Toronto regularly. One of the boards McKenna chairs is CanWest Global Communications Corp., the media giant that runs a Canadian TV network and owns many of Canada’s largest newspapers, including the National Post. A member of CanWest’s board since 1999, McKenna sat as interim chairman following the death of company founder Izzy Asper and made the role permanent following his decision not to run in the federal election.
“I’m a huge fan of the family and I’m very interested in their media assets,” he says. We head toward the 10th hole, a well-bunkered par five, and McKenna continues. “It isn’t as easy as it seems. It takes a lot of time. When Izzy was there, meetings were never easy.”
Despite his hectic corporate schedule, McKenna finds time to play about 25 golf games a year, often on vacation with his family (his wife, Julie, and their three grown children all play).
McKenna started playing at university, he explains partway through our round.
“When I was a kid we didn’t have the money and there wasn’t a club to play anyway,” he says.
The 56-year-old McKenna, who stands 5-foot-10, uses his thick build and strength effectively on the golf course, hitting long straight drives for most of our round. It helps him record a couple of birdies. He shoots 79 (with a 37 on the opening nine), while I card a 75, helped by four birdies.
Though McKenna complains about his putting and sand play, he is a strong, athletic player who plays a competitive game.
Golf, it seems, is a useful sport in politics and business. “It is a great place to bond with someone or do some business,” he says as he chases yet another long drive up the fairway of the 398-yard 17th.
In McKenna’s case, his tidy game has helped him politically, especially when he teed it up with former prime minister Chretien.
“We were playing at Ottawa Hunt and I was there to ask him for $300-million for our highways. Chretien is a good golfer and hits the ball not that long, but straight. He is also very competitive and hates to lose. So we get to the 18th hole and I need a short putt to beat him. He tells me that if I miss it he’ll give me the money for the highways. But I hate to lose as well, so I make it. He just said, ‘To hell with it. I’ll give you the money anyway.’ ”
Frank McKenna, lawyer, McInnes Cooper; chairman, CanWest Global Communications Inc. and Major Drilling Group International Inc.
Handicap: 9
Membership: Pine Needles Golf and Country Club (Shediac, N.B.)

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Robert
    nicely done. Thanks for posting it: a good read and a timely one, and who knows – in about 3 years Prime Minister McKenna might be asking you for a rematch


  • Peter: Thanks for the kind remarks. I’m sure it comes across in the piece, but I really liked McKenna. I’m not necessarily a Liberal, but I’d vote for him if he became party leader.

  • Hey Robert,
    this is probably an obvious suggestion, but why not turn that collection of interviews/rounds into a book? There’s got to be a hook/connecting line in there, and with all the high profile CEOs you have (and with many golfers in Toronto being people who are also interested in business) I’d think there’d be a publisher (a smart one, at least) waiting for such a book. Actually, now that I think of it, I’m surprised it isn’t out there already. Are you thinking about it? You’re a free man now, what are you waiting for? 🙂


  • Peter: Thanks for the kind remarks. Putting these interviews into book form is something I considered. The notion was to take the best 20 or so and make a book out of it, revisiting a number of them along the way. I think it could be a fascinating project and hopefully I’ll get time to pursue it.
    Thanks for the encouragement.

  • No, Robert…

    I’d rather you write a book on golf course designs and your philosophy on this subject matter for the lay persons. You can talk about what to look for for a weekend golfer to look for. You can also outline the signature of individual designers.

    Leave the interview to someone else…

  • I doubt anyone would want to read a book by me about golf design. I’m just a well-read novice. But thanks for the comments anyway and I’ll keep trying to explain what I see…

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