The Canadian Open – A National Tradition Since 1904

By Angus Gillespie

Steeped in rich tradition dating back to 1904 the RBC Canadian Open golf championship is recognized as one of the premier annual tournaments on the PGA Tour. Each year the world’s best golfers assemble to engage in the competition of trying to win this nation’s coveted title, which has a total prize money purse of about $6 million.

The Glen Abbey golf course in Oakville, Ontario, designed by Jack Nicklaus, has hosted the Canadian Open on 28 occasions and is once again the host of this year’s tournament, which runs from July 24-30, marking the third year in a row that the course has had the honour.

The RBC Canadian Open is run by Golf Canada, which is the governing body of golf in this country. Up until April, 2010 Golf Canada was previously known as the Royal Canadian Golf Association (RCGA).

Long-time former Tournament Director Bill Paul handed over the reins to Brent McLaughlin two years ago and it is now he that is tasked with running the event.

When we spoke with McLaughlin about preparations for this year’s big event he had just returned from the annual PGA Tour spring meetings in San Antonio, Texas, held in conjunction with the Valero Texas Open.

McLaughlin started with what was then the RCGA in 1994, working in the golf shop when the RCGA owned Glen Abbey. It was sold in 1998 to Club Link, which owns it to this day. Following the sale McLaughlin ran the national amateur championships for more than 10 years.

“I was the top rules official and administered all the rules for golf in Canada for a number of years since 2008 and oversaw all the officials in Canada,” says McLaughlin. “I also worked a number of international competitions, including U.S. Opens and British Opens as well as the Canadian Open for both the men and women.”

It was about 15 years ago when Bill Paul told McLaughlin that when it was time for him to step down as tournament director that McLaughlin would be his replacement. True to Paul’s words, McLaughlin did in fact take over the all-important position.

“Our offices were always right next to each other so I was able to watch and learn from Bill for many years. Moving into this position was the next natural step, but definitely it’s some rather huge shoes to fill,” says McLaughlin.

Year-round Preparation

Many fans of golf likely don’t comprehend the immense workload that is required to pull off an event of this magnitude on an annual basis. It’s anything but a seasonal job, but rather it takes the entire year to properly coordinate with a number of people involved in the process.

“The planning and the infrastructure that goes into this event is enormous and I think it’s an eye opener for anybody that sees the back end of the operation. The entire undertaking when you add it all together I’d say there are probably 2,000 people that are touching this event every single year,” reveals McLaughlin.

Golf Canada has about 20 people who are focused full-time, year-round on such critical matters as corporate sales, operations, volunteer management, tour management and television. That workforce is supplemented by 32 committee volunteer chairs from the community that make up all the various committees that are needed in order to run the event – everything from player services to volunteer services, marshalling, player and transportation. Underneath those 32 committees are about 1,500 dedicated volunteers who generously provide their services for the week.

There are also many others who are involved in the process from other entities who must work alongside Golf Canada in having everything properly coordinated. There could be up to 200 people in any given year that are full-time staff – people with other associations – that come in the week of the tournament such as those from The Golf Channel, CBS, the PGA Tour and the many suppliers. They will be on site to build the structures – everything from scaffolding for television cameras to flooring and furnishings for the various temporary pavilions that are set up for corporate and media outlets.

About 50 or more full-time staff from the Town of Oakville play an instrumental role in working with McLaughlin and his team in providing the necessary permitting and shutting down certain roads. Policing, fire and ambulance as well as evacuation plans all must have the procedures put in place.

“We meet with the Town of Oakville at their offices once a month as part of moving the process along and keeping the lines of communication open. It’s a massive undertaking and we could not do it without the support of the Town,” continues McLaughlin.

It’s estimated that the RBC Canadian Open provides a $20 million economic impact to the community. Many hotels and restaurants are booked solid for the entire week.

Weeklong Festivities

The week’s itinerary for the tournament is actually a full week of celebrations. The kickoff starts on the Saturday prior to the tournament with a 5km fun run through the golf course. Last year was the inaugural event and it drew about 500 runners. It’s only the start of May and McLaughlin says there are already about 150 registrants signed up for this year.

“They start on the first tee and run right through to 18, which is just over 5km. It’s an official timed run but it’s also a walk. There are people out there with strollers or walking with their children,” notes McLaughlin.

For those not interested in partaking in the fun run the beer garden is open for business, where the British Open can bet watched on the big video wall. A Pro-Am that honours Canadians takes place on the Monday.

“The field is full of Canadian talent and representation. It benefits the Golf Canada Foundation, which benefits every level of golf. It’s an arm of our association and it looks at ways to engage youth right up into the highest level of golf,” explains McLaughlin.

The opening ceremonies and a practice round are held on Tuesday. This year will honour the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame with some new members coming in and it will also recognize those who’ve already been inducted. Admission is free and McLaughlin encourages people can come out and walk the course and see some of their favourite players. Wednesday is the Championship Pro-Am, which will include all the top players in the field. It starts at 7am and goes all day. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are all great opportunities for fans to get photographs and autographs. Then the players get down to business with the opening round of the tournament bright and early on Thursday morning.

Sometimes a topic of conversation is the event’s date on the calendar. Many years ago it was held in September and has moved on several occasions. One of the biggest complaints coming from some circles is that with the RBC Canadian Open taking place immediately following the British Open it results in some of the world’s top players not entering the field. Some players and their families opt to remain in Europe for a vacation. But according to McLaughlin he says there is no one ideal spot on the calendar.

“I hear that all the time,” he replies. “The reality is that we like having the tournament in July. It’s great for weather. If you have it too early in the season you never know what that weather is going to be like. The fall date is no longer available – that’s the FedEx Cup event and I don’t think we’d want to be a playoff event. We love having Canadian talent in the field and being able to offer exemptions to our young amateur team and some players from the PGA Tour Canada and the PGA of Canada.”

Players’ schedules are set in such a way that they’re going to play the majors and the Players’ Championship along with Jack Nicklaus’s tournament and Arnold Palmer’s tournament and World Golf Championship events. McLaughlin opines that no matter what slot you’re in there will be in very close proximity to an extremely popular event on the calendar. The RBC Canadian Open routinely attracts many of the world’s top players every year, including the likes of Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Jim Furyk, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar – the list goes on.

McLaughlin says a big part of his job is to encourage players and their families to come out here and sell the GTA. It’s a very family-oriented week. When the players are out on the course, the rest of the family can visit Canada’s Wonderland or downtown Toronto or go on wine tours in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” says McLaughlin.

A tournament of this magnitude, that attracts the very best golfers in the world, requires top-tier sponsorship support. It’s something McLaughlin is keenly aware about and is very quick to acknowledge the importance of all the event’s supporters, including the title sponsor.

“RBC’s commitment to golf has been unbelievable. They also support junior golf and are basically touching every aspect the golf right from people putting their hand on the club for the first time all the way up to our high performance strategy. They’ve re-upped the PGA Tour contract through 2023 so it’s very stable in that regard,” says McLaughlin. He believes many more businesses and people are finding that the golf tournament is a great way to host hospitality. It’s a very unique setting and the interaction with the athletes is very rare. “At a hockey game or a baseball game or a football game you’re separated by the field or walls and glass. Here, there’s just a rope line. It’s a great way to walk with a client or a business contact. More businesses are finding this is a fantastic way to spend the day and to get good quality time with their corporate partners.”

Another reason for fans to be excited for this year’s event is the Canadian content. Adam Hadwin of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and Graham DeLaet of Weyburn, Saskatchewan are both top-tier players who have the talent to challenge the world’s best on any given day. Amateur Jared du Toit of Kimberley, B.C. was a pleasant surprise in the final grouping last year and in 2015 David Hearn of Brantford, Ontario had a spectacular Canadian Open, finishing third. And who can forget 2003 Masters champ Mike Weir’s heartbreaking third-hole sudden death playoff loss to VJ Singh back in 2004.

Vision for the Future

As tournament director, McLaughlin often metaphorically takes a good look down the fairway and envisions what he sees on the green. As incredibly strong as the event is now, he and his team are always thinking about ways to make it even bigger and better. One way of doing that is by going directly to the players and the fans and eliciting their opinions about what they like and dislike about the Canadian Open.

“The common theme that I heard from all those players was that when they come to Canada they said it looks like every other PGA Tour event and that it didn’t look like a national championship,” McLaughlin candidly states. “I really took that to heart. As a proud Canadian I realized we needed to change that. In the last couple of years we’ve become completely ‘Canadian-ized’. The grounds are littered with Canadian flags and for those watching on TV you’ll see lots of Canadian imagery. We encourage the gallery to wear red and white. All our volunteers are outfitted in those colours. Early in the week the food that we serve is Canadian salmon with Canadian maple syrup and we do the same for the players’ dining.”

McLaughlin is also a firm believer that the Canadian Open should have a permanent home. “It definitely helps us build on the momentum. In the last few years at Glen Abbey we’ve added activities that have grown in popularity. It helps when you’re in the same location and delivering the same message; people know what to expect.”

As part of the always-increasing entertainment package and as an homage to Canada’s national sport of hockey, McLaughlin and his team are turning a Par 3 at the front of the clubhouse into a rink, and the entire hole will be surrounded in rink boards. Volunteers will be dressed in referee’s uniforms and the players will access both the tee and the putting green through operating rink gates.

“We aren’t charging to get into the Rink – it’s free. As people come out this year hopefully it builds and in the following year it builds again,” says McLaughlin.

Social media and the added engagement it can provide is already helping to enhance greater fan engagement, which is something McLaughlin and his team are readily aware about.

“I just got back from our Tour meeting and one whole afternoon was spent talking about social media and engaging fans and players. A lot of the players have huge followings on Twitter and Instagram. Those platforms and others are becoming more and more valuable to us,” says McLaughlin.

“We only have one PGA Tour event in Canada. This is the only opportunity to see the world’s best come to this country and play golf. I want to put this back on the map as being a true national championship,” concludes McLaughlin.

Round One of the 2017 RBC Canadian Open tees off on Thursday, July 27 with the champion to be crowned on Sunday, July 30. Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela is the defending champion.