Thursday, September 29, 2005

Royal Portrush -- the best?

As I've mentioned, two weeks ago I managed a trip to Ireland that included the likes of Portmarnock, the European Club, Royal County Down, County Louth and Carton House (more on these later.) But for what it is worth, I thought the best of the bunch was Harry Colt's Royal Portrush. From the uphill first hole, to the bunkering on the 18th, Portrush is one hell of a test of golf.

So what makes Portrush so fine? The first hole gives you a pretty good indication -- the fairway is tight, but fair and the approach is difficult, but still presents options. You can bail right or run a ball in, for instance, but it'll take two strong shots to have any opportunity to make par, let alone birdie.
The fourth (above) also demonstrates some of facets that make Portrush one of the best -- if not the best -- in the world. Sure, it is a 460-yard par four, but the hole is wide off the tee, allowing players to put the ball in play. The approach, however, struck with a long iron, must navigate past a hill in the front left and manage to catch the opening to the green. That said, there is a way to bounce the ball into this remarkable green, making the hole difficult, but ultimately fair.

The mix of holes, like the short 8th (right) also play a role in making Portrush so tremendous. While the 4th will test your long game, the 8th is short and asks players to determine just how much of the dogleg they think they can manage. There's the option to play the hole as it presents itself and hit an iron to the turn of the dogleg; for the more adventurous, there's the option of biting off as much as you can chew. Failure to pull off the shot will likely result in a couple of lost shots, but the green is receptive to a mid iron and birdie can be had. Himalayas, as the 8th is called, is a significant component in making Portrush great.

The par threes, as expected, are also exceptional. The most famous of which is Calamity (below), the 210 yard single shot hole that plays into the wind. On a tough day, like the one my group faced two weeks ago, the hole can force players to hit a fairway wood.
That's a tough shot considering there is a drop of 40 feet in front and the immediate front of the green rolls a faded approach off into the rough. Few par threes are as difficult - or clever - as this one.

The only slight letdown at Portrush is the finishing holes, though the 17th, with its massive bunker "Big Nellie," is a sight to behold off the tee. Beyond that, the 17th is rather pedestrian. The 18th rests on the least interesting piece of land on the property, but still makes for a fine two shot hole by testing the accuracy and power of the player. Bunkers are scattered throughout and the green, which rests to the north of the clubhouse, is a fine example of Colt's work.

So what are we to make of Portrush, when all is said and done. Like Pine Valley, it presents an intriguing mix of long and short fours and threes. Its fives are also a mix of long and difficult, with options thrown in where birdie is possible. The greens are fascinating and allow balls to roll to their rest.

The best in the world? Having played Pine Valley on two separate occasions, I feel a match between Crump's gem and Colt's finest hour would result in a draw. Some have suggested Royal County Down, with its mountain backdrop, is a prettier sight. But when you hit your tee shot on fifth to the green with a backdrop of ocean and white cliffs, it is harder to imagine anything better.

While Portrush isn't in a league of its own, it plays on a whole other team from most golf courses. The best? Hard to say, for certain. But it is among the most brilliant designs I've had the good fortune to play.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The great disappearing act

While Chris DiMarco was busy stepping up his game, something fascinating happened at the little-known Valero Texas Open.
That's right -- David Duval made a cut. Mind you, he shot 74 on the final day to finish 60th, but he made it through to the weekend. It was the first time Duval has pulled that off this year in 18 tries.
I've been hoping against hope that Duval wasn't finished, but it looks like he likely is. This meltdown rivals Ian Baker-Finch's fall from grace.
Anyway, that's all I have to say before I start blogging on Ireland and its golf. Just waiting for some photos.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Some truly private golf --: At Canada's most exclusive golf clubs, membership might reach 200 and outsiders likely can't beg, borrow or steal a round

From last week's National Post:

By Robert Thompson
There are golf courses that call themselves private -- and then there is truly private golf. The former expect members to pay big bucks to gain access to their club, but often these golf courses have hundreds of members who fight for tee times.
Truly private golf, on the other hand, is a different experience altogether. Rather than battle to get a Saturday morning round, these courses, with names like Redtail and Oviinbyrd, have an extremely limited membership. The lucky few who manage to get past the gatekeeper at these clubs can anticipate a world class golf experience, as well as the solitude and luxury one can only get at an exclusive country club.
While Canada does not have anything to rival the exclusivity of the famed golf courses in Long Island, N.Y., where $500,000 memberships and ritualistic entrance requirements are common, there are some whose fairways are tightly restricted zones.
Many will desperately try to find their way onto these exclusive enclaves. Occasionally a stack of bills handed to the starter might get you a round --but try that tactic at your own risk. In other cases, like Domaine Laforest or Redtail, hopeful golfers aren't likely to even locate the club without a detailed map.
While we can't supply maps, we can point you in the right general direction. And with that in mind, here is FP Weekend's list of Canada's most exclusive private golf clubs.
Domaine Laforest, Sagard, Que. The personal haunt of Paul Desmarais of Power Corp. fame, even Canada's most notable CEOs can't score an invite to this Thomas McBroom-designed golf course. Located north of Quebec City, the course receives very little play and even executives of Power Corp. companies, such as Investors Group, aren't likely to get a chance to tee it up.
So what do we know about Domaine Laforest? According to Mr. McBroom, the course's condition rivals Augusta National, home of the Masters, and it plays through a dense forest next to the Desmarais' summer home. We also know one more fact about Domain Laforest -- you won't be getting an invite any time soon.
Redtail Golf Club, St. Thomas, Ont. The creation of two businessmen from London, Ont., Redtail remains one of the most exclusive golf courses in North America with approximately 3,000 rounds a year played by its 80 members and their guests. That contrasts with a typical Toronto private course, which may see upwards of 30,000 rounds annually.
Like many exclusive courses, Redtail is well hidden. You'll need directions from the locals to find its gates among gravel roads. Once there, you dial the clubhouse. If your name is on the list for a round that day, you're in luck. If it isn't, you can drive back down a little-used road pondering how close you came.
That said, more people saw Redtail this summer. The club opened its gates to the public for the first time, allowing spectators to walk its fairways when it hosted the Ontario Amateur golf tournament.
Redtail sports a particularly warm and friendly clubhouse and a particularly nasty Donald Steel golf course. It gained notoriety when Queen Elizabeth II stayed in one of the cottages on the property during a visit to Canada.
Oviinbyrd Golf Club, Muskoka, Ont. This Muskoka club opened for a handful of member rounds late last year and appears to be the heir apparent to Redtail when it comes to exclusivity in Canadian golf. Designed by Tom McBroom for an ownership that includes former technology executive Peter Schwartz, Oviinbryd didn't even publish a phone number for members until recently. Instead, it developed its club through referrals. Former hockey players including Paul Coffey mingle with holidaying Bay Street CEOs at Oviinbyrd.
Cut through dense forest, the course is among the most spectacular to open in recent years, featuring wide fairways, flowing greens and a number of sporty, interesting and challenging holes. Unlike most Muskoka courses, Oviinbyrd features very little exposed rock.
Membership will be capped at 200, and given its short season, it is quite possible its round total will rival Redtail as the lowest in Canada.
The Ridge at Manitou, Parry Sound, Ont. Quietly opening nine holes last summer, The Ridge at Manitou is arguably the best course to open in Muskoka. Another design by Toronto's Mr. McBroom, The Ridge at Manitou, which is now a full 18 holes, only has a handful of members to date and expects only 3,000 rounds this summer. That means if you can find your way to the course, which is near Perry Sound, you'll likely have it all to yourself. The 18th hole, a majestic hole with a green perched in front of a Muskoka lake, is among the best finishers in Canada, and the clubhouse, framed out of local timber, is among the most beautiful in the country.
There is another way to experience this great Canadian course: Stay at the nearby Inn at Manitou. The Inn, an intimate facility with only a few dozen rooms, has access to 12 rounds on the golf course each day. Singer Tom Cochrane is one of the members at this quiet club.
Fox Harb'r Golf Club, Fox Harbour, N.S. While it still allowed a few public rounds for those willing to kick out $250, Fox Harb'r is planning to go fully private next summer, creating another of Canada's most exclusive courses. The vision of Tim Hortons' co-founder Ron Joyce, Fox Harb'r is located about an hour from Moncton.
Designed by Graham Cooke, Fox Harb'r winds through forests and parkland before emerging near the Northumberland Straits. The final nine holes snake next to the ocean, and Prince Edward Island can be seen in the distance. Top Canadian executives from the Atlantic coast and companies like Empire Co. Ltd. can often be seen hacking their way around Fox Harb'r's immaculately groomed fairways.
The club's facilities, including a runway, spa, full clubhouse and hunting lodge, are unparalleled in Canada. Fox Harb'r currently does about 5,000 rounds annually, but expect that number to fall dramatically once the club closes its gates to the public next summer.
Mount Bruno Golf Club, St. Bruno, Que. While Royal Montreal may garner all the attention in Quebec, the real gem in Montreal is this Willie Park Jr. design, which first opened 86 years ago.
Bruno's exclusivity means few golf raters and media ever set foot on the property, which is located at the end of a winding road about 45 minutes outside of Montreal.
Old World is in vogue at Mount Bruno, which maintains its original clubhouse, a throwback to the club's formation in 1919. While Royal Montreal may be more famous, the who's-who of Montreal business plays at Bruno, including former Alcan CEO David Culver, Domtar CEO Raymond Royer, former BCE CEO Jean Monty and current BCE CEO Michael Sabia.
The course is not more highly regarded simply because so few have had the opportunity to tee it up on its gently sloping fairways.
Calgary Golf and Country Club, Calgary Part of the allure of Calgary Golf and Country Club is just how difficult it is to gain entrance to this Willie Park Jr.-designed course. Along with Capilano Golf and Country Club, Calgary features one of the longest waiting lists for membership of any course in Canada: more than 15 years.
Built in a parkland style with nasty, old-fashioned undulating greens, Calgary Golf is the top golf course in a city where golf is extremely popular.
The course's location just near downtown Calgary makes it a very attractive draw for the city's business elite. These businessmen may be flush with oil money, but it takes more than cash to find your way onto the membership list of Calgary -- it takes a great deal of patience as well.
Magna Golf Club, Aurora, Ont. Built by Doug Carrick for Magna autoparts founder Frank Stronach, Magna has a mystique created by a $100,000 entrance fee and annual dues that are higher than any other course in Canada.
The course itself is big and bold, not unlike Mr. Stronach himself. Though the Magna founder does not play golf, he can often be found dining in the decadent clubhouse that sits just off the 18th green. The course gained some notoriety and exposure this summer when Tiger Woods played 18 holes there as part of a Nike-sponsored event for its top corporate clients.
Expect to see Maple Leafs star Tie Domi wandering around its fairways alongside bank executives and GolfTown CEO Stephen Bebis hitting its links.

Back from Ireland -- here's my thoughts on the K Club

For those interested, here's a piece that appeared in the National Post today on the K Club. I love Ireland. Portrush is among the handful of best designs I've ever played. But the K Club is no Gleneagles.

K Club choice worthy of an 'F': Irish course unworthy of hosting next year's Ryder Cup
National Post Saturday, September 24, 2005 Page: S8 Section: Sports Byline: Robert Thompson Column: On Golf Dateline: BUSHMILLS, Ireland Source: National Post

BUSHMILLS, Ireland - Amazing golf is most often held on amazing courses. Think about Tiger Woods' breakthrough victory at Augusta National, Bobby Jones' completion of the Grand Slam at Merion Golf and Country Club, or Jack Nicklaus' win at Pebble Beach in 1972. Not only were these stunning examples of great golf, but also of epic battles played on tremendous courses.
Which is what makes the K Club in Ireland so disappointing.
Next year, U.S. team captain Tom Lehman will attempt to motivate his group of multi-millionaires when they meet the Europeans in the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club, a relatively new golf resort developed by Irish tycoon Michael Smurfit.
"It is a really good match-play club," Lehman told the National Post this summer. "I think it will work out really well."
The K Club is certainly a pretty, wonderfully manicured golf facility. There are two courses at this multi-million-dollar resort, the best-known of which was designed by Arnold Palmer and his golf architecture director, Ed Seay. Located in a rural area about 45 minutes from Dublin, it features big trees, waterfalls and Augusta-style putting surfaces. Nary a blade of grass is out of place. Even the golf carts that punctuate the fairways seem to have a shine to them.
But that doesn't make the K Club a great venue for the Ryder Cup. Or even a good one.
What's surprising about the selection of the K Club as a host venue for the Ryder Cup is that the breadth of Irish golf was largely ignored in order to take the prestigious tournament to such a mundane, ordinary parkland golf course.
But it is right in line with the series of other dull, tired parkland courses that will host the Ryder in upcoming years. In 2008, the event will go to the universally reviled Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky, a course that is owned by the U.S. PGA, the organization that runs the intercontinental golf shootout. After that it heads to Wales, where Canadian billionaire Terry Matthews will host it at his Celtic Manor. That course was considered so good, it was largely blown up and is being rebuilt to hold the event. Impressive golf indeed.
The shame about the K Club is that Ireland has so much spectacular golf to offer that could have been substituted. Ireland deserves the match, but the country would have been far better off taking it to the Portmarnock or Royal Portrush.
Portmarnock, a links that is tough as nails, is a classic seaside layout near Dublin. It would have been a terrific match-play site, offering Carnoustie-like toughness with a touch more grace. Portrush, located in Northern Ireland, was designed by Harry Colt, the genius behind Hamilton Golf and Country Club in Canada, and was the site of the 1951 British Open. As a seaside links, it is nearly unparallelled. Its one-shot holes have nuances rarely seen in modern golf architecture and its par fours offer a mix of distances and difficulties.
Whereas the K Club is one-dimensional, American-style parkland golf, Portrush and Portmarnock offer options similar to those found at the Old Course in Scotland. Balls can be bounced into firm, hard greens, and players must demonstrate imagination and cunning in order to conquer the charms of Portmarnock or the toughness of Portrush. That's a mix that makes for a great match-play golf course.
The two clubs represent the best of Irish golf, unlike the K Club, which is simply another high-priced resort.
Offering a great golf course upon which to play the Ryder Cup elevates the entire proceedings. It makes the sport more exciting and it makes the event better viewing, both in person or on television. Too bad that next year -- and for the next decade of Ryder Cup matches -- money and power seem to have overwhelmed common sense and good taste.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The greatness of Royal Portrush and other quick notes

  • I'm still in Ireland (in the Bushmills Inn, to be exact), having spent the last week playing a fine selection of what the country has to offer. It ranges from better than expected (European Club, Carton House Montgomerie, Baltray, Castlerock), to typical US style golf (Druid's Glen, K Club), to mind blowing good (Royal Portrush, Portmarnock). I've got lots of photos and will post them later, but to those who have played it, Portrush may be the best course in the world. Hard to imagine anything better, and we played in rain and driving wind. Calamity, the par three on the back nine, is all-world. More to come upon my return on Saturday.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Honouring golf's best, worst in '05: The players, the courses, the whiner

Robert Thompson On Golf

Source: National Post, Friday, Sept. 16

Whether we like it or not, the Canadian golf season is winding down.
Club championships have been played, Shaughnessy showed its teeth in hosting a weak field at the Canadian Open and, in much of the country, the leaves are starting to turn. There was snow in Calgary. It is all a sign the best golf has to offer is behind us.
With that in mind, it's time to take a look back at the year, from Tiger-like highs to Weir-like lows.
- - -
Best performance by a Canadian golfer: James Lepp and J.C. Deacon (tie) It says a lot about the state of Canadian golf that the most exciting players this year were amateurs. Lepp, who plays for the Washington Huskies, broke through this year to take the NCAA title, something no other Canadian has accomplished. And though Lepp didn't progress far at the U.S. Amateur (where he was one of seven Canadians in the field), Unionville's J.C. Deacon made it all the way to the semi-final, losing a heartbreaker on the final hole. Lepp and Deacon aren't the only Canadian golf stars this year; Jon Mills had a breakthrough season on the Nationwide Tour and will be on the PGA Tour next year.
- - -
Worst season by a Canadian: Mike Weir Sure he's made US$1.2-million this year and will play on the Presidents Cup team, but it isn't hard to see that Weir's 2005 campaign has been a disaster. He missed six of seven cuts at one point and floundered his way around Shaughnessy at the Canadian Open, missing that cut as well. Can Weir fix his game or is his best already behind him? Let's hope it is the former.
- - -
Best golf tournament without a sponsor: The Canadian Women's Open Like the male version of the event, the Canadian Women's Open struggles to find a field worthy of what was once a major. This year's event at Glen Arbour near Halifax appeared to be an afterthought for most in the field. With Bank of Montreal backing away once its sponsorship deal ends, the future of the event, which is supposed to be played at the Hunt Club in London next year is in doubt. Let's hope the Bell Canadian Open doesn't face the same fate if Bell decides against renewing its sponsorship deal.
- - -
Best breakthrough on PGA Tour: Sean O'Hair and Jason Gore (tie) Though his teen years were troubled by a dominant, difficult father, O'Hair has become one of the brightest new stars on the PGA Tour. He's got all the shots and the imagination to go with them. His recovery shot to par the 18th at the John Deere Classic was remarkable and helped push him to more than US$2-million in winnings. The other feel-good golf story of the year has to be Gore. The chubby fan favourite was in over his head near the top of the leaderboard in the final round of the U.S. Open and fell apart. That should have been the last we heard of him. Instead, he reeled off three straight wins on the Nationwide Tour and gained a promotion to the big show. Gore is an everyman -- John Daly without the drinking and spousal problems. Golf needs more like him.
- - -
Worst complaint at a golf tournament: Robert Allenby, Canadian Open Commenting on the Shaughnessy as the host site for last week's Canadian Open, Aussie Allenby said: "The front nine is just stupid. The rough is just ridiculous. I know it's a national title but it's not the U.S. Open." Too many PGA Tour pros have come to expect that any tour stop that isn't the U.S. Open to be a pushover. When the RCGA finally sets up a course so it is championship-worthy, the likes of Allenby complain. Allenby says he won't be back at Shaughnessy. Oh well.
- - -
Best gimmick that disappeared almost immediately: Nike's black golf balls. Okay, let's get this straight -- a couple of PGA Tour pros play a black golf ball on a par three in Arizona and the golfing public goes crazy? Well, that's exactly what happened, at least for a few weeks. Now but a distant memory, let's hope the black ball has gone the way of the orange and yellow balls that were once in vogue. John Daly's failed attempt to drive Niagara Falls to promote a golf course in the area comes a close second in this category.
- - -
Best new golf equipment: Nike Platinum ball and House of Kangaroo gloves (tie) Nike's black ball may not have lasted, but here's to its new Platinum ball, an excellent alternative to the dominant ProV1. Callaway's HX Tour 56 ball, which Phil Mickelson used to win the PGA Championship, is also super-hot and great around the greens. Looking for something altogether different? Try getting your hand in a golf glove by House of Kangaroo. Yes, as the name states, kangaroos aren't just cuddly -- they make a great golf glove. While other gloves wear in a matter of rounds, House of Kangaroo gloves are far more resilient. Worth a try.
- - -
Best new course in Canada: Oviinbyrd and Ridge at Manitou (tie) Both courses are creations of Toronto designer Thomas McBroom. While there are similarities between the two, including their Muskoka location, the courses demonstrate McBroom's ability to create distinct, fascinating golf experiences. Oviinbyrd, created by former Waterloo tech executive Peter Schwartz, is sporty and strategic, while Manitou is majestic and beautiful. Both are outstanding golf courses. It's a shame that Oviinbyrd and Manitou's private nature means a majority of Canadian golfers will never get to see them.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

To Ireland I shall go

We'll see how much blogging I do in the next week as I'm off on a jaunt to Ireland for the first time. There's a lot of golf involved, so it is hard to say how much writing will take place. We're scheduled for Carton House, The Island, Portmarnock, Druid's Glen, K Club, European Club, Baltray, Castlerock, Portrush, and County Down in six days. It should be excellent, depending of course on the weather. But even if it pisses on us, the golf will be great. My game has finally come around and I feel up to the challenge.

I'll try to keep everyone posted, but if I can't manage it, I'll be back in a week.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Scarboro recovers from the flood and Palmer in Toronto

  • Interesting to see that Scarboro has recovered from the flood of a few weeks back. I had a chance today to see the course and all things considered, it has come along nicely. Remember that Donalda, a marginal private club in mid-Toronto, has had to close for the year.
  • So Arnold Palmer was in Toronto earlier this week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first win, which happened at Weston Golf and Country Club. Now I'm as interested in Palmer as the next guy, having read James Dodson's biography and having met the man on a couple of occasions. And Weston has made a nice resurgence after a great bunker job by Carrick Design's Ian Andrew. Ian found out the bunkers were actually not done by the course's designer, Willie Park Jr., because he became ill and had to go back to England. The bunkers were actually done by Charles Allison, which is the style Ian chose. Anyway, I decided not to write on the Palmer event for the Post because it had "media sponsors," namely the Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, which really put me off. Palmer didn't play -- just hit a couple of balls -- but he did do an big interview with the Globe and the Star -- and not the Post. Now I understand why an event must have sponsorship, but I think it is wrong that a sports event becomes co-opted by one or two organizations. What's next? At the Bell Canadian Open maybe only reporters from Bell Globemedia, CTV and the Globe, will get the right to interview the players. All other reporters will get a chance to speak with the clubhouse leader the next day. Anyway, I thought this was quite ridiculous, so I didn't bother to take the time to go down to Weston. I'm sure Arnold didn't miss me. If you care, here's a good Mike Grange piece from the Globe about Palmer.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Ian Andrew is 40!

My good friend and golf architect Ian Andrew turns 40 today. He's a great, thoughtful guy who has forgotten more about golf than I know. He's worked for Doug Carrick for 15 years, helping create some great courses. He's currently working on an amazing project called Muskoka Bay -- a Coore and Crenshaw type course for Canada.
Happy Birthday Ian!
Send Ian a nice note commenting on how he's nearer to Old Age Pension than ever -- he can be found at

Calcavecchia wins on a bowling alley

Now I'll admit to not watching much of the Canadian Open, since I was in Nova Scotia working on the Ron Joyce book project. But here are some observations from what I did see:

  1. Mark Calcavecchia is a great, but exceptionally lazy player. Here's a guy who won the British Open and should have won far more. Now he's got the Canadian Open, but it isn't worth more than a John Deere Classic these days
  2. Shaughnessy played far tougher than anyone expected. Interestingly, the course wasn't that long, but long rough around the greens made it very challenging and led to some high scores. Aside from majors, I think few tournaments this year have had scores as high as Shaughnessy did. That led some, like Robert Allenby, to sound off. "The front nine is just stupid," he said. "The rough is just ridiculous. I know it's a national title but it's not the U.S. Open." Indeed, it isn't a US Open. But the Canadian Open means something and the RCGA seemed to get away with growing the rough in the last three years. That's made the courses play tougher. The only issue here is whether that could actually hurt the fields that show up. After all, these players aren't looking to play a second US Open -- they are looking for the 84 Lumber Classic. Allenby may have a point -- but he comes off as a whiner nonetheless.
  3. Regardless of how many times Lorne Rubenstein apologizes for Mike Weir's poor play, the reality is that the Canadian lefthander's game has gone way south. He can't find the fairway, his irons aren't sharp, and he can't putt. That's not a great combination. I'm sure Dynamic Mutual Funds is really thrilled with isn't sponsorship agreement, the one with Brendan, Weir's caddie, telling Mike how to putt and which shots to hit. Right at the moment Weir can't do any of that. What's that say about Dynamic's ability to advise clients? I can see it now: "Well, sir, we meant to invest in XXX stock, but couldn't quite get the order in on time."
  4. Ryan Moore has a strange looking swing, but he's the real deal. He'll follow Charles Howell III and some guy named Tiger as one of the players to get onto the tour through excemptions. It is quite an accomplishment considering Bill Haas couldn't pull it off last year. Moore finished second at the Canadian Open and now gets as many excemptions as he needs for the rest of the year.
  5. Off to Ireland next week. Royal County Down here I come.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Ryan Moore takes the Canadian Open and other stories

  • It'd be amazing to see the clearly very talented Ryan Moore take the Canadian Open. It was only a year ago when he won everything as an amateur and now he looks like he's prepared to put his stamp on his professional career. I'd be more interested in seeing him win than having Ames take the title and have to debate whether or not he's actually a Canadian.
  • So for anyone who wondered what I was doing at Fox Harb'r this week, I've kicked into full book mode, helping write the autobiography of Ron Joyce, the co-founder of Tim Hortons. Fox Habr'r was in great shape and I enjoyed practicing for a trip to Ireland by working on shots on the back nine, which plays alongside the Atlantic Ocean. Nice to have a golf course to one's self for an afternoon; I literally didn't see anyone else out there. Anyway, my participation in the book stems from this interview I did with Ron for Ontario Golf. I think it is still worth a read.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Canadian Open gets underway...

While I'm at the Fox Harb'r golf club working on my book with Ron Joyce, the Canadian Open is in full swing. Much of the talk today has been about how penal the rough is at Shaughnessy, especially around the greens. Interesting that the PGA Tour hasn't made them cut it back as they've forced the last few venues for the open.
Of course there's also lots of talk about changing the time of the open. Here's a Canadian Press story on something I've written about several times this year.

In the meantime, here's my piece on Shaughnessy that appeared in today's Post:

Players descend on superb course
Robert Thompson On Golf

Vancouver's Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club is a great track, arguably one of the 20 best Canada has to offer. It sports wonderful tree-lined fairways, clever, rolling greens and deep, flashed-up bunkering. It is great fun to play for the amateur and the pro alike, something that can't be said for every 7,500-yard monster that is used for PGA Tour events on a weekly basis. It is a very worthy Canadian Open venue.
If the players are to be believed, the verdict on Shaughnessy is already in and is gushingly positive.
The effusive Richard Zokol, who has never turned away from a reporter with a tape recorder in hand, genuflected at the Shaughnessy alter yesterday.
"It has exceeded expectations, and expectations were at the highest level," he told anyone within earshot yesterday. It is even better than Hamilton Golf and Country Club, located in Ancaster, Ont., where the 2003 event was held, Zokol said. Of the courses the veteran Zokol has played in his 27 Canadian Opens, Shaughnessy is the best, he said.
Zokol may be prone to hyperbolic statements, but he's right on one thing: Shaughnessy is a terrific, old-fashioned golf course.
PGA Tour pros only get a chance to tee it up on a handful of these courses each year. There's George Thomas's remarkable Riviera Golf Club in L.A., Walter Travis' Westchester in New York and the likes of Baltusrol or Shinnecock, which often play host to major championships.
So what will the middling field at this week's Canadian Open encounter? Shaughnessy will play very similarly to Hamilton, being a 7,000-yard par 70. Unlike Hamilton, with its dramatic valleys and hills, Shaughnessy is a subtly rolling course that dips near the sea on its back nine.
The course features some fascinating holes, including the third, a Redan-style par three with a green that plays away from the shot.
Using classic Canadian courses to host the Canadian Open was a notion dreamed up by the Royal Canadian Golf Association's executive director, Stephen Ross, and tournament director, Bill Paul, in an attempt to breathe some life back into the tournament.
They took the event to Hamilton in 2003, a course that won raves from the lacklustre field that showed up. Despite being nearly 100 years old, Hamilton, with its severe greens and lumpy fairways, seemed remarkably fresh next to the likes of Glen Abbey Golf Club, which had hosted the Canadian Open for most of the previous 30 years.
The question remains as to whether a great golf course, even one as good as Hamilton, will actually attract players to come to the Canadian Open. In my experience playing with PGA Tour pros, the answer is no.
PGA Tour pros play by schedules that often have little to do with the quality of the courses they play. Mike Weir can run praises of Shaughnessy up a flag poll for all of the tour's top players to see, but if their plan was to take a week off during the Canadian Open, then that's exactly what they'll do. Some expect Hamilton, which will host next year's tournament, will draw a strong field given the buzz around the course. Don't count on it. There are safer bets to be had.
Shaughnessy is a great golf course and Hamilton is even better. But the reality is that neither is enough to help the Canadian Open find its way out of the doldrums.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Canadian Open's twilight?: The venerable tournament is at a crossroads as it struggles to keep up player interest

Off to Ron Joyce's Fox Harb'r Golf Club for a couple of days, so in the meantime enjoy the Canadian Open at Shaughnessy. Here's a story I wrote that appeared in yesterday's Post:

Tuesday, September 6, 2005 Page: SR14 Section: Special Report: Post Golf Byline: Robert Thompson Source: National Post
The Bell Canadian Open finds itself in a precarious position even as it heads to one of the most interesting courses to hold the tournament in the past 30 years.
Taking the tournament to Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club in Vancouver was a bold move for Royal Canadian Golf Association executive director Stephen Ross and tournament director Bill Paul. The course is on the wrong coast for most PGA Tour pros, meaning the resulting field would likely be less than stellar. That has turned out to be exactly the case.
While Shaughnessy will prove to be a worthy test of the field, it would seem the experiment of taking the tournament to British Columbia has been a failure -- at least, when it comes to cajoling the likes of Tiger Woods from Florida, or even managing to get Phil Mickelson to come up from San Diego.
On the other hand, the Canadian Open will surely see strong ticket sales, given the interest in golf in Vancouver. Corporate sales have been exceptionally strong, giving the tournament a solid financial footing.
Despite the positives, the Canadian Open is at a crossroads.
The tournament has great difficultly elevating itself from the perception that it is now firmly a tier-two tournament lost among the likes of tournaments named after farm machinery and car makers. While it may once have been regarded as resting among the best tournaments, right with the likes of the Colonial and the Bob Hope Invitational, its time has long since past.
So, what is to become of the Canadian Open?
Part of the problem with the event is that it is still trying to regain some of the prestige it lost when it became almost permanently based at Oakville, Ont.'s Glen Abbey Golf Club in 1977. No longer a national event, the tournament started having difficulties drawing top players in the late 1990s.
The event's date fell after the PGA Championship, a period in which many stars simply shut down their year after having made enough cash to pay for their jetshare. And sponsor Bell Canada didn't want the tournament moved out of the range of a majority of its Ontario and Quebec customers.
Now, there are concerns that the Canadian Open may become extinct.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is trying to pitch the television networks on a new deal that will at least match the US$1-billion arrangement he made in 2001.
Finchem has admitted part of a new TV deal will likely include scheduling changes, some of which are to address concerns voiced by Mickelson and Woods. Both players have said the current PGA Tour schedule is simply too long. Quietly, sources inside the PGA Tour have said a new schedule will offer some sort of "playoff race" that would include a handful of tournaments that follow the year's final major and that lead to the Tour Championship.
Where does that leave the Canadian Open?
The powers that be at the RCGA insist the tournament isn't in danger of disappearing. Bell Canada is still on board, though placing a company's name on a national golf tournament does diminish its power. Can anyone imagine the Cialis British Open, for example?
The Canadian Open would benefit greatly if it became part of Finchem's playoff race but it could also see its date moved, something the RCGA has been attempting to accomplish for some time. The only concern with a switch to an earlier summer date is that the event could once more get lost among the tournaments that follow the U.S. Open and the British Open. However, it is hard to imagine how a move earlier in the calendar could actually draw a weaker field than the lacklustre crew that currently comes to the tournament.
The biggest benefit the tournament would see from a July or August date is that the Canadian Open could be moved more easily to locations such as Calgary and the East Coast. Right now, with the exception of the jaunt to Vancouver once a decade, the Canadian Open is really set to move between Ontario and Quebec, especially as the RCGA prepares to move the tournament to a course being built by Tom Fazio in Terrebonne, Que., a suburb of Montreal, for the 2008 event.
Of course, all of this talk about a new date could amount to nothing. That would leave the Canadian Open in its current position -- a well-attended tournament without anything to draw the top players to our country. That would surely be fine for some.
But if status quo is the answer, how long can it be before spectators tire of watching a bunch of journeymen and the occasional star? How long before they stop attending the tournament and corporate dollars go elsewhere?
If that happens, watch out -- because the Canadian Open, an event that has been part of Canadian culture for a century, could just as easily disappear.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Thunder Bay pro makes the grade

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece in the National Post about the struggles of Alan McLean, a big, long hitting South African who was having a tough time making a dime on the Nationwide Tour despite having a lot of talent. And when I say he was having a "tough time," what I really mean is that he wasn't making any money. None. Notta.
Still, he hit the ball just about as well as anyone I've played with, including the likes of Stuart Appleby and Kirk Triplett. Alan pounds the ball.
Well Alan finally made a breakthrough in Calgary on the weekend, finishing seventh on what was apparently a pretty tough course. He won just over US$14,000 for his trouble, which is nice because I'm sure he needed the money.
So what does this breakthrough mean? I haven't spoken with Alan, but maybe this is the boost of confidence he needed after struggling through a terrible slump. Maybe this propels him to greater things. We'll see....

Saturday, September 03, 2005

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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