OAKVILLE, Ont. — Lee Trevino was one of the first professional golfers that caught my eye when I took up the sport as a young boy. He didn’t have Nick Faldo’s smooth swing, or Greg Norman’s golden locks, or Payne Stewart’s unique style. He wasn’t the tallest golfer, and he certainly wasn’t the longest hitter. But when my dad told me Trevino was struck by lightning and lived to tell the tale, I became fascinated by the one they call “Merry Mex.”
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one. With six major championships under his belt, Trevino is one of the most legendary names in the history of golf. And while his playing days may be long behind him, Trevino can still make his presence felt at Glen Abbey, where he won two of his three Canadian Open titles back in the late 1970s.
Trevino returned to the Oakville, Ontario course this week to take part in the festivities ahead of this year’s RBC Canadian Open. The wise folks at Golf Canada were surely counting on Trevino to drum up interest in this year’s tournament, and he came with one hell of a sales pitch.
“A lot of people don’t realize it … this is the third-oldest golf tournament in existence. There’s only two tournaments that are older than this and that’s the British Open, which was played last week, and the U.S. Open. I mean, this is just unbelievable!”
I can honestly tell you that I was one of the people who didn’t realize this. I knew the Canadian Open was old, but I was unaware that this tournament dates as far back as the turn of the 20th century — the first Canadian Open was played in 1904 and it’s been run annually ever since, except during WWI and WWII. And while it’s not a major, this tournament was once considered the third-most prestigious event in the game of golf. In fact, before it was moved to an undesirable September date in 1988, the Canadian Open was often referred to as the fifth major.
As one of only two golfers in history to win the Triple Crown — British Open, U.S. Open and Canadian Open titles in the same season — Trevino can never forget the significance of Canada’s national tournament. But it seems many Canadians have, including myself. The fact that I, a golf fan who was born and raised in Toronto, had never attended the Canadian Open despite the many tournaments that were held in my backyard was indicative of Trevino’s point.
So, with a quick history lesson from a 78-year-old golf legend, I made the trip southwest of Toronto to take in my first Canadian Open.
I had never been to Glen Abbey but I was immediately impressed. The signature 11th hole, a 459-yard par-4 where the tee box sits 100 feet above the fairway, is one of the most picturesque holes I have ever seen. There’s a reason why this course, designed by Jack Nicklaus in 1976, has been one of the top courses in the country for the last four decades.
But I was a little surprised to find that the crowds were almost equally as impressive. As I made my way up the driveway and into the course, I almost had to remind myself that attendance at this tournament had been struggling for years. Early indications seemed to suggest that this year’s star-studded field was a successful draw.
I started the day at the driving range and practice green, which — if you’re a golf fan — is worth the price of admission on its own. Watching professionals swing the club is a treat, but it’s the quirks of their practice routines that I’ve always found interesting. Rory Sabbatini, for example, likes to talk to his ball in practice — “get right, get right” — as if he were in the middle of his round.
Hitting balls right next to Sabbatini were Canadians Mike Weir and Adam Hadwin, dressed in their patriotic red and white for “Canada Day” at the Open — a fun tradition where fans and golfers are encouraged to wear Canada’s colours on Friday at the tournament.
I wasn’t there long before I spotted Dustin Johnson as he left the range to begin his second round. Johnson, along with Hadwin and Bubba Watson — who was also wearing his red and white — were the premier group of the first two rounds. The Canadian Open had certainly waned in the years since Tiger Woods’ epic win in 2001. With a late date on the summer schedule, one which falls just a week after the Open Championship, the Canadian Open had long struggled to attract the big-name players that’ll really draw a crowd. But with stars such as Johnson, Watson, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia, Matt Kuchar and Tommy Fleetwood, this year’s field is the strongest in recent memory.
I went with the main draw and decided to follow Johnson, Hadwin and Watson for the day, but clearly I wasn’t the only one. On the first tee I struggled to find a decent spot to watch the players tee off, and that was a consistent theme throughout the round. But I did manage to stretch my arm for a decent view of DJ’s shot at the first tee.
The ensuing holes were everything a golf fan could appreciate. Johnson was on fire, going -4 on the first five holes with an eagle on No. 2. Watson, on the other hand, struggled with three consecutive bogies on the front nine. Meanwhile Hadwin was steady if not spectacular, going -1 through the first nine. But my favourite part of their round together was the seventh hole.
They call it “the rink,” a 156-yard par-3 where the tee box is completely surrounded by hockey boards. I know, it’s a little cheesy, but it was fun. Fans would pound the boards as their favourite golfers would approach the tee. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, including the players. I saw Billy Horschel bend down to pick up a beer can that a woman had accidentally knocked over the boards. He made a quick joke, which I couldn’t hear from the other side of the boards, but the two laughed before Horschel gave the beer can back.
There was also an announcer who would introduce the golfers as they were “coming into the rink,” which seemed a little strange since the players were introduced just six holes prior, but Hadwin likely enjoyed another warm welcome at the tee box.
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The hockey theme continued at the seventh tee with a temporary roofed enclosure that they called “the penalty box.” It was a nice place for patrons to get out of the sun and enjoy a beer with a great view of the seventh tee and green, as well as the eighth tee. With the concession stand close by, I couldn’t help but purchase a beer and post up on one of the hockey-net table tops inside the enclosure.
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For the rest of the day I oscillated between Hadwin’s group and the group playing just ahead of them, which featured Kuchar, Kevin Kisner and Tony Finau. Five of the six golfers in these groups are currently ranked among the top 30 golfers in the world, and that’s a recipe that is sure to sell a few more tickets. But as the day went on I couldn’t help but wonder what the future has in store for this once-great tournament.
As Trevino explained, the Canadian Open is steeped in history and tradition, but I found that the recollection of the past isn’t nearly as exciting as the view of what’s to come. Beginning next year, the Canadian Open will move from late July to early June, a move that is anticipated to draw a lot more high-end talent to the tournament. Instead of falling after the Open Championship, forcing tired players to return from overseas and jump right back on the golf course, next year’s Canadian Open will replace the St. Jude Classic as the lead-in to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
“Field of Dreams” said it best: If you build it, they will come. And with an improved field that is only expected to get better in years to come, the wise folks at Golf Canada are building something that could relaunch the Canadian Open as the premier tournament that it once was.
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