Scott Stinson: RBC Canadian Open was a smash-hit for the PGA Tour, but Saudi-backed rival league looms

The LIV Golf money is nuts, and it’s fair to wonder how many more top players could yet decide that it is too rich to pass up

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A decade ago, the final group at the RBC Canadian Open on Sunday included Robert Garrigus and William McGirt.

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It was not a showdown that set golf hearts aflutter. There was a great course, Hamilton Golf and Country Club, and the usual great crowds, but Canada’s national open was in the middle of a streak of journeymen leaderboards. Scott Piercy won that 2012 event when neither Garrigus nor McGirt could birdie the final hole. It had a decidedly minor-league feel.

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Sunday’s RBC Canadian Open was not that at all. Rory McIlory, Justin Thomas and Tony Finau shooting blistering rounds in the final group. Justin Rose with a final-day 60. A late charge from Canadian Corey Conners. It was the kind of finish that Golf Canada executives wouldn’t have allowed themselves to dream about not that long ago. Even though the tournament missed two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its date change, getting it away from the post-Open Championship week in July, has given it an undeniable jolt due to the much better field of players who aren’t taking a post-major down week.

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And yet, there is also no denying that the national men’s open was not the biggest story in golf. It was the best tournament, certainly, but it took place as the sport breaks off into an uncertain future in which a bottomless pit of Saudi money could yet deal the PGA Tour a crippling blow.

The LIV Golf International Series opening event outside London went about as could be expected. Charl Schwartzel, one of the few familiar names in the 48-player field due to his Masters win in 2011, won the three-day tournament. Just behind him were, erm, Hennie Du Plessis, Peter Uihlein and Brendan Grace. It is enough to make one wistful for Robert Garrigus and William McGirt.

The high-profile LIVers dutifully showed up. Dustin Johnson finished eighth, Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen were tied for 10th. Phil Mickelson, back in competition after his lengthy self-imposed exile, finished in 33rd. His Saudi benefactors could be forgiven for wondering if the reported US$200-million they paid him was maybe a bit much for someone who went 75-76 over the final two rounds.

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The whole exercise would have seemed entirely like a goofy exhibition — the team names like Crushers and Fireballs certainly gave that impression — were it not for the massive sums being handed out to participants. Schwartzel’s US$4.75-million haul is equal to about a fifth of what he had previously made in a 19-year professional career. Adrian Otaegui, ranked 168th in the world, finished sixth at the LIV event after shooting a not-exactly-thrilling 2-under, and earned US$800,000, which is US$200,000 more than Justin Thomas made for his podium finish in Toronto. Andy Ogletree, who is ranked 1,404th in the world, played in London, shot 82-77-75 to finish last, and still made US$120,000, which is about what world-number-one Scottie Scheffler pocketed for his 18th-place finish at the RBC Canadian Open.

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The LIV money is nuts, and it’s fair to wonder how many more top players could yet decide that the combination of easy prize money and whatever absurd riches Greg Norman and his royal Saudi friends throw at them is too rich to pass up.

McIlroy, in winning at St. George’s with a pair of closing birdies, ditched diplomacy on Sunday and said he was happy that his 21st PGA Tour victory gave him one more than Norman. He was still at it on Monday, writing on social media that the battle with players like Thomas and Finau “is what we dream about.”

“Going up against the best to bring out your best,” he wrote, a clear dig at the decision by some of his former Ryder Cup teammates and foes to opt for the guaranteed fat cheques of LIV Golf and a field that is light on Justin Thomases and heavy on Andy Ogletrees.

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I remain a LIV skeptic, largely because sports history is full of breakaway leagues that failed to generate public interest because the public was used to the league that was already there. Nothing about this series as presently constituted seems likely to appeal to golf fans, especially casual ones. Five of the eight events take place after Labour Day, when football season dominates the weekend sports calendar in both North America and Europe.

But Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are set to join LIV Golf at its next event in Oregon at the end of this month. Are there more major winners like them who were waiting to see what the fallout of the initial event was like before climbing aboard? If a couple of top-10 players make the switch, would that create the attention on LIV that the Saudis presumably want?

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Probably not. But it still wouldn’t be good for the PGA Tour. The more players it loses to the Saudi-backed Pro Golfers’ Yacht Fund, the more it hurts the individual events that need star power to keep people interested in the weekend leaderboards.

Those lean years of the RBC Canadian Open were instructive. The field was never bereft of stars, as there were always a few big names who showed up, especially if they were sponsored by a certain bank. But an overall weaker field increases the chances of a who-dat Sunday finish.

For a week, at least, the PGA Tour had the opposite experience. The next test begins June 30.

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