Marketing assets

Canadian Open and sponsor RBC move on without long-running tournament against Dustin Johnson

TORONTO – Laurence Appelbaum learned the news late May 31, three days before the full roster for the RBC Canadian Open was revealed.

Two-time major champion and RBC ambassador Dustin Johnson joined the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour. His name was on the list of golfers participating in the first event of the circuit, which took place the same week as the Canadian Open, from June 10-12.

When he heard the PGA Tour’s decision, Appelbaum, CEO of Golf Canada, was surprised and shocked.

“DJ had been so enthusiastic about his commitment to the PGA Tour about 60 days prior,” Appelbaum said. “And he was such an important part of the RBC team.”

RBC sponsored Johnson from 2018. That same year, Johnson won his first Canadian Open at Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville. He has become one of Team RBC’s iconic golfers, appearing at tournaments, his face plastered on promotional content and playing in advertisements advertising golf.

Johnson’s inclusion in LIV Golf contrasts with a statement he released in February pledging his allegiance to the PGA Tour. When he backtracked, tournament organizers were forced to adapt and pivot to an event without the former Canadian Open champion. After coming together to assess the impact, the message was clear.

The show must continue.

A day after Johnson joined the LIV Golf Tour, RBC ended its relationship with the American golfer. Any promotional material including Johnson was to be replaced. This included posters, billboards, banners and social media posts. Sources said Athleticism that Johnson was part of the commercial content that was to air during the tournament. After the announcement, marketing assets with Johnson were swapped.

Walk through St. George’s Golf and Country Club and Johnson’s image is nowhere to be found. The process of replacing everything DJing at the Canadian Open took just over 24 hours. According to a source, there was no impact on ticket sales following Johnson’s withdrawal.

“It could have been a killer blow over the last few years,” said Canadian Open tournament director Bryan Crawford. “We’ve actually gained momentum.”

For Appelbaum, he remains optimistic. His team is looking forward, undeterred by the absence of a player.

“We sell on the merits of our event, the merits of what we do, rather than the negative of what someone else might do,” Appelbaum said.

Johnson leaves behind an event ready to press play. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Canadian Open returns with a stacked field. Five of the world’s top 10 players are coming to Toronto, including Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, PGA champion Justin Thomas, Players champion Cameron Smith, Rory McIlroy and Sam Burns, three-time winner on tour this year. According to Twenty First Group, the top six golfers in strokes gained: total per round since February are competing, which includes Scheffler, McIlroy, Thomas, Smith, Shane Lowry and Matthew Fitzpatrick. McIlroy, Thomas and Scheffler headline the list of six great champions playing in Canada. Twenty Canadians will attempt to become the first local golfer since Pat Fletcher in 1954 to win their country’s premier golf tournament.

When Johnson won the Canadian Open, the tournament was held the week after The Open Championship. With the PGA Tour schedule change in 2019, the Canadian National Open takes place the week before the US Open. Golfers have a choice when it comes to preparing for the US Open. To play in Canada one week before or at the Jack Nicklaus Memorial Tournament two weeks before.

Thomas played the week before this year’s PGA Championship. He wanted to emulate that this week in Canada.

“I needed to see how I felt about PGA Week to see if it was something I wanted to do,” Thomas said. “Playing well at the PGA, it was better preparation for me to play the week before.”

The style of the golf courses hosting the Canadian Open suits many players. John Caven, general manager of St. George’s, said golfers will experience a traditional course designed by Stanley Thompson. It’s not the longest (7,014 yards), but the park-style course emphasizes finding fairways, fast greens, and avoiding thick rough.

Thomas said the traditional Country Club style at Brookline, host of the US Open next week, influenced his decision to play in Canada at St. George’s.

“Being as close as possible and being in very similar conditions, grass, all that kind of stuff, it just felt like a great addition to the schedule,” Thomas said.

At the golf course, the Canadian Open enjoys a noisy atmosphere. This year, the 16th at St. George’s, a par 3 of 204 yards, is the hole “The Rink”. Hockey boards surround the tee box, with fans banging on them to create a thunderous rumble.

According to Thomas, Canadian Open fans are passionate, like those in the northeastern United States.

“Not having it for a few years, they’re going to be excited, they’re going to be ready and they deserve it,” Thomas said. “Everyone in Canada and Toronto deserves it.”

Seeing the game’s best make the trip to Canada signals the growth of the event. In 2019, the Canadian Open had four golfers in the top 10. 2018 only had two. 2017 only one is Dustin Johnson.

The fact that the Canadian Open is able to attract the best golfers in golf elevates the importance of winning the tournament. As Scheffler said, the Canadian Open has “the best players in the world”.

“It’s a very high quality field,” Cameron Champ told Athleticism. “For us players, that’s what we want. We want the challenge. We want to play against the best.”

“It’s a huge tournament in itself, people want to come here to compete and try to win,” McIlroy said. “RBC’s involvement in the game, whether it’s in Hilton Head or here, the guys are getting to know RBC and the administration team. They are more present throughout the tour. I think you will continue to see this area be very strong in the future.

Corey Conners, the top-ranked Canadian, said the competitive field is the result of golfers wanting to be added to the tournament’s rich history. Dating back to 1904, several Hall of Fame golfers have won this event, including Sam Snead, Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.

“It’s a big part of your legacy to be able to call yourself a Canadian Open champion and a national champion,” said Conners.

The Canadian Open is no stranger to the changes that abound in professional golf. The future remains murky. Even McIlroy is confused about LIV Golf’s decision to start the same week as the Canadian Open.

“There’s a lot of things they’ve done that don’t make sense to me,” McIlroy said. “I think everything has to at least try to become more cohesive, and I think it was on a pretty good trajectory until that happened.”

The novelty and controversy of LIV’s funding sparks intrigue. The Canadian Open golf field generates superior competition.

The tournament hopes to draw fans to St. George’s from Thursday to Sunday, witnessing the rebirth of Canada’s national championship.

(Corey Conners top photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)