News & Opinion

Canada unfurls northern route to big-time

To all but one observer, two of the players who hooked up coincidentally for a practice round at the 2017 Waste Management Phoenix Open appeared to have very little in common.
At 50, Wisconsin’s Steve Stricker had won a dozen times on the PGA Tour and was a stalwart Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup veteran.

Taiwan’s C.T. Pan was half of Stricker’s age. After a stellar amateur career during which Pan was ranked as the world’s top amateur in 2013, he was trying to make a similar splash as a pro.

eb2c9a94-b4b8-46cd-9e5f-791f464ffd8e_600x450.jpg
COURTESY OF BRIAN DECKER/PGA TOUR CANADA
C.T. Pan (left), formerly the top-ranked amateur in the world, shares a link with Steve Stricker, as well as many others en route to the PGA Tour, through Canada.

COURTESY OF BRIAN DECKER/PGA TOUR CANADA
C.T. Pan (left), formerly the top-ranked amateur in the world, shares a link with Steve Stricker, as well as many others en route to the PGA Tour, through Canada.

“I walked up to them on the fourth hole and asked, ‘Do you guys know what you have in common?” recalled Brian Decker, media official for the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada.

They had no clue.

“I said, ‘It’s Canada.’ ”

For those two players, their experiences up north were as disparate as their ages and their resumes.  

Almost three decades ago, Stricker, then a struggling pro, won twice in Canada.

In 2015, Pan won in Canada in only his fourth start as a pro.

Decker’s memory will resonate with notable Canadian Tour alumni such as Paul Casey, winner of the recent Valspar Championship; 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir; Stephen Ames, winner of the 2006 Players Championship; 2005 U.S. Open winner Michael Campbell; 2004 British Open champ Todd Hamilton; Arron Oberholser; Chris DiMarco; Kirk Triplett; Dave Barr; Adam Hadwin; Mackenzie Hughes; Corey Conners; Graham DeLaet and dozens of other PGA Tour regulars from Canada and around the world.

When Stricker turned pro in 1990, the circuit north of the border, then called the Canadian Professional Golf Tour, was trying to breathe life back into an entity that had stumbled a decade previously after title sponsor Peter Jackson, a cigarette company, had departed in anticipation of a ban on tobacco sponsorship of sporting events in Canada.

With the tour lacking a title sponsor and any semblance of leadership, Canadian pro Ken Tarling stepped up in 1982. With the support of the PGA of Canada, he formed the Tournament Players Division under that association’s umbrella.

Tarling cobbled together a tenuous and ever-shifting collage of provincial opens, pro-ams and other seemingly disparate events to provide an opportunity for aspiring pros to ply their trade in the hope of jumping to the PGA Tour.

A couple of years later, Bob Beauchemin was hired as the TPD’s first president. He and his wife, Maggie, launched a series of six events across a vast country, organized at first from the basement of their home in Brampton, Ontario.

Six. Across Canada. From their basement.

In hindsight, the logistics are laughable.

There are numerous anecdotes of players chipping in to buy a used car at the start of the tour on the West Coast, driving it with their compatriots to stops across Canada, sleeping in the car or at billets, and then abandoning it in the parking lot at the Toronto airport when the tour wrapped up. Such was the glamorous life of touring pros back in the day.

Like Tarling, Beauchemin had played intermittently on the PGA Tour and wanted, with his limited resources, to re-create that 72-hole experience at his tournaments. It was a creditable effort but an uphill fight.

Twenty-five years ago, Stricker won the 1993 Canadian PGA Championship at Credit Valley Golf and Country Club, just outside Toronto. (It will return there this summer.) His wife, Nicki, was his caddie. They were struggling because his last victory was three years earlier, at an event in British Columbia. They cashed a check for $18,000 (CAD) for the CPGA victory, the same amount that Weir would collect that year for his first big title, the Infiniti Championship, on his home tour. They would go on to bigger things, as would many others.

The tour struggled in the ensuing years but managed to stay afloat until, fortuitously, the PGA Tour acquired it in 2012. Now, as a result, the top five players on the tour earn Web.com Tour cards, with diminishing, yet encouraging, opportunities for those further down the money list.

The tour now is formally known as the Mackenzie Tour PGA Tour Canada, thanks to sponsorship from Mackenzie Financial.

With a dozen events this season, each with a minimum $200,000 (CAD) purse, the once-fringe tour has blossomed. For evidence, look no further than enrollment for its five qualifying schools, which started this month and are being held in Arizona, California, Florida and British Columbia.

“We now are seen as the first rung on the ladder to the PGA Tour,” said Scott Pritchard, the Canadian tour’s vice president. “More than 650 players signed up for our Q-schools in less than three minutes, and we’ve got at least 100 on the waiting list.”

On a personal note, I recall helping the Beauchemins stuff envelopes (in their basement, of course) with invitations to prospective qualifying-school applicants in the late 1980s. Pleading might be too strong of a word.

Back then, in my role as managing editor of Canada’s national golf magazine, SCOREGolf, I published the tour’s media guide. At times, it was like assembling a witness-protection roster. But covering the sparsely attended qualifying schools in Ontario, I saw some of the players who would go on to stardom and followed Stricker when he won the CPGA Championship in ’93.

So, it is with no small measure of pride that I see the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada thrive these days. No longer is it perceived as a remote northern outpost, a last-chance potential springboard to the big show.

“Our tour now is first and foremost when players are turning pro,” Pritchard said. “This is the first place they look to start their careers. It’s a great authentic experience, played on great courses across the country.”

John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email:  gordongolf@outlook.com;  Twitter: @gordongolf