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JON MCCARTHY: New date, new identity for Canadian Open?

Brooks Koepka of the United States celebrates winning on the 18th green during the final round of the US PGA Championship at Bethpage Black Golf Course on May 19, 2019 in Farmingdale, United States.
Brooks Koepka of the United States celebrates winning on the 18th green during the final round of the US PGA Championship at Bethpage Black Golf Course on May 19, 2019 in Farmingdale, United States.

HAMILTON , Ont.– The RBC Canadian Open’s new date is a clear winner, its new identity is a work in progress.

Thursday at Hamilton Golf and Country Club, the third oldest tournament on the PGA Tour – after the U.S. and British Opens – will tee off with its strongest field in a generation. Rory McIlroy makes his Canadian debut alongside major championship collector Brooks Koepka, defending champ Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Bubba, Sergio, and every Canadian golfer you can name plus a few you can’t.

The bump in field strength has plenty to do with next week’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. After years of giving top players a great reason not to come to Canada – holding the tournament the week after the British Open – the RBC Canadian Open is much more attractive, especially for top players looking to compete the week before a major.

The increased star power is great for the tournament’s relevance and the new date in early June attracts fans at a time of year that optimism for sunshine reaches its peak. The new slogan “Summer’s Open” taps nicely into Canadian’s primal desire for Muskoka chairs, adult beverages, and sunburns.

If the struggle for relevance is in the rearview mirror, the hunt for an identity has gotten slightly more complicated. There has always been a contingent of golf fans and analysts that want our national open to play like, well, a national open. Make it hard, make it fast, grow the rough. But would players come to Canada to get their brains beat in the week before having their brains beat in at the U.S. Open? Probably not. Plus, the PGA Tour will always have its say.

Many players are playing in Hamilton this week with an eye towards Pebble Beach. Brooks Koepka, who will be shooting for a three-peat at the U.S. Open next week seems to have both eyes trained on the season’s third major.

“You know, it doesn’t really matter about the result,” Koepka said of his trip to Canada. “I could care less what happens. I just want to feel good going into next week.”

Terminator 2019 doesn’t mince words. Koepka said he picked up a club on Tuesday for the first time since winning the PGA Championship last month. He played nine holes at Hamilton on Wednesday and will see the back nine for the first time during round one.

Four-time major champion McIlroy is also known for his brutal honesty, and also will head into the first round having only played Hamilton’s front nine. Both players said that based on what they have seen of the course – tight off the tee, lush rough, firm greens – it will be a good warm-up for Pebble Beach. The Irishman, however, views the RBC Canadian Open in a kinder light.

“Obviously this isn’t just a preparation week,” McIlroy said. “This is a very prestigious tournament, one of the oldest tournaments in the world that I would dearly love to be able to add my name to. I’m fully focused on this week, but knowing that if I play well here, this week, and have good control of my ball and my distance control, that will serve me well going into next week.”

McIlroy has a knack for national opens, having won the U.S. Open, British Open, Irish Open and Australian Open. After meeting with the media on Wednesday, the 30-year-old walked and took notes for a few holes on the back nine with a putter and a couple wedges before a heavy storm soaked the course and chased him off.

For the Canadians in the field, this week is an entirely different animal. There are few tournaments in the world that would rival what a win on home soil would mean to Adam Hadwin, Corey Conners, Mackenzie Hughes or any Canadian in the field.

“You could almost make an argument that it might be more valuable than even a PGA (Championship) to a Canadian,” Hadwin said, before explaining that could change now that the PGA also has a new and improved date. “Certainly might be more valuable than a WGC event for sure.”

Hadwin said he was inspired watching Brooke Henderson win the CP Women’s Open in Saskatoon last year. Canada’s top-ranked golfer is looking forward to the day he will no longer be asked about Pat Fletcher’s 1954 Canadian Open victory, but said this could be the toughest tournament for him to win being so busy off the course.

So, what have we learned? Depending who you ask, the RBC Canadian Open is either a rising PGA tour stop, a warmup-up event, a prestigious national open, or the Holy Grail.

The new date means we are squarely in the shadow of our big neighbour’s national open, but the great field suggests there are benefits in that. By moving away from a relatively uninspiring Glen Abbey to Hamilton and St. George’s for four of the next six years, the RBC Canadian Open is putting its best foot forward. There is heightened confidence the tournament is on a great trajectory, but that won’t stop us from watching anxiously to see how the golf world reacts.

None of this clears up the tournament’s identity, but it sure sounds Canadian.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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