TORONTO — Golf's ability to bring people together — while remaining socially distant and outdoors — raised it to new levels of popularity during the most intense periods of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for two years, Canadian golf fans weren't able to celebrate the new zenith of their sport en masse because of ongoing health and safety restrictions. Golf Canada had to cancel the RBC Canadian Open and CP Women's Open, the national men's and women's championships, in 2020 and 2021.
That changed last Thursday when the Canadian Open, the only PGA Tour event in Canada, was held for the first time after a three-year layoff.
"I just saw this joy, Canadians joyous about coming together," said Golf Canada CEO Laurence Applebaum on Monday. "Summer is open. We are really coming out of this pandemic.
"Opening up and just being together and that was so nice, to put a bow on golf."
Golf Canada said nearly 150,000 people attended the Canadian Open at St. George's Golf and Country Club over the course of the week.
Its business partnerships also grew from the last edition of the tournament. When Hamilton Golf and Country Club hosted the event in 2019 Golf Canada had nine corporate partners, but this year's version had 24 with 234 tents — a 31 per cent increase.
Just like 2019, title sponsor RBC also hosted a concert series, this time with rapper Flo Rida and pop group Maroon 5 headlining shows at nearby Richview Collegiate Institute on Friday and Saturday night respectively.
"It was three years in the making and it feels like we tried to cram three years of events into one," Applebaum said.
The event was not without its challenges, however.
St. George's Golf and Country Club is over 100 years old and the city of Toronto has grown around it. The club's main building and the course are cut off from each other by Islington Avenue and the thoroughfare had to be shutdown for the week-long event. Nearby Islington Golf Club was used as the Canadian Open's practice facility for the week, requiring golfers to be ferried up and down the road.
"It's the most spectacular golf course but with a four lane major road and needing to use a secondary property for the practice facility and a third partner for our off-site concert, all those sorts of things means that operational logistics were the most challenging part of the event without question," said tournament director Bryan Crawford. "It's a tight, small property in the heart of the city and that causes lots of challenges."
A direct challenge also presented itself the week before the event, with the upstart LIV Golf Invitational luring away some of the PGA Tour's biggest names to its inaugural event at the Centurion Club. The 40-man event ran in direct opposition to the Canadian Open.
The golfers in Toronto faced questions all week about their departed colleagues and fans were abuzz about what the Saudi-backed league would mean for the future of the sport.
"I think that people kind of took a 'forget you' kind of attitude, 'this is ours,'" said Crawford. "This is the best or the better product. We saw it. They're not even in the same stratosphere and I think that it was a really great way to come back."
One golf fan who took issue with the LIV event was Rory McIlroy, who repeated as Canadian Open champion on Sunday. He made a point of taking a shot at Greg Norman, the retired PGA Tour golfer who is running the rival league.
"I had extra motivation of what's going on across the pond," said McIlroy. "The guy that's spearheading that tour has 20 wins on the PGA Tour and I was tied with him and I wanted to get one ahead of him. And I did.
"So that was really cool for me, just a little sense of pride on that one."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 13, 2022.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press