Reed On The Greens: Canada Life Championship Dollars


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Analysis:
Canada Life Championship About Dollars, Entertainment, Civic Pride And Charity
by Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioGolf.com

Make no mistake about it: the Canada Life Championship September 9-15 at Highland Country Club is much more than a golf tournament – the season-ending championship for the Mackenzie Tour PGA Tour Canada.

In fact, the Mackenzie Tour’s flagship event focuses equally on professional golf – two rungs below the PGA Tour – and on economics intertwining the host club, the Tour, the title sponsor and the official charity, Childcan.

And when you get right down to it, the tournament is all about money. Other than the entertainment provided by the field of 60 who top the Mackenzie Tour’s Order of Merit, it is economics that drive this event.

And that’s not a bad thing at all. It is, after all, professional sports. And this is the longest-running big-time pro sports ticket which has called London its permanent home, surpassing the 1989-1993 stay for the Class AA Eastern League London Tigers.

But there are no guarantees in professional sports. The Tigers left for Trenton, New Jersey. And while all parties involved love having Highland as Canada Life Championship host, there is no guarantee it will remain at Highland following 2020, when inked agreements between the Tour, Highland, title sponsor Canada Life and Tour title sponsor Mackenzie Investments all expire.

Highland Country Club’s No. 9 hole. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

This is the fifth year Highland hosts the tournament after Sunningdale Golf and Country Club played host in 2013-14. There’s a much different feeling to this year’s seventh running of the championship. All involved are much more business oriented, speaking more like corporate CEOs trumpeting accolades for shareholders than golf promoters. We saw that on media day at Highland in late-August, when Highland committee members and representatives from the Tour and Canada Life teed up a much more collective stoic face than one joyous over the arrival of another championship tournament.

The training wheels are off for Highland, which assumed many of the tournament hosting duties from Golf Canada in 2017, and thus there’s a noticeable difference in the way the host committee is going about its business.

To Highland’s credit, this is the way it should have been when it first hosted the tournament in 2015. Just like the players trying to golf their way onto the Korn Ferry Tour and eventually the PGA Tour, Highland has had to learn on the job before putting forth its best effort.

And by all accounts, this year’s tournament appears to be a well-oiled machine, with nothing left to chance. Corporate hospitality offerings are sold out – and there’s a much larger emphasis put on the corporate side this year. The number of pro-am team sales have increased. And there will be a much more professional, cleaner presence – including signage – this year at Highland, according to Mackenzie Tour Vice President Scott Pritchard.

Now all that’s missing is cooperation from Mother Nature, and a larger four-day gallery, in particular bigger crowds on championship Sunday. But in this article, tournament chair Justin Wismer said he had all but given up on hoping for bigger crowds.

With a total purse of $225,000 (winner’s share $40,500), the rebranded Canada Life Championship (formerly Freedom 55 Financial Championship) will determine the top five finishers on the Order of Merit who will receive full status on the Korn Ferry Tour.

Danny Walker wins 2018 Freedom 55 Financial Championship. Photo: Claus Andersen/MacKenzie Tour.

Last year, Danny Walker of Bradenton, Fla. shot a final-round 6-under 64 for a score of 19-under-par, and a two-stroke victory over fellow Americans George Cunningham and Jonathan Garrick. Walker posted rounds of 63-68-66-64—261.

Following the April announcement that Great-West Life, London Life and Canada Life would come together under one brand in the Canadian market as Canada Life, the tournament name change was a no-brainer.

The tour’s season-opening event, May 20-26 at Point Grey Golf and Country Club in Vancouver, changed its name from Freedom 55 Financial Open to Canada Life Open.

Falling in line, new names are now in place for the Mackenzie Tour’s Canada Life Canadian Player of the Week awards, and Canada Life Canadian Player of the Year Award. Last September at Highland, Michael Gligic of Burlington, Ont. won the Canadian Player of the Year award – the Dan Halldorson Trophy – and the $25,000 bonus that goes along with it.

Michael Gligic with Dan Halldorson Trophy. Photo: Claus Andersen/MacKenzie Tour.

In February, Gligic captured the Korn Ferry Tour’s Panama Championship. He is one of three players who competed at Highland in 2018 who have earned full status on the PGA Tour next season. Last year’s Mackenzie Tour player of the year, Tyler McCumber of Florida, and Michael Gellerman of Arizona, are also headed to the big Tour.

“Literally, these guys have earned PGA Tour status within 11 months of playing in London,” said Pritchard. “Since we started in 2013 (with a rebranded Canadian Tour), we’ve had 38 players make it to the PGA Tour, and the majority have played here in London.”

Yet despite the star power – rather, stars of tomorrow – the turnstiles haven’t exactly turned at Highland. I’ve written almost ad nauseam about the lack of interest amongst local golf fans during the tournament’s seven-year run. As I wrote in this article, in today’s ever-changing world, anything that lasts seven years is worth celebrating. Yet despite the fact the Mackenzie Tour’s season-ending championship has put down roots in the Forest City, many Londoners have adopted the glass-half-empty approach when defining the tournament’s success.

Sunday 18th hole gallery at last year’s Freedom 55 Financial Championship. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

Most of that negativity stems from the fact that the size of the gallery at Highland more resembles a family reunion than a crowd watching future stars of the PGA Tour. Last year’s final-round attendance by multiple estimations was about 500, with about 300 gathered around the 18th green during the trophy presentation. The ceremony gallery numbered about 1,000 in 2017, and 1,400 in 2016. The weather was perfect during the entire week of last year’s tournament, but with avid golfers out enjoying the links perhaps that’s a big part of the problem.

“(Highland General Manager) Leo (Larizza) had a good point,” said Pritchard. “The measure of success is not attendance. From our perspective, would we like more people to be there? For sure. (The host club) is working hard in the community, with the Million Dollar Shootout.”

This is the second year for the Million Dollar Shootout at Highland. Preliminaries were held this summer at more than 20 local golf clubs and practice facilities. Those who qualified will hit from 150 yards onto No. 18 green (last year, No. 9 was used) following play on Saturday, September 14. The participant closest to the pin at No. 18 will win a European cruise, while the top three will attempt to ace the par-3 10th hole for a chance at a million bucks.

About 200 people gathered to watch last year’s Million Dollar Shootout at Highland Country Club. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

Tournament chair Justin Wismer said not only does the contest provide a fun, hands-on fan experience, but also it raises the profile of the tourney, and raises money for official charity Childcan through $10 entry fees.

In 2018, the Canada Life Championship raised a total of $40,000 for Childcan, which raises funds to provide responsive and compassionate support services to families facing the journey through childhood cancer – from diagnosis, through treatment, to recovery or bereavement.

“Highland has done an amazing job with engaging with other private – and public – facilities in the region, not only helping grow awareness of the event, but also awareness of Childcan. So from my perspective, it has been a great partnership (with Highland),” Pritchard said.

“But we’d love to have a lot of people there, and we’re doing our best. As it is with the Korn Ferry Tour and other tours that struggle with attendance, we keep trying to grow through word of mouth. And we like to think that with this being our flagship event, we’re doing a good job.”

Many Korn Ferry tournaments pale by comparison to Highland’s gate. Consider this fact: household names on the LPGA Tour saw the 2006 CN Women’s Open at London Hunt and Country Club attract 65,000 fans, while just eight years later the 2014 CP Women’s Open at London Hunt saw only 16,500 in attendance.

Golf-savvy patrons appreciate the Mackenzie Tour visiting Highland, but non-golf fans don’t, and that’s where the problem lies in attracting bigger crowds. The Mackenzie Tour’s Windsor Championship, for example, is an exception, attracting about 4,000 fans this year and about 6,000 during its first year in 2018. The Tour said 2,500 could be expected during its charter year.

The Windsor tourney also has about 100 local businesses supporting the event, as well as $90,000 from the City of Windsor during its freshman and sophomore seasons, with another $30,000 coming in 2020.

For a second straight year, Tourism London will give host club Highland a token $5,000. Sadly, the City’s tourism arm failed to send a representative to media day, as was billed by the host committee. That is nothing short of ignorance.

Scott Pritchard. Photo: PGA TOUR.

Pritchard is proud of the fact that since 2013, the now-named Canada Life Championship has raised more than $172,000 for various charities in the London area. In total, the Mackenzie Tour raised more than $1 million for charity in 2018, surpassing the million-dollar mark for the third consecutive season and bringing the total donated to charity since the tour’s 2013 launch to more than $4.1 million.

“Making a positive impact in the communities where we play is a significant focus of each and every tournament under the PGA Tour umbrella, and we’re thrilled to see the work Mackenzie Tour events have done to make a difference in people’s lives,” said retiring Mackenzie Tour President Jeff Monday.

According to Canada Life regional vice president John McCabe, it is important that Highland (est. 1922) is the home of the Canada Life Championship, given the fact both the club and the company are deeply committed to giving back to the London community.

“The fact that we share the same values is really the important thing for us,” said McCabe. “We have lots of opportunities – and a lot of people have asked us for money, and contributions – to get involved in the community. And a lot of this was spearheaded by Mike Cunneen (senior vice president independent distribution and wholesaling, Great-West Life, Canada Life, London Life) when we started this (title sponsorship).

“We can write a cheque anytime we want, and say, here’s $50,000, here’s $100,000,” said McCabe, “but (it’s important) for us to get involved with the community and the volunteers, and to know we’re making a difference.”

As for the future of the tournament, Pritchard said, “We have a great relationship with Canada Life. We’re always looking at the future. We haven’t had any discussions to this point. We’ll start those discussions once the event is over (next week).

“We’ve invested more into the event,” Pritchard added. “Amy Roberts (who heads Mackenzie Tour tournament business affairs) has spent about half of her time working not only with Highland, but with Canada Life during the (rebranding) transition. And we’re quite flattered that Canada Life is using two of our events (in Vancouver and in London) as a platform to grow that brand, and tell the story about the brand unification.”

While sponsorship changes and updates are perpetual, so, too, are changes in economics for mainstream media. Only colleague Paul Vanderhoeven of The London Free Press joined yours truly at this year’s tournament launch. There was no local television coverage, and no other golf media present.

2019 Order of Merit leader and 2016 Freedom 55 Financial Championship winner Paul Barjon returns to Highland Country Club Sept. 9-15. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

While most media missed the boat on this one, it would be unfortunate if local golf fans missed this year’s tournament. Forget the fact Tiger, Phil, Brooks and Rory aren’t in the field. Great golf is great golf.

Tickets are free at the gate during tournament week, but Highland is encouraging donations for Childcan at the main gate during the week. All donations above $10 will be entered into a draw with the winner receiving a Porsche for a weekend.

But this is, after all, professional sports, and pro sports is show business. It will always be a tough chore to convince local golf fans that free admission will put you up close and personal with some of the best in the business with a golf club in their hands. If there’s no Tiger Woods or Brooke Henderson in the field, then you’re stymied even before the ceremonial first tee shot.

But as I wrote in this column, the Canada Life Championship’s success should not be judged by attendance. That’s a fool’s game. As McCabe said, it’s about giving back to the community.

“We’ve always thought (the Canada Life Championship) had some potential,” said Monday. “I know there’s been some chatter about, ‘Should the season-ending event go here or there?’ But we believe this is the best place for it. You have (Canada Life) here as sponsor in their hometown, and a great golf course. And our preference is to build this to be the marquee event on the tour.”

Yes, it’s business for Highland, the Tour and Canada Life. But there’s nothing wrong with that.

Canada Life Championship tournament chair Justin Wismer (left) and Highland CC ambassador and former head golf professional Mike Silver (right) with 2018 top-five Order of Merit finishers who graduated to Korn Ferry Tour. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

If You Go:
2019 Canada Life Championship
September 9-15
Highland Country Club
72 holes stroke play
Top 60 players on Order of Merit
Purse $225,000, winner’s share $40,500
canadalifechampionship.com

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Reed On The Greens is a three-time writing award winner presented by the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Jeffrey Reed has been covering the Canadian golf scene since 1980. His third book, The Canadian Seniors’ Golf Association, Celebrating 100 Years of Seniors Golf 1918-2018, was published in 2018. He’s currently writing a biography of Sandy Somerville. Reach him at jeff@londonontariogolf.com.

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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989.