Reed On The Greens: Canada Life Championship

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reed On The Greens April 18, 2018
Canada Life Championship Breathes Life Into Highland Tournament
by Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioGolf.com

In professional sports – in particular pro golf where title sponsorship is everything – smart branding is the engine that drives success.

In the case of the Mackenzie Tour PGA Tour Canada’s season-ending championship at Highland Country Club, the host committee must now start from scratch while relying on four years of experience under the moniker, Freedom 55 Financial Championship.

But thus far, the transition appears to be as smooth as butter.

Today, the Mackenzie Tour officially announced its flagship event, this year slated for Sept. 9-15 at Highland, will be known as the Canada Life Championship. Following the announcement that Great-West Life, London Life and Canada Life are coming 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, changes its name from Freedom 55 Financial Open to Canada Life Open.

Falling in line, new names are now in place for 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 2013-established Freedom 55 Financial Canadian Player of the Year award – the Dan Halldorson Trophy – and the $25,000 bonus that goes along with it, placing 16th on the Mackenzie Tour’s season-ending Order of Merit in the process.

Gligic, 29, won the Web.com Tour’s Panama Championship in February.

This year marks the fifth year for the now-named Canada Life Championship at Highland. It was contested for at London’s Sunningdale Golf and Country Club in 2013 and 2014.

Both Highland and Canada Life are on board as host and title sponsor through 2020.

Name Change

Justin Wismer. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

When the switch was flipped today to reflect the new tournament name, the transition was seamless minus the unveiling of a new tourney logo and updated website. Social media platforms reflected the new tourney moniker instantaneously. According to host committee chair Justin Wismer, requesting that logo will be a priority when the club, Canada Life and the Mackenzie Tour converse via conference call next Tuesday.

“That’s really the most important thing we’re going to ask for. We’d like to have it by May 1 but obviously the ball is in their court,” Wismer said.

Ed. Note May 6, 2019: The new logo was unveiled today. See below.

Canada Life will foot the bill for all re-branding costs, including the tournament website relaunch and all printing and signage which will reflect the Canada Life Championship rebranding, Wismer explained.

“Canada Life has been so important to the Tour’s success, and we are thrilled to continue our partnership in two great markets,” said Mackenzie Tour Vice President Scott Pritchard of the two events with Canada Life title sponsorship.

Since 2014, the now-named Canada Life Open has served as the opening event on the Mackenzie Tour season, and has been hosted each year at Point Grey Golf Club. Canada Life Open has helped raise more than $120,000 for Canucks For Kids, the tournament’s official charity. Joel Dahmen, the tournament’s first winner, went on to win Mackenzie Tour Player of the Year honours and has competed on the PGA Tour since 2017.

Since 2013, the now-named Canada Life Championship has raised more than $172,000 for various charities in the London area, with Childcan becoming the official charity in 2018. It returns as official charity this year after receiving $40,000 from Highland last September.

Childcan 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. Part of that 2018 fundraising effort involved the 1st annual BDO Million Dollar Shootout, which returns in the same format this year, according to Wismer, but with a new title sponsor to be named soon.

“It would be great to have the Canada Life Million Dollar Shootout. We’ll see what happens,” Wismer said.

F55F Championship raised $40,000 for Childcan. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

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 outgoing Mackenzie Tour President Jeff Monday. “Along with our umbrella sponsor, Mackenzie Investments, we’re proud to support each of these causes and would like to recognize the volunteers and local sponsors who’ve made it possible to surpass $1 million in donations again this year.”

Glass Half Full

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.

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.

The tournament’s future in London is also bantered about constantly. There are no guarantees in life, especially when it comes to sports and money. Yet despite the naysayers nipping at the tournament’s heels, the Highland host committee is working hard year-round to convince Londoners to fully embrace the championship.

World-class golf again comes to London for a seventh year in September. Local charities and the local economy continue to benefit from the week-long event. A global golf audience focuses on the Forest City. And seeds are planted for the future, whether that means junior golfers inspired to achieve greatness on the links, or future economic development stemming from new visitors to London.

According to Wismer, the host committee has an early jump this year on connecting with corporate sponsors and the community. He agrees there will be an added education process to let local golf fans know about the tournament name change, but he sees no problems moving forward.

2018’s Top-5 Order of Merit Winners at Highland. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

“I’ll know better next week when we have our meeting with (Canada Life) but I think there’s going to be some co-branding for a period of time to allow people to recognize the (Freedom 55 Financial) brand we’ve already created for such a long period of time, and the association with Canada Life.

“It’s a good roll-out for us,” Wismer said of the rebranding. “We’ve been working hard. We have our full marketing packages already completed. We’ve already been meeting with potential sponsorship people. So we’re really ahead of the game.”

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.

The Five – those who finish top five on the Mackenzie Tour’s season-ending Order of Merit – earned full status on the Web.com Tour. They included (in order of finish): Tyler McCumber of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., who topped the money list with $139,300; Cunningham of Tucson, Ariz.; Zach Wright of Phoenix, Ariz.; Corey Pereira of Mission Viejo, Calif.; and Michael Gellerman, also of Tucson.

Although the gallery numbered in the hundreds on Thursday and Friday, it was a vast improvement over the first three years of the tournament at Highland. Saturday was a huge letdown. The hole-in-one contest drew about 200 onlookers, but there weren’t that many more in the gallery all day. Weekend attendance was a huge disappointment, especially since the host committee gave away free tickets, an effort they’re continuing in 2019 along with media partner Classic Rock 98.1 FM.

Sunday’s 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.

Corporate Inclusion

Before you judge, consider that the Canada Life Championship is one of the more heavily-attended events on the Mackenzie Tour. When you don’t have a marquee name in the field whom the casual fan would recognize, then you must rely on corporate attendees. Wismer agreed that securing more corporate partners in 2019 is a real key to boosting attendance.

Monday said he believes there’s hope yet for the championship gate.

Outgoing Mackenzie Tour President Jeff Monday. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

“(Highland) has really put a good plan together, getting the word out more – getting out into the community more. That’s one of the benefits of having (Highland) running the tournament. Golf Canada (who ran the tournament prior to 2017) worked really hard, but they didn’t have a year-round presence.

“We know it takes time,” Monday added, “but as long as you’re getting better each year, then you’re moving in the right direction. That’s what we’re most excited about. Last year was a big learning curve for them. Even though they hosted it (prior to 2017), they didn’t run it.”

Monday said promoting the Canada Life Championship as a breeding ground for future PGA Tour stars like Aaron Wise is the best method for growing this event. The Las Vegas resident was voted the PGA Tour’s 2018 Rookie of the Year. He finished third at Highland in 2016, and was No. 4 on the season-ending Order of Merit. Wise finished 17th at last week’s Masters Tournament.

“Take the London Knights. What they do know in this community is, these are players we’re going to see someday in the NHL. The Knights have developed that brand. And that’s pretty much where we are. We’re almost the equivalent of the Knights in golf. It’s a hockey community, but it’s also a golf community,” Monday said.

“We’ve always thought (the Canada Life Championship) had some potential. 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,” Monday said. “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.”

Highland’s original deal with the Mackenzie Tour called for hosting duties through 2019, while title sponsor, London-headquartered Freedom 55 Financial, had already secured title sponsorship through 2020. That one-year difference between agreements left a black cloud over the tournament, with many wondering about the championship’s future.

“Freedom 55 Financial had an option to continue through 2019 and 2020. They exercised their option. So there was a chance that if Freedom 55 didn’t exercise their option, then we would have had the tournament at Highland in 2019 but without Freedom 55 as title sponsor,” Pritchard explained.

Scott Pritchard. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

“We had to wait for one chip to fall before the other,” Pritchard said of the Highland extension through 2020. (With Freedom 55 on board), it allowed us to speak to Highland about moving forward under the same term as the title sponsor.”

Pritchard said with Highland now playing host through 2020, that deal is “coterminous with the title sponsorship. And that’s an ideal situation for us.”

Highland general manager Leo Larizza said, “No one wanted this tournament to move before the title sponsorship agreement ended. Now, it just makes sense and puts everything in line.”

One rumoured destination has been Windsor, which hosted the tour’s inaugural Windsor Championship last July. With weekly attendance around 6,000 fans (the Tour said 2,500 could be expected during its charter year), more than 100 local businesses supporting the event and $50,000 from the City of Windsor (with $40,000 promised for 2019 and another $30,000 in 2020), the full-field tournament was an enormous success.

Tourism London, on the other hand, handed the 2018 F55F Championship $5,000, in addition to in-kind contributions. Pritchard said Windsor, too, contributes in-kind.

According to Pritchard, there’s no truth to the rumour that Windsor is auditioning for the job of hosting the F55F Championship. But he did say other golf clubs, including Whistle Bear Golf Club in Cambridge, have enquired about hosting.

Larizza hinted he sees Osprey Valley, just north of Toronto, as a threat to steal the F55F Championship. Osprey Valley is a collection of three courses designed by Canadian golf course architect Doug Carrick. It has joined the PGA Tour’s TPC Network of premier golf facilities as TPC Toronto at Osprey Valley, and is the first TPC property in Canada.

Highland Upgraded, Earns Accolades

Highland’s par-3 No. 12.

The Stanley Thompson-designed Highland Country Club (est. 1922) is in the midst of a bunker restoration project under Canadian golf course architect Ian Andrew. It was Andrew who oversaw the renovation of Highland’s bunkers two decades ago. Prior to Andrew, course architect Rene Muylaert of Strathroy handled a makeover of the club’s bunkers.

“It’s a restoration of my own 20-year-old work,” Andrew said. “It was always one of my favourite projects where I remained happy with the results years after.” Said Pritchard, “(The bunker restoration) will be good for the members, and good for the players in the (Canada Life) Championship.”

Last fall, 10 bunkers at Highland saw the introduction of new sand, new liners promoting improved drainage, and reshaping for improved maintenance, aesthetics and play, according to Highland head golf superintendent Greig Barker. He said with the project under budget, it may be completed during Phase 2 beginning Oct. 1, rather than over three stages ending in 2020. Work at holes No. 3-5, 7-8, 11 and 13-14 remain.

Mike Kutcher. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com.

At every Mackenzie Tour event, one week in advance, the tour’s coordinator of tournament operations and administration, Mike Kutcher, visits the host club in order to familiarize himself with the land while exploring every possible rules decision. At Highland, that means meeting with Barker, discussing green speed, rough height and tee boxes, as well as considering out of bounds areas, hazards and everything that may call for a ruling.

But according to Kutcher, he’s on automatic pilot during his advance work at Highland, which he called “the best-conditioned golf course” on the Mackenzie Tour.

“Coming back to a place where we’ve been before, and knowing what Greig Barker does from previous years, we know what we’re getting even before we get here,” Kutcher said. “It’s an easy job for me here. And the golf course lends itself to that. It’s easy because Greig keeps it in good shape. And (head golf professional) Rick Pero and his team do everything they can to make sure the golf course is run right from a management standpoint.”

With everything in place, including a fresh tournament name, the Highland host committee hopes more London and area golf fans visit the club’s friendly confines for this year’s championship.

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2019 Canada Life Championship
September 9-15
Course: Highland Country Club
Format: 72 holes stroke play
Field: Top 60 players on Order of Merit
Purse: $225,000, winner’s share $40,500
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Pro-Am, BDO Million Dollar Shootout, Volunteer, Sponsorship and Ticket Information at https://freedom55financialchampionship.com

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