Unprecedented field strength north of the border

June 5, 2019
Justin Ray

When men’s pro golf collectively agreed to re-arrange its marquee events in 2019, many rightly feared the negative impacts it could have on some tournaments.

Would one of the Florida Swing tournaments feel a scheduling squeeze? How would the BMW PGA Championship be impacted by the switch from May to September? Will players make a seamless jump from The Open to a WGC in Tennessee the following week?

One event that has unquestionably benefitted from the schedule change is this week’s PGA Tour stop – the RBC Canadian Open. Now played the week before the U.S. Open, the Canadian Open welcomes a bevy of big names for the first time this week, including Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas.

The Official World Golf Ranking has used a metric that calculates field strength for the last fifteen years. This week, the Canadian Open boasts its strongest-ever number in that statistic – an 18 percent jump from last year’s total, and a staggering 54 percent increase from just two years ago.

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The tournament returns to Hamilton Golf & Country Club for the first time since 2012, when Scott Piercy was the winner. That year, Hamilton’s greens proved difficult for the world’s best players – it ranked third in putting difficulty between four and eight feet that season. It also ranked third in lowest average combined distance of putts made per round – a statistic that speaks not only to how tough it was to putt there, but the smaller green sizes throughout the course (averaging about 5,000 square feet.).

65 YEARS AND COUNTING

Welcome, once again, to Pat Fletcher week.

Fletcher is the last Canadian player to win this championship, doing so in 1954. Since then, the title has been claimed by players from eight different countries, including Sweden (Carl Pettersson), Zimbabwe (Nick Price) and Venezuela (Jhonattan Vegas).

Fletcher’s name has come up plenty of times on the weekend in this event in recent years, as there has been a Canadian inside the top-five entering the final round three times since 2014. Canada’s best chance this week might lie with a player who’s already won this season – Corey Conners, who claimed the Valero Texas Open in April.

Conners is an elite ball-striker, ranking in the top-20 on Tour in strokes gained off the tee, approach and tee-to-green. He’s also sixth this season in greens in regulation and tied for first in approach shot proximity from the fairway.

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With the Toronto Raptors currently playing the first ever NBA Finals to involve a team from Canada, maybe the good vibes make it to Hamilton this week and we see Mr. Fletcher’s name finally get some company.

NOTES ON PLAYERS HEADLINING THE FIELD

*Brooks Koepka plays this week in just his second non-major stroke play event since The Players Championship. Koepka missed the cut in this tournament a year ago – one of just two MCs in his last 48 events worldwide. His Pebble Beach stock shouldn’t waver too much one way or the other based on his performance in Canada: he finished T-37 and T-30 in the week immediately preceding his two U.S. Open victories.

*One week after missing the cut at the Memorial Tournament, Rory McIlroy will try to rebound in his RBC Canadian Open debut. Rory has not missed the cut in consecutive starts in nearly two years – the last instance came at the 2017 Irish and Scottish Opens. McIlroy is currently third in the 15th Club Performance Index.

*Somewhat quietly, Dustin Johnson is beginning to assemble a season that could end up even better than 2018. Consider this: DJ leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained total per round at 2.55. Last season, he led the Tour, but with a smaller total per round of 2.37. Johnson finished runner-up in each of the season’s first two majors, the first player to do that since Jason Day in 2011.

*Mackenzie Hughes presents another strong opportunity to break the curse of Pat Fletcher: he’s coming off a tie for eighth at Colonial in his last start. He’s also intensely familiar with Hamilton Golf and Country Club: the Ontario native’s hometown is less than ten kilometers from the course. Hughes posted his best career Canadian Open finish one year ago at Glen Abbey, also a tie for eighth.

*This will be the first time the Canadian Open was played before the U.S. Open in that year since 1926. That year, Macondald Smith finished three shots ahead of Gene Sarazen in Canada. Bobby Jones won the U.S. Open at Scioto Country Club the following week.