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Shaughnessy & the Canadian Open: What to Make of it All

By: Tony Dear


The dust has settled after Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club's third Canadian Open (at its current location at least), and while the tournament was a spectacular success in many ways - great weather, a quality leaderboard and deserving winner, last-round excitement, great support from a prominent lead sponsor and a homegrown player almost pulling off the first Canadian victory in 57 years - a good number of the competitors probably left Vancouver with a bad taste in their mouths.

For four days and 72 holes (73 for eventual winner Sean O'Hair and Kris Blanks), the 76 players who made the 36-hole cut endured the sort of rigorous challenge seen more commonly at a U.S. Open. Indeed, many of the players insisted Shaughnessy's impossibly dense rough was considerably thicker than the rough at Congressional CC six weeks ago. "This is definitely not a case of players having short memories," said Rickie Fowler on Friday afternoon.

"The rough to the sides of the fairways is much tougher here than it was at the U.S. Open." Kevin Na agreed. "Thickest rough I've seen in two years."

The scoring average for the week (total of 461 rounds) was 72.45. The plus-4 cut tied for the third highest of the season on the PGA Tour, one stroke less against par than at the U.S. Open and two fewer than the Honda Classic. O'Hair's 4-under 276 was the joint fourth-highest winning total of the year, and second lowest in relation to Par - one more than Keegan Bradley's minus-3 in the HP Byron Nelson Classic.

Not surprisingly, the debate over whether or not the rough needed to be quite so severe raged on for most of the week. Some were happy to be playing a tournament where the carefree bomb-and-gougers got their comeuppances for reckless driving. "It's nice in this day and age, when the best guy doesn't win on a regular basis - it's usually the guy who putts his butt off that wins - to play a golf course where you know who is playing the best," said Woody Austin.

But many others said tournament organizers - the Royal Canadian Golf Association (RCGA) working in conjunction with the PGA Tour - had gone too far. Speaking to Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper before the tournament started, Geoff Ogilvy said that the rough would not allow recovery shots and that if the intention was to protect par then the organizers had succeeded. The Australian, known for his thoughtful, well-informed musings on golf course architecture, added that the sort of golf this Shaughnessy set-up demanded was the kind that paid for his golf life, but didn't afford him much amusement. "I wish that one year we could forget about the commercial aspects and play 20 tournaments on the best courses in the world," he said before listing seven courses he'd like to take on with seven clubs, a blade putter and balata balls. "That stuff is fun."

For better or worse, Ogilvy's contention that golf should be fun isn't shared by many who run golf's biggest championships. Watching the best players in the world having to hack sideways back onto the fairway may get a little tedious after a while, but Scott Simmons, CEO of the RCGA, will tell you dealing with that adversity is a necessary part of championship golf.

"I know some of the players were unhappy, but I think we set the course up right," he says. "I think the course identified the best players, and I disagreed with some of the comments about the rough. I saw plenty of great shots played from off the fairway. It was a thinker's course, you had to play smart. You couldn't just bomb it as hard as you could, knowing you'd have a shot wherever your ball ended up."

Simmons adds that while he admits the fairways were narrow and the rough thick, the greens were receptive. "To have had rock-hard greens with that rough probably would have been too much," he says. "But they were relatively soft, which meant players could break 70 provided they struck the ball really well. The players should remember though, this was a national championship, the third-oldest national championship in the world, in fact.

"It therefore needs to be played on a course where good scores do not come easily. Players may not have fun necessarily, they will experience some misfortune," Simmons added. "But the player who deals with it best is usually the one who wins. The course was the same for everyone obviously, and for every bad lie or bad bounce they suffered, they got a good one."

Whichever side of the fence you fall on, you have to admit Simmons pleads a convincing case for championship golf and its need to test players' technique and mental strength to the limit. The question over how best to do that remains though.

Shaughnessy was designed by Arthur Vernon Macan in 1958. Five holes on the original layout possessed central fairway bunkers, which Macan admired very much for allowing better players to gain an advantage by hitting a good, but risky, shot to the correct side of the sand and leaving a much easier approach to the flag. And because his original greens had more slope in them, the integrity of the course was maintained without the need for such callous rough.

But Macan was working before the introduction of titanium drivers and urethane balls, of course. At less than 7,100 yards, today's Shaughnessy is just too short to threaten top professionals. Building new tees to add length, a move so many courses feel compelled to make, wasn't an option at Shaughnessy, so in order to prevent the Canadian Open champion walking off the 72nd green with a four-round total of 24-under-par or thereabouts, the committee responsible for the set-up decided the rough needed to possess the consistency of maple syrup and punish those whose drives wandered even a few inches off the short grass.

Michael Riste, Macan's biographer, says "Mac" would have been fairly happy with the set-up, but might have questioned the severity of the rough. "It was a little thick perhaps, but to be fair the area did get a lot of rain in the last couple of months," Riste says, adding that the club should at least consider putting the fairway bunkers back. "Why not? They would be unique in the Pacific Northwest, and add a strategic element that Macan would certainly appreciate."

Building new central fairway bunkers between 280 yards and 320 might be one way to rein in scores at Shaughnessy, and the approach used at the U.S. Open by the USGA's Mike Davis, who makes his first cut of rough significant but manageable and his second suitably hazardous, is another. A third option has been hammering at the door for many years but kept outside by rules-makers terrified to let it in for fear of how it might affect the sport.

The need for bifurcation is becoming all too apparent, however (actually, with Rules relating to clubface grooves now divided for amateurs and professionals, bifurcation is already happening to a degree). Splitting golfers into different groups - those who require every last piece of modern technology available to them, and professionals for whom today's course are woefully short and who need to give up their R11s and Pro-V1s - might be the only way to avoid clubs feeling the need (imagined) to continuously lengthen their courses.

This disastrous trend, which costs these courses and consequently those that play them an awful lot of money, might therefore be avoided. But we won't know if bifurcation is the answer to golf's growing problems until the USGA and R&A give it a go at least and introduce it wholesale (although it would, admittedly, be expensive, time-consuming, and probably very embarrassing to try it then reject it if it didn't work).

As for the Canadian Open, one wonders if the negative feedback the Shaughnessy set-up triggered might cause star players to give the tournament a miss in future. If they knew the RCGA's philosophy was to hinder good scoring with the use of penal rough it's possible players could strike the event from their schedules, thinking they had just played two major championship set-ups in recent weeks and didn't fancy another.

Asked if Shaughnessy's high difficulty rating would make it harder to attract top players back, No. 1-ranked Luke Donald thought for a moment before saying that, because the tournament rotated to different venues, it probably wouldn't have a lasting effect. The insinuation was clear though: if the Canadian Open was to be played at a Shaughnessy set up like this every year, the quality of the field would inevitably diminish.

Next year, the event goes to the Harry Colt-designed Hamilton Golf & Country Club south and west of Toronto. As one of the country's best courses, it will probably attract a good field. "I think for the most part, people enjoy the classic courses," Donald said. "And that's what brings us back."

The decision to take the championship to the nation's top courses was one of the first Simmons made after becoming CEO four years ago this week. "I said to the board we had to take the Open to Canada's best layouts - St. George's, Hamilton, Shaughnessy, Royal Montreal, etc.," he remembers. "We didn't have a title sponsor when I became CEO and the tournament was in serious jeopardy. So we needed to increase its prestige. No disrespect to Angus Glen and Glen Abbey at all, they are fine courses. But the classic venues give the event added significance."

Even so, taking the Open to Vancouver still presents the RCGA with logistical problems it doesn't face in Toronto. "Yes, it's the 21st Century," says Simmons, "but taking the Open to Vancouver is still a little tricky. The Open has a $25 million impact on the local economy, and is beamed into more than 100 million homes around the world, but it doesn't make a profit.

"It's a break-even event, and staging it in Vancouver is pretty costly. That said, the two Opens that have been played at Shaughnessy in recent years (2005 and 2011) have turned out very well, so I would hope we will be back there at least four more times before the club's lease on the property expires in 2032."

Simmons is quick to stress the Canadian Open doesn't exist to make a profit but to identify the national champion and, even more importantly, help grow the game in Canada. He points to the large number of young Canadians granted exemptions and issued invitations for this year's tournament.

Among them was Adam Hadwin, who was added to the field on July 5th. The 22-year-old Canadian Tour member from nearby Abbotsford, B.C., finished tied for fourth on 2-under 278, giving the home crowd something to celebrate after the disappointment of Mike Weir's withdrawal part-way through his second round.

"Adam thrilled all of Canada," says Simmons. "You saw Rickie Fowler's fans in their orange Puma outfits. Well, Adam became our Rickie Fowler at the weekend. Hopefully, it will be the breakthrough he needs. We want the tournament to be a springboard for our best young players. That's why we offered invitations to Adam, Matt Hill, Nick Taylor, Eugene Wong, etc. We have a responsibility to nurture young, Canadian talent."

The future of Canadian golf and the RBC Canadian Open appears bright. The country has never boasted such a large crop of gifted young players, and RBC's involvement has been huge. However, the immediate future of Shaughnessy, its A.V. Macan-designed course overlooking the mouth of the Fraser River is, at least, in the balance. The club has 21 years remaining at its current location before moving to Richmond, B.C.'s Greenacres course, which it purchased in 2006.

Scott Simmons seems sure the present course will host more Canadian Opens before the Musqueam Indian Band reclaims the land it has occupied for thousands of years. You have to wonder though, if the club is forced to maintain the sort of rough we saw last week, how many of the Tour's elite players will be there.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.