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RBC Canadian Open looks to overcome LIV storm cloud for second straight year

“I feel bad for RBC and the Canadian Open.”

That was Rory McIlroy Wednesday ahead of his RBC Canadian Open three-peat bid, because for the second straight year, the focus at the event hasn’t been the golf itself.

The 2022 RBC Canadian Open — which was being contested for the first time since 2019 due to COVID — ran concurrently with the inaugural LIV Golf event in London, essentially the first time in modern history a rival circuit was competing against the PGA Tour. That Thursday, the Tour suspended its 17 members who teed it up that week in the Saudi-backed league.

Now, less than 365 days later, Canada’s national open is again being contested under a cloud of controversy in the sport, as on Tuesday the Tour announced it’s joining forces with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which bankrolls LIV. It’s a complete 180 from last year in Canada, when PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan vehemently denounced LIV on CBS during the final-round telecast, asking, “Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?”

Full-field scores from the RBC Canadian Open

“To think about what went on this time last year and then the bombshell that was dropped (this week),” McIlroy said, “I mean, RBC has been one of the biggest supporters of the PGA Tour over the last 10 years. ... having this stuff sort of dropped on you two years in a row is very unfair.”

Matt Fitzpatrick, who won this year’s RBC Heritage, added: “A lot of sympathy (for RBC). Obviously, arguably the best sponsor for the PGA Tour. ... I’m sure it was a tough one to take.”

Last year, however, the tournament — and McIlroy — rose to the occasion. And though the Tour’s stance has since completely flipped, the feeling surrounding this Canadian Open is eerily similar.

The pre-tournament pressers the past two years weren’t about the shape of a player’s game or what they thought about the venue, but rather their thoughts on the state of the sport. In 2022, most were pledging their fealty to the Tour. A year later, players were reacting to the shocking news that once again changes the sport’s landscape.

“The most uncomfortable I’ve felt in the last 12 months was my press conference yesterday,” McIlroy, one of the Tour’s staunchest defenders, said Thursday about his pre-tournament presser in which he said he felt “like a sacrificial lamb.”

Then, as players hit their opening tee shots in Toronto, the elephant in the room was again prevalent as ever.

The focus in the media area after last year’s first two rounds wasn’t a player’s performance, but mostly about LIV and the Tour’s suspensions (McIlroy even called Monahan “transparent” — that didn’t age well).

As players walked into the interview area this Thursday, reactions to the developments over the last 48 hours were sandwiched into questions about the first 18 holes. McIlroy noted it was difficult to focus solely on golf at first.

"(Justin Rose and I) started to get in a conversation walking down the first and we’re like, ‘No, let’s stop this. Let’s just focus on our golf and we’ll say what we want to say when we get inside,’” McIlroy said. “So it was nice to play a round of golf and focus on something else for those five hours we were out there.”

McIlroy won the RBC Canadian Open on Sunday and gave the PGA Tour a strong response to the start of the Saudi-funded LIV Golf.

But as last year’s tournament went on, the golf stole back the spotlight. McIlroy, the Tour’s de facto spokesperson, held off Tony Finau, Justin Thomas, Sam Burns and Justin Rose, who had a chance at shooting sub-60.

“That’s as top-notch (a tournament) as you’re going to get,” McIlroy said afterward. “It was a pleasure to be a part of and I’ll look back on this week and this, especially today, with very, very fond memories.”

That sentiment still holds true — and the tournament is hoping for a repeat.

“It was a year ago that we were running the return of the 2022 RBC Canadian Open to St. George’s and we had some news and developments — and we had the greatest event in our history,” Golf Canada CEO Laurence Applebaum said Wednesday.

“So we come back into 2023 and again some news that was unexpected and for us, we will continue to stay focused on running a great PGA Tour event, a great national championship and to welcome what we hope will be well north of 125,000 people on-site will be a spectacle to behold.”

And the players teeing it up this week are determined to direct the focus back on the course as another contentious year in golf sits on the horizon.

“There’s been some crazy news this week and we still got to go out there and provide a good show,” Canadian Taylor Pendrith said Thursday. “RBC’s been a tremendous sponsor to the Tour for years and it kind of sucks that it happened to them last year as well. So, the importance now is on golf and providing everybody a great tournament.”