LONDON, Ont.—Highland Country Club isn’t your obvious venue to contest a modern championship among a group of golf’s rising stars.
Hidden off one of the main roads in the heart of London, Highland is an old school country club that this week plays host to the Mackenzie Tour/PGA Tour Canada’s Freedom 55 Financial Championship, which will see the tour’s top 59 golfers compete for a spot on the Web.com Tour. The tour’s best players—JJ Spaun, Cheng Tsung Pan, and the likes of Canadian bomber Taylor Pendrith and breakthrough rookie Adam Svensson—will battle it out on a golf course that is nearing its century mark.
Vancouver’s Ryan Williams knows the level of competition on the Mackenzie Tour well. He’s been competing on the tour for eight years, and last year won the Freedom 55 Championship when the tournament was at Sunningdale, a private club that hosted the tournament the first two years it was in London.
“The tour is so much better and deeper than when I first started,” Williams says. “No one is scared of anyone else and everyone is trying to kick everyone else’s ass.”
One of the keys is the fact there’s no cut at the Mackenzie Tour finale. On one hand Williams says that removes some of the pressure, but it also pushes players to make as many birdies as they can.
“When you come into the tour championship and you know there’s no cut, you just get up and go for it,” he says.
Ian Andrew, a golf architect from Brantford, Ont., knows the course this week’s tournament will be contested on exceptionally well. He renovated the course, and continues to consult to the club, making slight changes to some tees and rebuilding the par 3 sixth hole. An acknowledged expert in the work of Stanley Thompson, Andrew says Highland may not have the length many expect from a modern design, but compensates for it with some devilish holes and tricky greens.
“I do think it is a place where a lot of players aren’t just going to hit driver off the tee all day,” Andrew says. “It is going to be won or lost on the par 3s, especially holes like the second, the 12th and the 15th.”
The course was designed by two of Canada’s most famous golfers—the Thompson brothers, Nicol, who was the longtime pro at Hamilton Golf and Country Club, and Stanley, Canada’s most noted golf designer. In the early 1920s the brothers, along with Toronto Golf Club professional George Cumming, operated a design firm, which is how they became involved with Highland.
The course’s nines will be flipped for the Mackenzie Tour’s final event of the year so the championship ends on a relatively unconventional hole, the current short ninth. Playing at just over 300 yards, the hole has a small raised green that pitches steeply from the back to the front. Players will surely challenge it, but those missing it with a driver are going to struggle if approaching from anywhere but the fairway.
Andrew thinks it will be Highland’s final holes—which will end the front nine in the touring being used for the tournament—that will prove the biggest challenge for anyone hoping to post a low score. The current 15th hole is a par three measuring over 230 yards that plays to a tricky green with a steep slope on the right that falls away to rough below. It is followed by the 16th hole, a unique roller coaster par four where trouble looms throughout. The hole’s fairway shifts to the right and runs down a hill, leading to a steep slope with the green perched at the far end of a valley.
“It is an all-world hole, maybe the best out there,” Andrew says. “You have a couple of ways of playing it—you can attack it and try to get down into the valley, but that has a lot of trouble. Or you can lay back and go at the green with a long iron. That takes the trouble out of play.”
For Williams, he believes the Mackenzie Tour is still under-recognized, despite the fact alumni Nick Taylor went from playing on the tour to winning on the PGA Tour in just over a year. Spectators coming out to London could well be following a star on the verge of a breakthrough. The likes of Stuart Appleby, Steve Stricker, Mike Weir, and more recently players like Tony Finau, have all emerged from the Mackenzie Tour (or its previous incarnations like the Canadian Tour.) But in Williams estimation, the level of competition continues to improve.
“There are so many great players out here, so many great Canadians in the group, that it is just really difficult,” Williams says. “Everyone is playing better, hitting it farther. Maybe people forget all the players that got their start out here.”
Come Sunday, five players will punch their ticket to the Web.com Tour and the next step in their careers. Williams hopes to be among them.
Dates: September 14-20
Course: Highland Country Club (London, Ont.)
Par/Yards: 34-36—70/6,754 yards
Field: 59 (Top 60 on the Order of Merit eligible)
2014 champion: Ryan Williams
Purse: $200,000/$36,000 (winner)
Format: 72-hole stroke play
The Thames Valley Children’s Centre (TVCC) is the official charitable beneficiary of the Freedom 55 Financial Championship. Fifty-five per cent of ticket proceeds will go towards the wide range of services provided to more than 8000 children, youth and their families through the organization’s London Centre and its 15 regional office locations across Southwestern Ontario. Clients range in age from birth to 19 with services supporting a range of special needs including physical disabilities, communication disorders, developmental delays and autism spectrum disorders.
Children aged 17-and-under get in free all week at the Freedom 55 Financial Championship. Free junior tickets are available for download here. Additional details, including ticket information, can be found at www.freedom55financialchampionship.com.