Freedom 55 Financial Championship Template For Success

22 Sep Freedom 55 Financial Championship Template For Success

The Freedom 55 Financial Championship appears to be an impregnable force on the local golf calendar, following a second-straight highly-successful tournament at Highland Country Club. Now, it’s only a matter of growing the legacy.

How indestructible was this year’s championship? Even heavy rains and wind on tournament Saturday couldn’t dampen the spirits of tournament organizers, volunteers and, of course, the field of 57 Mackenzie Tour PGA Tour Canada professionals.

On a day made more for the ducks swimming in the Highland pond at the tournament’s opening hole, eventual champion Paul Barjon of Bordeaux, France shot an incredible round of 61 that left his playing partners, Americans Aaron Wise and Dillon Rust, shaking their heads in disbelief. Barjon’s 9-under round on a day which, incidentally, still drew a strong gallery, was the ultimate act of turning lemons into lemonade. It was a miserable day that gathered international attention for the Mackenzie Tour, thanks To Barjon’s incredible feat.

Paul Barjon. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com

Barjon, who turned 24 on September 19, one day after he collected a first-place cheque of $36,000, posted a 72-hole score of 258 (-22). It was a scoring record for the Tour ever since it came under the umbrella of the PGA Tour in November 2012. Barjon’s 20-under 190 also set a new benchmark for 54 holes.

With his win, Barjon jumped from No. 30 to No. 6 in the final Order of Merit and advanced to the final stage of the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament December 8-11 at Orange County National in Winter Garden, Florida.

Dan McCarthy of Syracuse, New York, wrapped up Player of the Year honours, finishing with $157,843 in earnings on the season to top the Order of Merit and leading five players who earned status on the Web.com Tour for 2017.

The Five. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com

McCarthy, 31, who produced an unprecedented season of four wins and the all-time record for single-season earnings, will be fully exempt on the 2017 Web.com Tour after finishing $73,768 ahead of No. 2 Brock Mackenzie of Yakima, Washington. (Read our feature story on Mackenzie here). Joining McCarthy and Mackenzie in The Five were No. 3 Taylor Moore of Edmon, Oklahoma, No. 4 Aaron Wise of Lake Elsinore, California and No. 5 Adam Cornelson of Langley, B.C.

Dan McCarthy with Mackenzie Tour President Jeff Monday. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntaroGolf.com

“This was an unforgettable year for me, and I’m so proud to have earned that fully exempt status on the Web.com Tour next year,” McCarthy said. “The level of competition out here is so good, and my goal at the start of the year was to be in that top five. To see all the hard work I’ve put in over the years come to fruition and finish No. 1 is an incredible feeling.”

Cornelson finished T50, high enough to clinch Freedom 55 Financial Canadian Player of the Year honors, which comes with a $25,000 prize and the Dan Halldorson Trophy.

Another Five

Fittingly, five stories stemming from the 2016 Freedom 55 Financial Championship will stand the test of time. One, of course, is Barjon’s Saturday round. When news releases starting pouring into the tournament media centre, announcing that local sporting events were cancelled due to heavy rain, Mackenzie Tour players, visible from the Highland clubhouse, walked up and down the fairways at Highland. A 61 in that weather was nothing short of heroic.

Finishing 63-66-61-68, Barjon said, “(Saturday) was like a round that came out of nowhere. (Sunday) was a little different, when you play with the lead. You have everybody trying to chase you, but I was able to suck it up until the end and it worked out well, even with a 60 by Vaita.”

Coming into the tournament, Barjon showed gradual improvement, finishing T73, T50 and then T32 at the Niagara Championship. What clicked at Highland?

“This week I just played a little smarter. I managed the par-3s a little better. I played them under par this week, and last week (at the Niagara Championship) I was terrible, 7-over,” Barjon said. “The previous two weeks, just one bad round every time. And when you have one bad round Saturday, it’s tough to be in it on Sunday.”

Barjon didn’t have that problem at Highland – despite the rain and wind.

This year’s tournament was also a coming out party for Wise, the NCAA 2016 individual champion with the Oregon Ducks. He finished three shots shy of Barjon at 19-under, including a score of 125 (-15) after two rounds, the Mackenzie Tour’s lowest opening-36 hole score.

Although he captured his first professional win earlier this year at the Syncrude Oil Country Championship presented by AECON, Wise, 20, was the most talked-about player in the field at Highland. In his seven Mackenzie Tour starts, he did not finish outside the Top 15.

Runner-up Vaita Guillaume of Savigny Sur Orge, France also provided the Sunday gallery of 1,200 (up from about 800 in 2015) with some memorable moments. Chasing Barjon, with whom he has played golf numerous times over the years, including at the French National Championship, Guillaume shot a final-round 60. It equalled the Highland course record and final-round score of American Curtis Reed at last year’s tournament.

Then there was American Kyle Wilshire’s Sunday opening-nine score of 26, the lowest nine-hole score of the PGA Tour era on the Mackenzie Tour. The previous low was 28 (four times). Wilshire’s 26 ties the lowest all-time nine hole score on the Mackenzie Tour, matching Jason Bohn’s front nine score during the final round of the 2001 Bayer Championship.

Canadian Player of the Year Adam Cornelson with the Halldorson family. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com

The fifth most memorable moment to take away from this tournament is the overall continued investment in the community by all tournament stakeholders, and concurrently the investment made by the community to ensure this tournament remain a success.

While the tournament itself carried a purse of $200,000, the impact on London, and in turn the impact London has made on the Mackenzie Tour’s season-ending tournament, are immeasurable. The championship will no doubt help launch the careers of Tour graduates, as it has in recent years.

Indeed, when a promising player makes it to the PGA Tour, it is an investment in the future of society as a whole. No game gives back as much as golf. The Mackenzie Tour announced that its 12 tournaments combined to raise more than $1 million for charity this year, increasing charitable contributions from $567,500 in 2015.

For a second-straight year, Thames Valley Children’s Centre was the Freedom 55 Financial Championship beneficiary, receiving more than $70,000 this year.

“The keys to success on this Tour are measured in two ways,” Mackenzie Tour President Jeff Monday explained. “One, which is consistent across all of our (PGA) tours, is having a positive impact in the communities in which you play. Certainly, there is an economic impact, but there’s also the charitable act. It is probably our biggest achievement to date – to see how that has grown. And that’s really, really rewarding.”

This year’s charity money includes donations from the Brandon Prust Foundation ($25,000), Harbour Grace Foundation ($25,000), plus $12,500 from Mackenzie Investments, in the name of Freedom 55 Financial Championship.

Monday added, “The second key criteria is, not only how the players play during this year – certainly that’s critical – but what they then go on to do.”

All three former Order of Merit winners since the Tour came under the PGA Tour umbrella (2013-present) earned PGA Tour cards for 2016-17: Mackenzie Hughes (2013), Joel Dahmen (2014) and J.J. Spaun (2015).

Different Buzz, Model Tourney

Proudly representing Highland all week long, long-time director of golf, Mike Silver, said there was a different buzz surrounding the tournament this year.

Paul Barjon with Mackenzie Tour President Jeff Monday and host-club staff. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioGolf.com

“Walking around the golf course, speaking with people, you can’t help but sense a positive feeling,” Silver explained. “Golf fans in London and Southwestern Ontario are quickly catching on to how good these golfers are, and what this Championship means to the Tour, and to London. We had a great year hosting in 2015 for the first time, and now we’ve built on that success.”

Silver, 67, who retires January 1, 2017 after 39 years at Highland, will have an even larger role to fill moving forward with this tournament. Although nothing has been announced officially to-date, Silver said, “I’m happy to do whatever I can to spread the word about the tournament, get out into the community more and be an ambassador for this great tournament.”

Silver’s assistant of six years, Picton-native Rick Pero, will take the reigns as head golf professional at Highland, while Silver will remain with the official title of golf pro emeritus.

If you were to draw up the ideal template for hosting the Freedom 55 Financial Championship, then there wouldn’t be much to change with the current model. In fact, other than pushing forward with visibility within the community, securing existing and additional corporate sponsorship and enlarging galleries, this tournament sets the bar high for any other professional golf tournament in Canada.

You can’t sell short the efforts of the Mackenzie Tour, said Brock Mackenzie, at age 35 a veteran of many links battles and a keen observer outside the ropes.

“Once the PGA Tour came in, put their name behind it with the right people in charge – and the staff are amazing now – it brought it to a whole other level. What you are seeing is all of the best players from America now. We didn’t necessarily have that before,” Mackenzie said. “We had some mini tours and some other stuff going on in the U.S. Now, you’re seeing players like (this second-round leader) Aaron Wise, and (fellow American) Taylor Moore – these All-Americans coming up to Canada because they know it’s a great avenue to get to the Web.com Tour.”

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

Next year marks the fifth year of this tournament (held at Sunningdale Golf and Country Club before moving to Highland). Title sponsor Freedom 55 Financial has committed through 2020, while Highland is secured through 2017 and is expected to review an extended host contract.

At lot can happen in a short time, especially in professional sports, but it says here Freedom 55 Financial, Highland and London are the perfect fit for this championship event. Everyone is on board. Monday agrees.

Said Monday, “It’s just fantastic here. You have all these key things that go into having this great tournament, and the two most important are the players themselves and how they compete, and the golf course and the community.

“The players absolutely love this golf course, but the membership and the work the club team does to make everything work as far as the experience and the atmosphere they create is fantastic.”

 Freedom 55 Financial Championship Template For Success
Words and Photos by Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioGolf.com