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Inside the Rink, where the RBC Canadian Open goes to party



HAMILTON, Ontario — It’s just after noon on the first Saturday in June. The sun is shining with wispy clouds and blue sky.

The Rink is already full of fans. Goalie masks. Boards. Nets. Penalty box. Zamboni. All of the fixtures of a hockey game, except they’re not locked up inside and instead around the tee box on the par-3 13th at the Hamilton Golf and Country Club.

Welcome to the Rink hole at the RBC Canadian Open. Where golf gets a flavor of Canadiana with its ode to hockey. White boards surround the tee. Goalie masks replace tee boxes. A Zamboni is parked to the right beyond the tee box.

The Rink debuted in 2017. In seven years, the back nine par-3 has grown in size and allure, even when the national open has changed venues.

This year’s Canadian Open had the highest attendance in the tournament’s history, according to Golf Canada. Unsurprisingly, this spot on the course was the most popular attraction for golfers and fans.

Fans are seated or standing near the boards. There’s additional seating on the right side, known as the penalty box. Grandstands surround the green on either side. Libations are flowing. Sapporo, Sleeman, vodka lemonade. It’s humid, further enhanced by the number of people in this enclosed space.

As each group approaches the tee, fans bang the boards and cheer. Like after a big hit in a hockey game.

“Come on,” when a golfer’s shot is not up to their standard.

“Club up,” when the tee shot comes up short.

Rory McIlroy and Tom Kim are on their way to the Rink. The fans start doing the signature Viking clap on the boards in anticipation.

“We want Rory,” the gallery belts out.

As McIlroy walks to the tee, he looks out to the green, takes a deep breath and smiles. This is his fourth year experiencing the Rink.

It’s become timeless for the two-time Canadian Open champion.

“I feel like an honorary Canadian at this point,” McIlroy says.

Rory McIlroy is a fan favorite at the RBC Canadian Open. (Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images)

McIlroy, who has never attended a hockey game, says he appreciates the Canadian Open leaning into one of its national sports. Other golfers embraced the hockey theme.

Frenchman Victor Perez wore an Auston Matthews jersey on the tee, drawing loud “Go Leafs Go” chants from the crowd.

Ryan Palmer, an Amarillo, Texas, native, approached a group of four at the tee box and said, “Go Stars.” Boos broke out. The section chanted “Let’s Go Oilers” in support of Edmonton against Dallas.

“McJesus saved my life” one fan screamed before Palmer teed off, referring to Oilers superstar Connor McDavid.

There are many reasons spectators migrate to the rink hole. To see their favorite golfer up close. For the chance to get on live TV. To soak in the sun, eat food and drink beverages.

For Brandon Neild, it was to celebrate his bachelor party with his closest friends before his wedding in two weeks. From Bradford, Ontario — just under two hours from Hamilton Golf and Country Club — Neild came to the golf course dressed up as a safari guide. He wore a navy captain’s hat, a beige shirt and a sash across his body, with “Groom To Be” in gold letters.

His friends wore zebra shirts. They arrived at the Rink in the morning and stayed in their spot — right next to the left boards — throughout the day. They started cheers, chatted with other fans and the volunteers, dressed up in referee attire. They even draped a Canadian flag over the boards.

“The Rink is home,” Neild said.

Darcy Connors is from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada. He and a friend flew from Halifax to Hamilton to take in the Rink experience. Connors wanted to wear something that pays homage to his home province, which has a rich hockey history. So he sported a Dartmouth Whalers jersey, highlighting a Nova Scotia minor hockey team.

“If you’re from Nova Scotia, you’ll get the reference,” Connors said.

Some fans wore hockey helmets. Others had red and white Canada jerseys. Even Toronto Blue Jays kits were spotted. A group of guys created “Hayes is a fraud” shirts, poking fun at Toronto-based sports radio personality Bryan Hayes.

Fans lined the boards along the Rink, many of them in themed costumes. (Lukas Weese / The Athletic)

The most creative golf costume at the Rink belonged to Zachary Mark and his friends. Hailing from nearby Kitchener-Waterloo, Mark and his buddies decided two weeks ago to come to the Canadian Open.

They wanted to stand out when they arrived at the Rink. The answer … wear all-white caddie bibs, emulating Augusta National and the Masters. On the back were the names of Canadian golfers, including Mackenzie Hughes, Nick Taylor, Corey Conners, Adam Hadwin and Mike Weir.

The group arrived at the Rink at 9:30 a.m. A volunteer saw their outfits and directed them to the front seats along the right boards. A fitting spot for their fits and cheers to be seen and heard.

It’s early evening and the sun is poking through the clouds. The energy at the Rink is now boisterous. The wave spreads around the boards. Fans begin tossing hockey pucks from both sides of the boards. They sing, from “Hey Baby” to “Sweet Caroline.”

A fan gets booed for heckling Conners.

“Kick him out,” the gallery yells.

The atmosphere reaches pandemonium when Hughes reaches the tee box. Hughes, like every Canadian who plays this tournament, gets treated to a rowdy rendition of “O Canada.”

It was extra loud for Hughes, who grew up less than 10 miles away in Dundas, Ontario.

After he hit his tee shot, Hughes waved to the crowd, urging them to keep cheering. He put on a black hockey jersey as he walked to the green in support of his family friend, Bill Bath, who died earlier this year.

When Hughes plays PGA Tour events in the U.S. he doesn’t receive as much attention as his American peers. “I’m pretty much a nobody,” Hughes said.

In Canada, Hughes relishes the overwhelming support and pulsating noise from the fans. And no better place than at the Rink.

“I never get cheered for like this before or really ever,” Hughes said.

The Rink draws comparisons to other atmosphere holes in professional golf — No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale or No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass.

Unlike those other two, the fans at the Rink are much closer to the action. There’s nowhere to hide. When volunteers raise their hands, asking for silence, spectators cooperate.

It has the electricity with Canadian kindness and respect.

“They’re like on top of you,” Hughes said. “When you go to Scottsdale, everything’s pushed back, so you don’t feel like it’s like right on you. On the Rink, there’s like no space. It’s just like the boards are right there on the tee and they’re banging and they’re screaming.

“Walking on that tee, again, just a total hair-raising moment where, I mean, I’m trying to play it pretty cool, but inside I’m thinking this is really, really cool.”

The Canadian Open continues to persist amid uncertainty in professional golf. RBC, the sponsor for the Canadian Open, has its contract expire after this tournament. According to Golf Canada CEO Laurence Appelbaum, conversations between the PGA Tour and the bank remain ongoing. But who will sponsor the event remains in question.

The Canadian Open isn’t short on history. It’s the third-oldest PGA Tour event on the calendar. It’s had illustrious champions, from Nelson and Palmer to Trevino and Woods. It’s seen memorable finishes the last two years, from McIlroy outduelling Tony Finau and Justin Thomas in 2022 to Taylor’s winning 72-foot eagle putt on the fourth playoff hole in 2023.

Having McIlroy as one of the faces of the Canadian Open helps increase the tournament’s profile. “It’s a pleasure to come up here and play every year, and I’m going to keep doing that until they tell me I can’t come over the border,” McIlroy said Sunday.

With the invention of the Rink, the tournament is becoming a staple for its fan support. The party continued into Sunday. Despite wet conditions, fans filled up the seats along the boards. CBS broadcaster Colt Knost put on a Dallas Stars jersey, leading to boos. Amanda Balionis, CBS golf reporter, wore a Connor McDavid jersey, causing a stirring fracas.

The cheers, the songs, the anthem, the board banging continued until the eventual Canadian Open champion, Robert MacIntyre, completed No. 13. They aren’t just synonymous with hockey.

The Rink at the Canadian Open is a goal scored for golf fans, showing why professional golf continues to thrive north of the border.

(Top photo: Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images)

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