15 Dec 2020 | Amateur golf | Professional golf | Golf Australia |
2020: Aussie golf's year in review
by Martin Blake
It was the annus horribilis for many around the world, but there was at least one irony in this. The 2020 golf season was a cracker for Australian golfers. Go figure that.
If you counted them up, you came to 12 Australians winning international events.
Adam Scott, Marc Leishman, Cameron Smith (US PGA Tour), Lucas Herbert and Min Woo Lee (European Tour), Wade Ormsby (Asian Tour), Brad Kennedy (NZ Open), Brett Drewitt and Curtis Luck (Korn Ferry Tour), Won Joon Lee (Korean Tour) and Stephanie Kyriacou (LET) were joined by Minjee Lee in Dubai.
At one point, Herbert and Leishman both won big tournaments within 24 hours of each other on the European and US Tours – the world’s biggest for men.
In fact, the interruption in golf stopped a lot of Australian momentum. It wasn’t ideal, for instance, for Adam Scott who was running hot when the break came.
Finding the low points was easy. For the first time since World War II we lost our oldest and most famous event, the Australian Open, because of the Covid-19 virus and border closures and issues over quarantine. The Women’s Australian Open, the Vic Open and the Australian PGA all went the same way.
As for the highs? Oh yes, there were many. Here are 10 of the best:
1. Smith’s breakthrough
Let’s face it, we all had high hopes for Cameron Smith, the man-child from Wantima Golf Club in Brisbane.
He’d shown plenty – top-fives in the Masters and the US Open and a near-win at the World Cup with Marc Leishman, plus that teams event with Jonas Blixt in 2017 on the US PGA Tour.
But he still had not won a US Tour event as an individual. That was until Hawaii in January, and the Sony Open, where the Queenslander crashed through the barrier.
He needed to dig deep. Two shots behind with a couple of holes to play, he holed a birdie putt from nearly three metres at the 72nd hole to get into a playoff with Brendan Steele, then parred the first extra hole for the money.
He looks like a cherub, but he’s made of stern stuff.
2. Scotty’s drought-breaker
Adam Scott had gone four years without a win on the US Tour when he stepped up in the Genesis International at the storied Riviera in February. For a player of his calibre, it felt like an eternity.
But Scott, who’d won the Australian PGA in December for his first victory anywhere for three years, was in the midst of a hot streak at the start of 2020.
The victory was significant for the fact that Rory McIlroy was in the final group with him, the field strong, and the venue rich in character.
Personally and professionally, it was a big moment for him, launching him into the top 10 in the world again. “It’s a big step for both,’’ he said. “Whatever point I’m at in my career, I hadn’t won for three years, and this feels very special.’’
3. Min Woo’s coronation
There’s something about Min Woo Lee, the Perth product who had proved to be one of Australia’s top amateurs, winning a US Junior title as a lad out of Royal Fremantle.
As a young professional, we were still waiting for that promise to morph into reality.
Then at 13th Beach on the west coast of Victoria in February for the ISPS Handa Vic Open, Lee exploded with a victory in the men’s event.
Bombing driver and gap wedges to par-fives, controlling his ball in high winds, and keeping his emotions in check, he shot four rounds in the 60s to win by two.
Waiting beside the green after the 72nd hole, his elder sister Minjee (winner of the Vic Open in 2014 and 2018) stopped by to give him a hug.
It was Min Woo Lee’s first pro win and it gave him playing rights on the European Tour, as well as the money to buy his first car!
In those moments, it felt like we were witnessing the genesis of a very special career.
4. Special K
Talk about a life-changer! Steph Kyriacou entered the Bonville Ladies Classic, a co-sanctioned European and Australian event held at the pretty golf resort near Coff’s Harbor, as an amateur.
Of course, she’d been a fixture in New South Wales teams and won both the Victorian and Queensland Amateurs as well as the prestigious Master of the Amateurs. But no one expected what came next.
The St Michael’s product held a two-shot lead entering the final round and then bolted through the front nine in 29, holing everything. Ultimately she closed in 65, won by eight shots, and created her future.
The prizemoney eluded her as an amateur, but the teenager turned professional soon enough, headed to Europe with her father Nick as caddie, and won the rookie of the year award on the Ladies European Tour with a string of strong finishes.
In many ways, her performance was the bombshell of 2020 in Australia.
5. Minjee in the moonlight
The Dubai Moonlight Classic on the Ladies European Tour was significant for a couple of reasons – one, that it was played under lights, and two, that Minjee Lee logged her first win of 2020.
Lee is a phenomenon when it comes to getting into contention, the most consistent of Australian players bar none.
But the wins had dried up for a while and Dubai, which filled a gap in her schedule as the LPGA Tour took a break, worked out perfectly and gave her a chance to play the first big-tour event under lights, set up at the Emirates Golf Club’s Faldo course.
She shot 69 in the final round to reach a playoff with France’s Celine Boutier. Then at the first playoff hole after she wedged to the green and Boutier missed her long birdie try, Perth’s Lee had a right-to-lefter from six metres for the win. Despite the floodlights she admitted later that she could not read the break.
But it dropped.
6. Smith’s Augusta landmark
This was not a victory, but it has to be included.
Cameron Smith did everything but pick up the green jacket of Augusta National when the Masters finally was played out in November, for the first time.
He became the first player in the 85-year history of the Masters to shoot four rounds in the 60s – 67, 68, 69 and 69.
Alas, someone was better across the week, that being world No. 1 Dustin Johnson who broke the scoring record for the tournament at 20-under.
But not even Johnson was in the 60s every day – he shot a 70 on the Friday.
Smith finished tied-second at 15 under par, joining quite a list of Australians to have done that. He has a liking for Augusta National, where he was fifth in 2018, and this was the performance of the 2020 majors by an Aussie.
“It would have been cool to do that and win," he said. "[But] I'd take 15 under around here the rest of my career and I might win a couple."
7. Herby’s arrival
It was Australia Day and Lucas Herbert celebrated it with his first professional win at the Dubai Desert Classic.
The Victorian did it in dramatic style, taking a playoff over South African Christian Bezuidenhout at the second extra hole.
The 24-year-old made birdies at the 71st and 72nd to get into the playoff, but at the first extra hole when he went for the green in two at the par-five 18th, his fairway wood shot flared into the water and his words echoed around the Emirates Club: “Oh my God. That may be the worst shot I’ve ever hit in my life.”
But Herbert rallied, hitting a gorgeous wedge in tight and saving par to extend it. Two great shots to the same green at the second extra hole gave him the birdie he needed to take the title, and almost $800,000 prizemoney.
Along with the likes of Min Woo Lee and Cameron Davis, he represents Australia’s future in men’s golf.
8. Gabi’s greatness
Gabi Ruffels is an awesome talent; a player who barely picked up a club until she was 14, previously hooked on tennis. It was the sport of her parents – Ray Ruffels and Anna Maria Fernandez – but watching her elder brother Ryan prosper at golf after they moved back to Melbourne from Florida, she took it up and joined Victoria Golf Club on the sandbelt.
Her 2020 was outstanding, highlighted by her appearance for the second consecutive year in the US Women’s Amateur final. In 2019 she won the title, becoming the first Australian to do so. This time, she lost a heartbreaker to American Rose Zhang, arguably the world’s best female amateur.
At the 38th hole, Ruffels had a putt of a metre to extend the match, but lipped it out.
The 20-year-old Ruffels also logged some outstanding performances for the University of Southern California team, and on invitation finished in the top-five at the Symetra Tour Championships against the professionals.
Despite her loss in the 2020 US Amateur final, the fact remains: she is a superstar in the making.
9. Jed’s jaunt
“You have no idea how badly I wanted to win today. No idea.”
With those words, 20-year-old Jed Morgan celebrated the first home win in the Australian Amateur for three years in a final at Royal Queensland in January against Northern Ireland prodigy Tom McKibbin.
The fact that the final was played at RQ, where Morgan is a member, with his brother on the bag and a cluster of RQ members, friends and family following the match only added to the tension.
But Morgan, one of this country’s brightest young stars, won 5 and 3. His idol is Cameron Smith, and he was part of Smith’s scholarship group earlier. Queensland – and Australia – have another good one coming through.
Marc Leishman is just a given, always pitching in and always really, really good.
That Victorian Leishman won again on the US PGA Tour, this time at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in California on Australia Day, should not surprise in the slightest.
He’s been one of the best players in the world for a while now.
And he had to beat the best in California. Jon Rahm, soon to become world No. 1, had an eagle putt to join him at the 72nd hole and Rory McIlroy was in the mix, too. But Leishman’s two-metre birdie at the 18th did it for him.
His career earnings have passed $US30 million. He’s an all-time great of golf in this country, the big man from Warrnambool.
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