12 Jan 2022 | Professional golf |

Clayton: At last, big time tournament golf is back

by Mike Clayton

Kirkwood Cup, Webb Cup image
The Joe Kirkwood Cup and the Karrie Webb Cup are on offer this week. Photo: PGA

The recent dearth of big time Australian professional golf will have been apparent to anyone with even the slightest interest in the local game.

It is too easy to hark back to the time when Greg Norman was at the peak of his powers and the local tour, all the way from October through to The Australian Masters in February was flying.

The October to September wrap-around season in America pretty much forces even our best players to play the PGA Tour well into November and December and with Saudi Arabia throwing appearance fees like there is no tomorrow we are barely in the race when it comes to paying extortionate amounts to foreign stars just to tee it up here – no matter the quality of the golf courses we play.

Since the Victorian Open of February 2020, the local tour has lost two men's Australian Opens, two Women’s Australian Opens a Victorian Open and an Australian PGA Championship. Home players unable to travel have been left without income, hope and overseas tour schools to play and fans all around the country have been starved of good golf. Of course, the irony is golf at the amateur level has never been stronger. Anecdotally, clubs are filled with members, people are queueing up at driving ranges and manufacturers are short of imported stock.

This week the Fortinet PGA Championship at Royal Queensland affords us the sense of playing a tournament of the quality we took for granted 20 years ago. Hybrids of old-fashioned grandstands and tents line the two closing holes and there is a million dollars for the men to play for and the women’s winning prize of $180,000 matches the amount the men’s champion will find in his account on Monday morning.

Min Woo Lee, the winner of the last played Victorian Open is here and as well as he played in 2021, the Scottish Open champion must be the most likely winner.

Lee is a rare player with indefinable characteristics which almost demand you watch him play golf. His swing is in the mould of, “I’d love to feel what it’s like to swing like that” and he hits the ball beautifully. It goes without saying it goes an awful long way as well – something which won’t hurt him this week on the wide fairways of Royal Queensland.

This is an unusual course, one designed in part to make the shot from one side of the hole as different as possible as the shot from the other side. At half a dozen holes bunkers litter the middle of the fairways but there is plenty of room to play short, left or right or carry over them. The interest is in how the players deal with trouble in a direct line to the hole.

Too much professional golf is played on courses with the hazards – water, sand and long grass - all the way down the sides of the fairways and one only has to play the straight path to solve the puzzle.

The centre-line bunkers ask more nuanced questions, and most will find the greens and surrounding bunkers the primary defence of the course. It will be especially true of those who drive to the parts of the fairway presenting the more difficult iron shots but those who play well this week will figure the questions out before Thursday morning.

It’s a pity the travel restrictions made it impossible to Hannah Green and Min Woo’s big sister, Minjee Lee to be here but our third ranked LPGA player Su Oh heads the women’s field.

Likely mixed fields are the future of professional golf in Australia and anyone who has been to the Vic Open will know how well two 144-player fields on a 36-hole course works.

One problem if it is going to be the way forward is how the length of the women’s courses are managed. Given the events are separate it seems silly to compare the two and set the course up so the women are not made to look inferior. No one expects the winner of the women’s 100 metres at the Olympics to run as fast as the men and they don’t make the track 95 metres so that the women run the same time.

This week the women are playing a course around 5500 metres and whilst the greens are unquestionably more difficult than the majority Oh finds on the LPGA Tour, it’s too short. This first mixed PGA Championship though is a more than worthwhile experiment and in time they will strike the right balance.

The real celebration this week is we are back playing a historic tournament on one of the country’s great old clubs, one where Norman Von Nida the father of Australian golf and four-time PGA champion carried the clubs as a 14-year-old for the great Walter Hagen.

We may not be able to match the appearance fees of Saudi Arabia but they have a long want to go to match the amazing history of the game in Australia.

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