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28 Nov - 1 Dec, 2024

25 Oct 2022 | Australian Open |

Clayton: A change that is welcome

by Mike Clayton

Big crowds are expected at both Victoria and Kingston Heath Golf Clubs for the 2022 ISPS HANDA Australian Open.
Big crowds are expected at both Victoria and Kingston Heath Golf Clubs for the 2022 ISPS HANDA Australian Open.

Professional golf has always adapted to changing circumstances and few championships have evolved as much in the last half-century as the Australian Open.

In 1975 the state-by-state rotation was abandoned when Kerry Packer, the richest man in the country, sponsored the championship. His Channel 9 (which, a few years later, would revolutionise cricket) became the first to televise a golf tournament showing off all 18 holes for four consecutive days.

His friend, Jack Nicklaus, played each year from 1975 to 1978 and bought with him some of the finest American pros to Sydney. They were, by our standards, incredible fields but inevitably what was then the Australian Golf Union determined to wrest back some of the control they felt had been lost during the Packer years.

The next couple of decades of Opens were dominated by the presence of one man, Greg Norman, and a supporting cast of imported stars and Australia’s best including David Graham, Graham Marsh, Rodger Davis, Jack Newton, Bob Shearer, Wayne Grady, Peter Senior and Ian Baker-Finch.

It moved between Melbourne – Kingston Heath, Metropolitan and Royal Melbourne primarily – and Sydney where Royal Sydney, The Australian and The Lakes hosted. In 1998 and 2001 there were detours to Royal Adelaide and The Grand, but they were exceptions as opposed to a will to take the national championship back around the country.

The Moonah Links experiment came next as the Open sought to find a permanent home in the fashion of the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey and the French Open and Le Golf National – which was something of a step down from old-world class of Tom Simpson's classic course at Chantilly.  It was proof, if we ever needed it, the quality of the architecture was never at the top of the priority list when it came to choosing an Open venue.

Moonah Links, a long way from the middle of Melbourne, never really worked as well as many hoped and in 2006 the Open returned to Sydney and it’s been there ever since.

The professional game has changed much in that time. Tiger Woods drove prizemoney to previously unimagined levels and pros were making life-changing money in the United States on the back of Woods’ outsized influence over television ratings and sponsorship.

No longer was it realistic to expect the best players in the world to turn up for manageable fees as ‘The Big Three’-- Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player -- had done in the 1960s and 1970s.

Europe extended its season at both ends of the year and it was increasingly more difficult to attract their best players as we had done in the 1980s when Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer Sandy Lyle and the great Seve Ballesteros all played with some regularity.

This year is perhaps the boldest experiment of them all. The field is mixed and in the fashion of the 13th Beach Vic Open it uses two courses, Kingston Heath and Victoria. Play switches between them on the opening two days before reverting to Victoria for the weekend.

The evidence of the Vic Open has been that spectators enjoy the two-tournament concept and the women add much to the week.

There was always some debate about how the courses were set up at the Vic Open and there seems to be a silly notion the women are somehow embarrassed if their scores don’t match the men. It’s always been odd, at least to me, that people think higher women’s scores somehow equate to a lesser standard of play when the same people would never expect the women to run the same time as the men in the 100-metre final in the Olympic Games or for Ash Barty, even at her flying best, to come remotely close to beating Novak Djokovic.

The women should instead be celebrated for the precision of their play and quality of their techniques. Few of either sex swing as well as Minjee Lee or Hannah Green.

Despite both Kingston Heath and Victoria stretching their men’s tees back as far as possible they are both relatively short courses for the men because the modern equipment has completely changed how they play. There was no better example than the 2016 World Cup of Golf at Kingston Heath when Jon Rahm playing the famous, blind second shot 17th hole, drove it so far up the hill he could see the green with his pitch shot – into a hole Dan Soutar designed as a par 5.

With the women’s course set up properly at around 6000 metres, the fun will be watching them play the course as the architects Dan Soutar and Alister MacKenzie envisaged.

Of course, the highlight of the week will be the national Open coming back to the sandbelt. It’s been far too long for the most important championship to be away from one of the finest collection of courses in the world and whilst everyone understands the reality of money, sponsorship and sport, the way forward is surely to embrace the idea of a mixed championship which moves around the country?

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