22 Dec 2023 | Professional golf | Amateur golf | Australian Open | Women and girls | Participation | Clubs & Facilities |
A look back at the best moments in Australian golf for 2023
by Martin Blake
THE BEST MOMENT
Anyone who knows golf has had shares in Min Woo Lee for a while now, and it was a breakout year for the man from Royal Fremantle.
Two strong finishes in majors, tied-fifth at the US Open and tied-10th at the US PGA Championship were an entrée. In Asia in October, he shot 30-under, threatening the Asian Tour record, to win the Macau Championship.
Winding it up at Royal Queensland in November, the 25-year-old Lee turned in a stunning performance to win the Fortinet Australian PGA Championship.
His innate ability to engage with the crowds, exemplified by his displays at the Southern Comfort Party Hole at the 17th, is quite something.
By year’s end, he had his playing rights for America in 2024, a world ranking in the 30s, and he is no longer just Minjee’s little brother.
Thanks in large part to Lee’s Royal Queensland coronation, the people came to the ISPS HANDA Australian Open in Sydney in December in the biggest numbers seen for many years – even bigger than in Melbourne in 2022.
Crowds rose 18 percent and TV ratings 187 percent as Golf Australia’s mixed format including men, women and All Abilities players received validation.
Joaquin Niemann climbed through the corporate marquees to see where he needed to hit on the 72nd hole, ultimately eagled the same hole in a playoff to win, and Ashleigh Buhai won the women’s championship for the second time in a row, staving off Minjee Lee’s withering final round.
The format – unique for a national championship in world golf - still creates debate but the people voted with their feet and their TV eyeballs.
Golf itself continues to boom with increased participation throughout the country, a fact that golf people need to reinforce against the disturbing trend of public course closures pushed by local and state governments.
It was always going to be tough to match 2022, when Australians (Cameron Smith at the Open Championship, Minjee Lee at the US Women’s Open) won the two biggest tournaments in the world for men and women.
Australians bobbed up a couple of times in 2023 with Jason Day’s T2 at the Open Championship being a highlight in a quiet year. Both Lee and Cameron Smith were subdued in the majors although they had multiple wins elsewhere.
Australians continued to fight out of their weight division overseas.
Jason Day collected his first US Tour win in five years when he won the Byron Nelson in May, kicking off a resurgent season.
Minjee Lee battled putting yips early on the LPGA Tour season, but ultimately won twice when she shook them off – the Kroger Queen City Championship September and the BMW Ladies Championships in South Korea in October.
Grace Kim’s rookie season came with a win in the Lotte Championship and Hannah Green won the LA Championship.
Lucas Herbert (Japan), Rod Pampling (PGA Champions), Brendan Jones (NZ Open), Wade Ormsby (Asian Tour) and Rhein Gibson (Korn Ferry Tour) also clocked up victories while Cameron Smith won LIV London and Liv Bedminster.
Gabriela Ruffels’ season on the secondary Epson Tour in the US was the most dominant performance by an Australian in 2023. She won three times – in March, May and August – so that her place in the top 10 who qualified for the 2024 LPGA Tour was assured long before the year ended.
Ruffels is still just 23 and qualifies as one of our brightest future stars.
David Micheluzzi looked in a different class to his competitors on the Challenger PGA Tour of Australasia and his two wins in February (making three for the 22-23 season) sealed his Order of Merit crown, a title that gives him status on the DP World Tour for 2023-24.
Micheluzzi also won the Vic PGA Championship in November to start the new season, and he will be closely watched as he makes his way around the world in 2024.
In one remarkable December day, four Australians all qualified to play on the senior tour in America in 2024.
They were headed by medallist Cameron Percy, who will be eligible once he turns 50 in May.
But the headliner was Michael Wright, who holed out from 122 yards in the final round to get himself a card, along with Percy, David Bransdon and Steve Allan.
Lachie Wood became the first-ever home winner of the Australian All Abilities Championship and he is the top-ranked Aussie in the world in that space.
But his story is even more remarkable than just a tournament win.
Almost crippled by a car accident when he was 16, he has had more than 40 leg operations, his left leg is 4cm shorter than his right, and he has had to work incredibly hard just to get back to the golf course having been a fine junior amateur.
The AAC and the All Abilities space continues to provide great inspiration.
As the home country Australia had a bunch of players competing in the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship at Royal Melbourne in November and Jasper Stubbs pulled off the coup of the season by winning.
The Melburnian picks up starts in the 2024 Masters and the Open Championship as a result.
New South Wales, inspired by Harrison Crowe, took out the annual Golf Australia Interstate Series played at St Michael’s in Sydney.
Overseas players – Kiwi Kazuma Kobori and Japan’s Mizuki Hashimoto – outshone the Aussies at the Australian Amateur in Sydney in January at New South Wales.
But two Australians, James Lavender and Nadene Gole, ended the year with world No. 1 senior amateur rankings, the first time this has happened.
Golf as an Olympic sport continues to cause debate, but Paris in July-August is going to add some spice to the majors which begin at Augusta in April.
Currently Jason Day, Cameron Smith, Minjee Lee and Hannah Green have a grip on the four spots that will be available to Australians, but Min Woo Lee is looming on the men’s side.
After the successful ISPS HANDA Australian Open in Sydney and the completion of the contract for staging the Open, there will likely be a spirited contest among capital cities to host in 2024 and beyond.
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