09 Dec 2019 | Professional golf | Men's Australian Open | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: Jones' heroics worth the wait

by Mike Clayton

Matt Jones hoists the Stonehaven Cup for a second time at his home club, The Australian, in 2019.
Matt Jones hoists the Stonehaven Cup for a second time at his home club, The Australian, in 2019.

Driving past The Australian Golf Club this morning on the way to Sydney Airport reminds us of golf’s most depressing day. After an entire year of anticipation, the championship comes and goes and the dismantling of everything begins.

Indeed, barely an hour after Matt Jones’ stumbling, but ultimately-good-enough-to-win par at the last hole, those who dismantle the stands and tents were at work and they were back at first light, smoky though it was.

The members want their course back, the signs gone and they hope for not too much damage to the course.

We are lucky in Australia that our best championship courses are on sand and it rarely rains, so real damage is rare. Courses overseas made on heavy soil aren’t so lucky if the tournament is played during a wet week. They can take months to recover and that never sits well with fee-paying members.

By Monday morning, the players have all moved on as the circus rolls into another city eager to show off.

Jones joined The Australian as a junior member and obviously knows the course better than anyone else, something two wins and a second place in his past three Opens at the venue suggests pretty clearly.

While he hasn’t played too much on the most recent version of the Nicklaus redesign, understanding the fickle winds of last week was important. The breezes were hardly strong, but they swirled around and more than once it felt a hole was playing into the wind only to turn in the opposite direction and find it in blowing in your face again.

After Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia made their untimely exits on Friday, it was a reasonable assumption anyone playing well enough to beat either Paul Casey or Louis Oosthuizen had a good chance of winning.

Casey made a miserable six at the easy 6th on Sunday and that was the end of his hopes; but Oosthuizen kept at it and made a brilliant three at the final hole just after Jones holed across the 17th green for a birdie and what seemed to be an insurmountable three-shot lead.

The final hole at The Australian was formerly the ninth, but Nicklaus’ 1977 redesign switched the nines and his version is a hole designed for drama and the forcing of decisions. Players wrestle with the temptation of flying over the pond defending the green, but without the water the hole would simply be a long par four.

The hazard offers the player a chance to play the hole in two or three shots, thus justifying its par of five and it has seen a fair share of both heroic shots and catastrophes through the years.

Oosthuizen, with no choice but to thread a drive down the narrow fairway and then rip a long second on to the green, did it exactly by the book and holed from 6m for an eagle.

Jones coming behind, thought his lead safe after misinterpreting a journalist’s signal suggesting Louis had only made a five, when in fact the writer meant the local now needed five to win when on the tee the luxury of a six looked to be the case. A seven, even.

Either way, Jones snipped a hook far left into the massive expanse of sand serving as a double duty bunker with the 10th hole and his pitch out clunked into a pine cone and fell into the curious wood chips under the tree.

Seemingly Jones and his caddie were the only ones of the thousands around the green who didn’t realise he needed to get down in three more to avoid a playoff. That he managed with the help of a 40m pitch and a 1.5m putt was testament to his skills, nerve and local knowledge.

Jones is not playing at Royal Melbourne this week and, in fairness, his recent form would have barely seen him on ErnIe Els’ radar as a captain's pick for the Presidents Cup.

But he’d wouldn’t be the worst man to have on the "home" team this week. He plays quickly - too quickly probably for his own good on a tour where snail’s pace is the norm - but every year he comes home he reminds us how good a player he has become.

We can only hope to see Oosthuizen at Kingston Heath next year. Fifty years ago at Victoria Golf Club in the Wills Masters (back in the day when cigarette companies were allowed to sponsor sporting contests), Peter Thomson wrote of another short-statured, sweet-swinging foreigner in glowing terms.

George Knudson had just won around Thomson’s home course and, writing in The Age, Thomson called the Canadian the best player he had seen since Ben Hogan.

High praise, but those who saw Knudson play were in awe of his swing and his striking. We have seen a lot of brilliant players here in the intervening half-century, but it wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable to suggest Oosthuizen is the best player we have seen here since Knudson.

He is certainly the most stylish and re-signing him early would make the prospect of Kingston Heath something to really anticipate for another year.

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