30 Jul 2020 | Men's Australian Open |

BLAKE: Why the Aus Open had to go on hold

by Martin Blake

Aus Open generic Royal Sydney image
The Australian Open is on hold until early 2021 at the least. Photo: Getty

Professional golf in a Covid-19 world was always going to be a different beast.

The postponement of the Australian Open from November to an undisclosed date in late-summer at Kingston Heath is just the latest example.

It has been inevitable for some time in an environment where Melbourne is in lockdown (and thus, Australia still has a Covid issue), borders are closed and the main men’s tours – Europe and America – have pushed back their major events to the back half of 2020.

There was no way that an appropriate field – one that matches the status of the event, and keeps the sponsors happy that they are getting return on investment -- could have been gathered for an Open in November. Not up against an event like the Masters at Augusta National, and with international flying restrictions in place.

It is hard enough attracting big-name players Down Under at the best of times, let alone now. Tell the players they need to quarantine for two weeks on arrival after a 24-hour flight and watch how quickly they run the other way.

People who suggest that the Open should have been shifted to another venue where Covid is not such a problem need to consider that the quarantine issue applies to all Australian states. They also need to factor in that the best Australian players are all based overseas.

This is not just about big-name foreign players; it would be near-impossible to get Adam Scott and Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith home as well, since they would be taken out of commission from earning their living. Especially when there are majors being played in North America and big money events in Europe at the same time.

Not only that, crowds would unlikely to be allowed into the venue. Without crowds it would hardly be the type of event that Golf Australia wanted when it brought the national championship back to Melbourne for a year (the first playing of the Open in Melbourne since 2002), in the midst of a run of Sydney hostings of the Open.

The Australian Open is not purely a television event in the way some of the big tour events are; it is as much a celebration of the game and an opportunity for people to connect with players who mostly ply their trade overseas. It needs a crowd.

The decision can’t have been taken lightly; the Australian Open has not skipped a calendar year since the six-year enforced break for World War II from 1940-1945.

Elsewhere, the LPGA Tour resumes this week, but a bunch of the top players have remained in South Korea to play an event there. Hannah Green, Australia’s most recent major champion, and Su Oh are notable absentees from the field in Ohio, with Green having previously expressed doubts about playing in Covid-riddled America. They are headed to Europe instead.

You can’t blame Green in the slightest, and Adam Scott, who has yet to play a tournament in the US since the virus took hold, is in a similar boat. Scott has skipped the World Golf Championship event, worth $US10.5 million, in Memphis this week although he is in America practising for next week’s PGA Championship. Lee Westwood, the Englishman who said Covid was a concern for him, has also skipped Memphis, saying: “America doesn't take it as seriously as the rest of the world”.

Tiger Woods has played just one event since the PGA Tour resumed a few weeks ago, and said that he did so with reservations about Covid. They all have a point: the tour has had 10 positive tests among players and caddies and they only need look as far as baseball to see how gatherings for sport are a worry. The Miami Marlins are dealing with 16 positive Covid tests right now.

Players could be excused for giving America a wide berth as the professional game splutters along, crowd-less and petrified of an outbreak. The USGA announced overnight that the US Open will be played without crowds.

The players are sole traders. They need to play to earn, and quarantine is unemployment to them. It’s true that the US Tour has extracted a waiver from the American federal government for players coming into the US, but they might catch the virus and bring it home.

It’s a dreadfully difficult choice to make.

Players don’t get much sympathy from the public, but they are not all earning Tiger Woods-Jon Rahm numbers. Just this week, the Melbourne professional Matt Griffin, a Vic Open and New Zealand Open champion, said he might need to consider another career the way things were rolling.

Griffin was probably only half-joking. His main ticket is the Japan Tour, but there are no tournaments right now, and the Australasian Tour is in its usual winter lull. That makes a player like Griffin unemployed.

The storied Australian Open may bob up in late-summer at Kingston Heath, which could, in fact, be a better time slot than the traditional November-December. There are no guarantees, and no way of planning in this environment.

We’re all waiting for a break from Covid-19 before certainty can return. That’s a living reality of 2020.

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