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13th Beach Golf Links, VIC

1-4 February, 2024

12 Feb 2022 | Professional golf |

Clayton: What makes the Vic Open thrive

by Mike Clayton

Vic Open generic image
The Vic Open draws big crowds who aren't limited by ropes. Photo: Getty

Not many golf tournaments survive for 60 years without passing through both high and low points. Not in Australia anyway. Many reach a low point and disappear.

The Victorian Open has, by a wide margin, been the most successful of the state Opens and it was those tournaments which formed the backbone of the local tour for decades.

It was first played in 1957 when the world of professional golf was much different.

There was no professional golf televised from overseas and there was precious little of it here.

Anyone who wanted to see Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Norman Von Nida or Bruce Devlin swing a club had to go to a tournament.

It was no different for those wanting to see Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, Richie Benaud or Garfield Sobers.

Melbourne regularly hosted the Australian Open in the era when it rotated around the capital cities – a concept we could do worse to revive. It’s been 48 years since Perth (49 for Brisbane and 51 for Hobart) saw an Australian Open and that’s surely too long?

The Wills Masters, Dunlop International and the Australian PGA came to Melbourne with regularity and as a result of a deal brokered by Mark McCormack with the Dunlop/Slazenger company Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were regular visitors.

There was an event in Saudi Arabia last week where to buy the appearance of the equivalent players – the three best in the world – might have cost the organizers 10 (American) million dollars.

Norman and the Saudis have completely blown up the appearance money game with rumours of somewhere between $30 million and $70 million dollars being shelled out last week to some of the best players (and a supporting cast) in the world.

It’s not a sustainable game for Australian golf to be playing because we certainly can’t afford to play in that league.

Peter Thomson warned us about the “demeaning’ nature of appearance money decades ago insisting it was something the game would be better off without. Few agreed but his point is increasingly well-made.

It’s a reality of course but the obscene amounts of it are a problem for anyone outside of Norman’s League thinking of securing the presence of a big-name star.

Tony Charlton, the best local tournament promotor, took the Vic Open to a new level in the 1970s using a model based on importing one highly paid overseas star supported by the best local players including Thomson, Nagle, David Graham, Graham Marsh, Bob Shearer and then Greg Norman.

The crowds were huge and on the back of Charlton’s success, David Inglis started the Australian Masters.

Inglis and his partner, Frank Williams, were promotional geniuses and with the backing of Channel 7 it became the premier tourmament in Melbourne. They very successfully stated a tournament and turned it into an event.

But after 38 years it was gone. Many, remembering its golden era yearn for its return but it’s not coming back.

The game has moved on and new events will replace it.

The Vic Open survived through some lean years until David Greenhill and what was then the Victorian Golf Association thought to make it a mixed event.

Their second brilliant idea was to play it out of Melbourne at a new course on the other side of Geelong. 13th Beach has two courses so it’s ideal for a full field of men and women and the locals embraced both the concept and the tournament itself. They turned up to watch in numbers far exceeding those in Melbourne. They enjoyed walking the fairways behind the players as opposed to trudging through the rough behind ropes and watching golf from behind is always better than watching it from the side.

It proved golf, galleries, players and dogs could happily co-exist and it’s not a stretch to suggest it was the local community who revived the tournament by embracing it and supporting it.

In 2020, just a few weeks before the world as we knew it ended for a while, Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu, both former No. 1 players in the world, headlined the LPGA field and Min Woo Lee’s win in the men’s event earned him an exemption on the European Tour – something within two years he had parlayed into a world top 50 ranking and an invitation to the Masters.

This week the field is diminished without the LPGA or the Europeans but no matter. The crowds are here in the same numbers as 2020 because the locals are happy to watch good golf played by both men and women on an excellent course.

Speaking of the course, there is always talk about which club might have the best fairways in the country.

For me there is no question they are at Barnbougle and Cape Wickham because fescue is the most perfect of surfaces to hit shots from and Tasmania is fortunate to have an ideal climate for growing what is a cool-season grass. Pure fescue isn’t sustainable on the mainland but the Beach Course fairways (The Moonah Course at The National also) has a mix of couch grass and fescue in their fairways there are no better playing surfaces on the Australian mainland.

They may not be ‘perfect’ but they are perfect for playing golf.

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