While this month’s Vic Open won’t have the prizemoney or co-sanctioning from major tours it enjoyed until only recently, the beloved Bellarine tournament will press on with its trailblazing men’s and women’s mixed format.
When it comes to the Vic Open, Matt Griffin has stayed the course. The proud Victorian was there from the start; he’s played in every edition of the Vic Open since it became a men’s and women’s mixed event in 2012. In 2014, he won it. And in 2023, he’ll be back at 13th Beach, the event’s home at Barwon Heads on the beautiful Bellarine Peninsula since 2013, playing one of his favourite tournaments; a trailblazing championship that was the first professional tournament in the world to provide men and women the opportunity to play the same courses for the same prizemoney.
Griffin is passionate about what the Vic Open has done not only for Victorian and Australian golf, but for mixed golf around the word. In his eyes, it laid the foundation for mixed events to pop up on major circuits like the DP World Tour. In 2019, the formerly named European Tour created the ISPS World Invitational, where European Tour and Ladies European Tour players competed at Northern Ireland’s Galgorm Castle and split a $US2.35 million purse. In 2021, the DP World Tour created the Scandinavian Mixed, a combined-genders event in Sweden that, last year in its second staging, saw Linn Grant crowned as the first female in history to win a DP World Tour event.
Much of the credit goes to the Vic Open, which demonstrated that not only could it be done, but that fans would revel in the concept. “It was the pioneer of mixed golf around the world,” Griffin, a seasoned pro on the Australasian and Japanese tours, tells Australian Golf Digest. “I can’t think of an event that was mixed and equal. The Vic Open showed everyone that it can be done.”
The Vic Open already had a proud history, with past champions including Gary Player (1959), Kel Nagle (1967, 1969), Peter Thomson (1968, 1973), Greg Norman (1984) and Ian Baker-Finch (1985). But it began to struggle and the Women’s Vic Open, which was first held in 1988, was put in a 20-year hiatus after the 1992 event. “The event had such a great name, but it was dying, and women being introduced into the format gave it a point of difference,” Griffin said.
So, in 2012, long-time Golf Victoria administrator David Greenhill made the bold decision to combine the men’s and women’s fields and build a new tournament from the ground up. The inaugural concurrently held event was staged at Spring Valley and Woodlands golf clubs on the fringes of Melbourne’s iconic Sandbelt region.
“I knew the event had a good chance of working when I saw four young professionals, two men and two women, happily go to the first tee to start a practice round together,” Greenhill wrote in Golf Victoria magazine in 2019.
And did they what. It was a remarkable example of, “Build it and they will come.” The mixed format was given a huge boost in 2015 when Australia’s Richard Green and fiancée Marianne Skarpnord, from Norway, claimed the unique honour of winning concurrent Vic Opens at 13th Beach. During that week, a video of Green making a hole-in-one on a par 4 in practice went viral. In 2017, just five years into the process, the Ladies European Tour co-sanctioned the women’s event. In 2018, it was replaced by the LPGA Tour. The men’s event was co-sanctioned with the European Tour in 2019 and 2020. In 2019, it was the richest golf tournament in Australia courtesy of a $3 million purse; $1.5 million for each of the men’s and women’s fields. In 2020, Min Woo Lee triumphed for his first European Tour title.
“It was fantastic. Because the Vic Open paved the way, we now have the TPS series on the Australasian Tour [which combines men and women] and the DP World Tour has mixed events. A lot of that is to do with the Vic Open,” says Griffin, who in 2014 won the men’s Vic Open while Minjee Lee won the women’s draw as a teenage amateur. Nine years later, Lee is a dual Major champion and LPGA Tour superstar.
In 2019, WPGA chief executive Karen Lunn, the 1993 Women’s British Open winner, told Golf Channel: “For a woman playing in the Vic Open to be able to look her male counterpart in the eye, knowing she’s playing for the same amount of prizemoney, that she is his equal for the week, there’s a real feeling of fairness in that. There’s a real important message in that, and I think it’s what has attracted so much attention.”
In 2022, however, the Vic Open began a new chapter (after the 2021 edition was cancelled due to COVID-19). Because of the roll-on effects of the pandemic, the Vic Open men’s field lost its DP World Tour co-sanctioning. The women’s event also surrendered its LPGA status. It is also no longer the biggest mixed event in Australian golf, a title overtaken by the DP World Tour-sanctioned Australian Open which, late in 2022, became the first national open in golf’s history to stage the men’s and women’s events concurrently, hosting the championships across Kingston Heath and Victoria golf clubs. Poland’s Adrian Meronk claimed the men’s Open and South Africa’s Ashleigh Buhai added the Women’s Australian Open to her British Open triumph from earlier in 2022.
For the Vic Open, though, the show goes on. It’s also not the first time the event has experienced challenges; in 2011, it was in danger of folding given interest was waning and the purse was just $100,000. This year, the Vic Open is celebrating its 10th anniversary of being staged at 13th Beach Golf Links.
“The 2022 Vic Open was one for the ages, with Hannah Green capturing her first major tournament victory on Australian soil and Dimi Papadatos becoming a second-time winner of the event,” Lunn says. “[This year] will no doubt throw up some amazing stories, and with most of our leading Australian women keen to play in 2023, along with our greatest-ever player Karrie Webb and some other fantastic overseas players, I have no doubt the Vic Open will once again prove to be a great success.”
Griffin says 13th Beach has also played a big part in the Vic Open’s success; particularly because there are two acclaimed courses on the property; the Beach course designed by Tony Cashmore and the Creek course which saw Cashmore collaborate with six-time Major winner, England’s Nick Faldo, on the layout.
“It was a massive factor, when the event went to 13th Beach and the Bellarine Peninsula just in general. It went to another level,” he says. “A lot of credit is due to the fans on the Bellarine. In the early years of the mixed format, I was doing three or four functions a week to get the atmosphere and business support going. When you hold big golf tournaments in major cities [such as Melbourne or Sydney], there is the support there due to the populations. But on the Bellarine, the Vic Open is a really big event for the region. You get the same fans returning year after year. The fact that the event is held on the same property, given there are 36 holes at 13th Beach, it makes it so much easier and more fan friendly.”
Griffin says from a players’ standpoint, the Vic Open will still have that energy between the men and women players. “I think it’s great to see the women players and how they prepare for an event,” he said. “There’s also the chance to catch up with long-time mates. Most players who have made it onto a professional tour have gone through state squads, where you’re playing and travelling with the women’s sides. But then you turn pro and sort of lose those connections. But mixed events put all of us back in the same fields.”
The 2023 Vic Open will be held from February 9-12 and will still see a $420,000 purse each for the men and women. And you can be sure the fans on the Bellarine will still get out and support it, from the middle of the fairways at 13th Beach.
“The Vic Open is still a great event and for the fans it’s really cool because there are no ropes and they can walk in the fairways behind the pros and really appreciate the skills from up close,” Griffin says. “The Vic Open has built itself a place on the calendar and a good home at 13th Beach, so I hope it stays down there and on that part of the schedule. If the Ladies European Tour can get involved again, that could boost the women’s field and get some more women coming from Europe and other parts of the world.”
If any event in Australia has proven to be resilient and innovative, it’s the Vic Open.
Life’s a Beach: A decade of winners on the Bellarine
2022: Dimitrios Papadatos & Hannah Green
2021: Not played
2020: Min Woo Lee & Hee Young Park (Korea)
2019: David Law (Scotland) & Celine Boutier (France)
2018: Simon Hawkes & Minjee Lee
2017: Dimitrios Papadatos & Melissa Reid (England)
2016: Michael Long (NZ) & Georgia Hall (England)
2015: Richard Green & Marianne Skarpnord (Norway)
2014: Matthew Griffin & Minjee Lee (a)
2013: Matthew Giles & Stacey Keating
2012: Scott Arnold & Joanna Klatten (France)